Friday, 14 May 2010

Holiday postcards: Vincent van Gogh

I’ve been on holidays. Two weeks, and, at some time during the first couple of days, I decided to switch off a lot of routine and just relax. Which I’ve been doing and, for the record, it’s been very nice – among other things, I’ve been able to catch up with a lot of planned reading (including Parts 2 and 3 of Stieg Larrson’s Millenium trilogy, but that’s a subject for another post here). One of the things I’ve let fall into this switching off routine is posting here but now that my holidays are almost over it’s time to slowly find the way back to normal and pick up some strands of my ‘regular’ life again. Besides, I didn’t send any postcards and that just won’t do – so here they are!

I spent a week on the Dutch North Sea coast in Zandvoort. The weather was the way it can be at the beginning of May in Northern Europe, deciding that the time to proclaim summer wasn’t really here and therefore treating me to some rain and a sharp wind from the north which all served to make long walks on the strand … invigorating. So one day I took the train into Amsterdam to renew a pilgrimage I have made a number of times; to the van Gogh museum.

It’s easy to find the Museumplein in Amsterdam; if you’re feeling lazy you can take a tram directly (the 2 or the 5) from Centraal Station, otherwise it’s only about half an hour on foot. Around the corner from the Rijksmusuem, where all the Rembrandts and old masters can be seen, there’s a modern building which holds a major part of Vincent van Gogh’s work, mostly those works which his brother Theo had collected (Vincent wasn’t good at getting his paintings sold during his lifetime so the bulk of them, fortunately, finished up with Theo). This time I was struck by three particular pictures, all of them dealing with the same basic motif, from the last two years of his life and started wondering about how much we can tell of Vincent’s tortured inner life from the pictures which he painted.

That Vincent was increasingly plagued by mental illness is generally known, it finally led to his death two days after shooting himself in the breast in July 1890. The question which arises is, of course, how much his private purgatory can be traced in his works? A standard approach would be to see the artist’s growing mental conflict and confusion reflected in his paintings, the problem is that the pictorial record doesn’t allow us to easily do this. Vincent’s final years saw him at the pinnacle of his artistic achievement; technical and compositional mastery, unerring choice and working through of themes, productivity, visions of sublime beauty, a procession of awesome masterpieces. And at the same time, this artistic outpouring was accompanied by a continuing deterioration of his own subjective, inner balance, a deepening descent into the pit of personal misery and confusion which we helplessly call ‘madness’ (and the experts today still argue about the precise label for the mental disturbance under which van Gogh suffered), leading finally to his death.

Back to the pictures. Shortly after moving to Arles in 1888, Vincent painted a number of pictures of harvesting:

The Harvest is a detailed work of ordered composition, a picture of a world in which humans have tamed and regulated nature; reaped fields, ordered haystacks, fences, carts and farming equipment ready, diligent peasants finishing off the job. Even the hills in the background take a disciplined, bordering role in the whole work.

A year later, following a period sharing a house with Gauguin (during which the famous episode with the amputated ear also took place), Vincent was hospitalised in Saint-Remý, a small village near Arles. While he was there, he painted a number of versions of the theme Wheatfield with a Reaper:

There are better reproductions of other versions of this picture online, but this is the version of the Reaper in the Van Gogh museum and I prefer it because of the almost painful intensity of the yellow-golden colour used. There is less of the obvious compositional order than in the painting above, but this has given way to depth, above all, the depth of the luminous, burning yellow of the ripe wheat and the storm threatening in the greenish hue of the sky around the relentless late-summer Provencal sun. The circular swoops of colour, used to depict the ripe grain, are familiar from other works around the same time, above all Starry Night ( Vincent’s own comment on the work is revealing, “In this reaper – a vague figure laboring like the devil in the terrible heat to finish his task – I saw an image of death, in the sense that the wheat being reaped represented mankind. […] But there is nothing sad in this death, it takes place in broad daylight, under a sun that bathes everything in a fine, golden light.”

In this painting perhaps, most of all, we sense a correlation between the painting and the inner life of the artist – thoughts maybe of death as the clean conclusion of burning light, consuming everything in a conflagration of inexpressible clarity and purity, the transformation of pain and confusion in a cataclysmic, cleansing ending.

Vincent’s inner torture grew and he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be nearer to his doctor and his beloved brother, Theo, both of whom lived in Paris. In the end, nothing helped to quiet his private conflict and he died two months later, as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Sometime in the three weeks before his death he painted Wheatfield with Crows one of a number of landscapes involving fields and brooding skies:

There are also signals here of his inner conflict. Writing to Theo about the series, he said; “They depict vast, distended wheatfields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.” Are we justified in seeing the stormcrows rising as some kind of prophesy concerning the immediate future? I don’t know. What I do know is that I spent a considerable amount of time last week walking between all three pictures and renewing my admiration and awe for Vincent van Gogh. And, just perhaps, taking a tiny step in understanding him better. Not that the understanding is so important, mind you, viewing the pictures and being moved by their wonderful beauty and artistry is far more important anyway.


  1. I have The Harvest pasted at the top of my stairs, more or less full-size but blown up from a reproduction on the Net and printed on 6 sheets. So I get to see it every day. It is indeed one of his most ordered & detailed compositions.

    In May, K & I went to Holland for a few days, staying in Volendam and visiting Amsterdam each day by bus. The van Gogh museum was a highlight for me, and I particularly noted the first and third in your series above.

    Whatever his mental illness was, his letters are always completely sane, so far as I've read so far, if sanity consists in self-awareness. But then, I've long held that mental illness (other than physical lesions etc to the brain) is a fancy name for certain effects of unhappiness. Sufferers may take refuge in loss of lucidity, or weakened connection with the world of facts; but Vincent wasn't one of them.

    Going to the museum for me too was a kind of pilgrimage, to get close to the man himself; which brought me to unashamed tears.

  2. I don't think there was ever a time I went to the VG museum that I didn't cry. But then, despite what our cultural conditioning usually shouts, there are seldom occasions to be ashamed of tears, in my opinion.


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