An amazing self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, in words and pictures.
from The Economist
Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. Edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. Thames and Hudson; 2,500 pages; $600 and £325.
The story of Vincent van Gogh’s life is more heartbreaking, and heart-lifting, than the romantic myth that has enshrouded him for decades. It is told, in his own words and works, in the six-volume “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters”. His 819 surviving letters (and the 83 addressed to him) form the core. The first letter was written when Vincent, aged 19, was a trainee at The Hague branch of Goupil & Cie, a firm of international art dealers. Like most of the letters, it was sent to his brother, Theo, then 15. The two remained close. Theo became an art dealer and Vincent’s main source of financial and emotional support.
Van Gogh is irascible, engaging, intelligent, touchy, high-minded, well read, rebellious and pigheaded. When he started dressing like a tramp he claimed it was, in part, to advertise his refusal to join polite, ie, hypocritical society. (Equally, it may have been because polite society was refusing to accept him.) He was often miserable, occasionally love-struck, almost always fiercely committed to something or other and sometimes mad.
Art and literature were his constant companions. He wrote often about what he was reading and seeing. His concern was never a book’s place in the canon or a painting’s in art history. He judged a work on what it communicated, and how. From Antwerp he wrote that the religious paintings of Rubens are “theatrical…But what he can do is paint a queen, a statesman, well analysed, just as they are.” He wrote beautifully about landscapes and peasants. In time, he gave a vivid, perhaps unequalled, account of an artist making art.
He set off at 16, a seemingly conventional young man, to make his way as a dealer first in The Hague and then, via Paris, in London. There, a prickly instability, characteristic of his childhood, re-emerged, perhaps brought on by a rebuff from his landlady’s daughter. He lost the job he had had for seven years. Other failures followed, as a preacher and a teacher.
His religious fanaticism grew. Indeed, the letters offer a rare look at obsession from the inside. His pursuit of a young widow was so unrelenting he would be called a stalker today. But to him, her repetition of “No, nay, never!” was “a piece of ice that I press to my heart to thaw.”
When he was 26 his fixation became art. By then he was a penniless, eccentric loner. This coincides with a year-long break in the correspondence. He had fallen out with Theo following a “discussion” about his future. When the letters resume, Vincent refers to himself as a prisoner, a caged bird. “I know I could be quite a different man!” he writes. “There’s something within me, so what is it!” Two months later he bent himself to the study of drawing and painting as others would bend to the plough. It was as if he had to labour, and metaphorically sweat, before his genius could, or was allowed to, emerge. Five years later, in the spring of 1885, came “The Potato Eaters”. Movingly, triumphantly, van Gogh had broken through.
After two years in Paris, living with Theo (only nine letters; no images), Vincent moved to Arles in 1888. Colour now floods the pages. This was the beginning of the legendary period of prodigious, radiant creativity. Yes, he cut off his ear. He also painted nearly 200 pictures, among them “The Night Café” and “The Yellow House”.
In 1889, after a series of crack-ups (in reaction to Theo’s marriage or perhaps just too much absinthe?), he spent a year in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The work continued to pour out (about 150 paintings). Sunflowers and irises but also “Starry Night”, in which viewer and artist are pulled up over the rooftops, and tumble round and round across the dark sky.
The very last letter reproduced, addressed to Theo but unfinished, was written on July 23rd 1890. He was staying in Auvers-sur-Oise, not far from Paris where Theo lived with his wife and child. The note was found in Vincent’s pocket after he shot himself. He died, aged 37, on July 27th.
Fifteen years were devoted to this publication. The Dutch, English and French editions are the joint project of the Huygens Institute and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Letters and illustrations fill five books; the sixth has commentaries, maps and indexes. It is all accessible, free, at www.vangoghletters.org (the site provides a valuable concordance). There is also a free iPod app, “Yours, Vincent”.
This is not the first attempt to publish the complete letters but it is the best. There were editions in 1914; an expanded version appeared in English in 1958; 20 newly discovered letters were added for the 1990 Dutch centenary edition. Now the letters have been retranslated, comprehensively annotated and there are 20 new items.
But what really sets this edition apart from, and above, all others are the illustrations. Sketches are embedded in many of van Gogh’s letters; the drawings and “scratches” he sometimes tucked into envelopes before posting are reproduced. So are thumbnail illustrations of every work the artist mentions (whether by himself or by others) plus larger reproductions of paintings based on these letter sketches.
The Van Gogh Museum is marking the publication of the letters by rehanging its permanent collection and displaying 100 letters. (“Van Gogh’s Letters: The Artist Speaks” closes on January 3rd.) On January 23rd a different exhibition opens at London’s Royal Academy: “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters”. More than 60 paintings and 35 drawings will come from across the world, closely related to the 40 letters that will be shown.
The publication of the six volumes is cause for celebration. To have all the artist’s words together with all those images is like being given a pair of super-special 3D spectacles. The resulting self-portrait has a depth that would not exist were this a collection only of images or only of words. This could be the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere.