Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Van Gogh – a man of letters
November 30, 2009, 18:32
Filed under: Amsterdam

In a city spoiled for artistic heritage and choice, the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum (until January 2010) takes the notion of curatorial scope and excellence to extraordinary heights. This is no doubt helped by the subject matter. But nonetheless, the 6-volume set of Van Gogh’s letters represents a watershed in arts publishing and a rare glimpse into the creative process by one of the truly big guys.

You see, the letters of famous persons generally disappoint. Letters, unless specifically written for the public, are personal in essence. It is one human being in contact with another, sharing things that, often, only the two can fully understand. The letters of great persons are no different. At best, they provide a glimpse into secrets, a chance to hear the unguarded thoughts of public figures.

Should rare moments of intimacy emerge, Morgan Meis (writing in The Smart Set) suggests that the aura of fame is stripped away and the person becomes human again. That is also what makes letters boring. Money problems and petty disagreements are the bread and butter of your common letter. A letter makes the world small again, shows a person enmeshed in the day-to-day affairs that everyone understands. Thus, by way of their potentially shocking intimacy or through their potentially overwhelming banality, letters tend to lack the specific elements that are to be found in the actual work of a great artist. Letters, inevitably, are the flotsam and jetsam through which the scholars pick. They contain little meat for you and me. But this is not always the case …

In reading these letters, as Anita and I did last month, Vincent van Gogh becomes one of us. You see him as a human being negotiating his way through a complicated world. But there is something more, some portion of his greatness contained in these letters. This makes them unusual; an artistic goldmine.

He distills his entire process into the simplest of terms, effectively using his letters as a kind of sketchpad, working through ideas by drawing on paper as he wrote about them. Not really the crazed picture of a deranged man chopping off his ear? Yes, the unraveling of his hold on reality destroyed his ability to do art, not the other way around. Just a year before his death, he writes to his brother Theo:

Work is going quite well — I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper — a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil — I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. … But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. … Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me.

Image courtesy of http://vangoghletters.org/

For those who can’t make it too Amsterdam, the online version is remarkable in the interaction it provides and the insight it uncovers. See it all at http://vangoghletters.org/


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