Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters
(Thames & Hudson, 2020)
In a society that produces a surplus of alienated young men, one of the most confused if persistent superstitions has been the cult of unrecognized genius—what Rene Ricard called (in an essay on Basquiat) “the Van Gogh boat.” For Ricard, the idea of an anonymous savant “slaving away in a garret” was “deliciously foolish.” For others, such as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, it has also been immeasurably harmful, not only for those icons who died young (whose overdose or car crash or suicide was a final apotheosis and auctioneering windfall) but also for the many unknown young people currently filling the ranks of MFA programs. Without the gears of desire and frustration to keep the culture machine running, there would be no victims of its soullessness. And without those saintlike stars posthumously redeemed there would be no myth, no mythic heroes, no tragic martyrs.
Van Gogh’s life is at the source of this complex, and yet remains outside of it, possessing an aura the replicas lack. The story has been retold many times: the respectable, religious upbringing in the Netherlands, a failed London internship in the art world, his stint as a preacher in Wallonia, the return home and sense of failure followed by years spent as a drifter, dreamer, sad boy, and fledgling artist. Arriving in Paris in his early 30s Van Gogh slowly began to find his feet. And, of course, there was the magical year—1888—spent in Arles, culminating in the Christmas eve tantrum with Gaugin, a severed ear, a fainted prostitute, and his eventual move to the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Though Van Gogh often styled himself as a peasant, Meyer Schapiro likened him more to the brooding, restless hero of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and his letters—most of all to his younger brother Theo—form, like Hamsun’s novel, a time capsule of alienated self-consciousness from the 1880s. In print for over a hundred years, and beloved for just as long, the letters have been recently re-released by Thames & Hudson in a newly translated edition, Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters, edited and curated by scholars at the Van Gogh Museum. The voice that emerges from the new translation sounds even more startlingly modern today, vulnerable and searching, as contemporary as any autofiction but less annoying. Many famous passages read as commentaries on works that have been reproduced ad nauseum, and yet the intimacy of the ekphrasis has the power to make us see them anew. “I did, for decoration once again, a no. 30 canvas of my bedroom,” he wrote his brother from Arles. “Ah, well, it amused me enormously doing this bare interior … In flat tints, but coarsely brushed in full impasto, the walls pale lilac, the floor in a broken and faded red, the chairs and the bed chrome yellow, the pillows and the sheet very pale lemon green, the bedspread blood-red, the dressing-table orange, the washbasin blue, the window green. I had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones … among which the only white is the little note given by the mirror with a black frame.”
Though lacking the inexpensive allure of the old paperback editions—not to mention the comprehensiveness of the six-volume collector’s set released in 2009—A Life in Letters succeeds by placing a modest sampling of Van Gogh’s correspondence into dialogue with both the life and the paintings. Each phase of the artist’s wandering is bracketed with a brief biographical précis, refreshingly unadorned and free of the usual apocrypha. The book contains simple photographs of Van Gogh’s many dwellings, from the famed Yellow House to the parsonage in Nuenen where he once rented a studio to the view through the window bars of his room in the Saint-Rémy asylum. The most significant aspect of this curatorial approach lies in the occasional pictorial reproduction of the letters themselves. Van Gogh often drew as he wrote, and it is startling to see the interspersion of image and text happen so naturally and colloquially on the page. One suddenly realizes that his cursive and sketches flowed from the same pen, and that both were meant as communicative gifts to friends and family even as they also served as blueprints for his next planned canvas.
More than any other interlocutor, it was of course his brother Theo to whom Van Gogh wrote most often, and with the most candid devotion. The other letters, whether to Émile Bernard or to his sister Willemien, are always interesting but tend to fall one-sidedly toward either the vocational or the familial; when he wrote to Theo the two were one. Nearly every such letter begins with a note of thanks for the exact amount of money sent him previously, and from there the sense of indebtedness only grows more tender. “Money can be repaid,” he told Theo once, “not kindness such as yours.” At once his guardian, agent, bail bondsman, and best friend—John Berger described the one-note portrayal in Lust for Life as that of “an infinitely patient probation officer”—Theo in fact embodied, on a psychological level, the twinship, idealization, and recognition Van Gogh always went in search of, as well as the worldliness he shunned. “If I’ve come down in the world,” he told his brother, “you, on the other hand, have gone up. And while I may have lost friendships, you have won them.”
The trope of the long-suffering artist often trades in solipsism, but Van Gogh always yearned to escape what he called the “horrible, horrible, very horrible cage.” The ways out were always the same: heartfelt camaraderie and artistic effort. “What makes the prison disappear,” he told Theo, “is every deep serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell.” Later he spoke of drawing as a way to break down “the invisible iron wall,” one mark at a time, a slow and patient grind, as “hammering away at it” was of no use. In the end, he turned back from total abstraction, not out of disdain—he called it “enchanted ground”—but because he quickly found himself back inside the cage, “up against a wall,” and in danger. During the last mythic years, struck by psychotic fits in which he suffered religious delusions and tried to eat dirt and paint, Van Gogh fought “hand-to-hand” with reality in an attempt to rescue it, to retrieve a sense of calm, believing that if he could rediscover the world, the world would save him. “It’s truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality again,” he wrote from the asylum in Saint-Rémy, “with no plan made in advance, with no Parisian bias… My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat. An olive grove. A cypress…”
We continue to be transfixed by figures like Van Gogh because they belong to a time—and died—before the commodification trap of modern art really kicked in and went into overdrive, the very trap that continues to profit on our fixation. By the 1910s, Van Gogh’s canvases were already being sold to wealthy industrialists thanks in part to the savviness of the Thannhauser Gallery as well as other movers and shakers in the art world. In 1987, Christie’s broke records selling his Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers for nearly 40 million dollars. Three years later, it broke records again, selling the artist’s portrait of his homeopathic caregiver, Dr. Gachet, for over 80 million dollars. Just last year the rusted husk of the revolver Van Gogh used to shoot himself sold for close to 200,000 dollars.