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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Van Gogh and beauty

The People

Theo often told Vincent to paint more charming pictures; landscapes, particularly, with pretty colors. However, early in his artistic career, Van Gogh believed in the images he saw in The Graphic, those black and white, engraved images created by illustrators who depicted the people. He made paintings like The potato eaters, which utilized complementary colors to achieve a multitude of grays. Early and late, Vincent railed against the Academy, yet he still longed for its acceptance. The Academy had definite views about beauty. One of its major tenets was that every artist should be able to draw expertly. Vincent failed this test. Another belief was that colors should be harmonious. Again, Vincent failed. Both his life, and his paintings illustrate the way definitions of beauty cannot be fixed. Each time I create a painting, or look at artwork, I wish I could go back to the late 19th century,when outdated modes of expression were being replaced by other, less rigid means. Now, I am often bewildered by how little beauty matters. Yet, I still hold on to the notion of the beautiful, and I think that Joyce Carol Oates, when she is speaking of boxing, is also speaking about what is still possible in art:

At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life–life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage–that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.

The Academy

Reading Van Gogh, and his influences

Van Gogh: the life by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith is both eye-opening and disturbing. We all knew that Vincent was mentally unstable. Learning that he was also a selfish, unkind, manipulative parasite has shattered my naive belief that he epitomized the suffering, misunderstood artist. According to the authors, Van Gogh persistently went against tradition, not so much with conviction, but with an adolescent’s disregard for his family’s bourgeois conventions. He also squeezed every penny he could from his ever faithful brother, Theo. One  particularly jarring episode had the artist contemplating his next series of paintings while his family mourned the death of his father whose stroke was precipitated by his son’s shameful behavior.

On a happier note, some of his artistic influences can be found easily through Google Books. Almost all of the writings of Jules Michelet may be found there. The Bird is one of my favorites, because of the wonderful illustrations. It might have also inspired Van Gogh’s fascination with collecting birds’ nests. Alfred Sensiers’ biography of Millet was Vincent’s Bible during the early part of his artistic career. Hubert Herkomer was an artist/illustrator whose social-realist views, and self-proclaimed outsider status made a deep impression on Vincent. Zola’s Germinal helped to justify Vincent’s anti-bourgeois sentiments. Google’s book is in the original French.  The pseudo science of phrenology was popular at the time, and Vincent appreciated its simplification of types. If you are fortunate enough to get your hands on The Graphic from the years 1870-1880, you can see the British illustrators whose work Vincent culled for his own versions of ”the people”.