I am not the first, nor will I be the last to quake and quiver at the rather odd, inexplicable mixture of symptoms to which artists will point for their embryonic work—that most baffling conundrum otherwise known as “the creative process.” It is a rather stupefying concoction of mysteries perhaps best left to psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. When it arrives at one’s door, it does so unbidden and with an inconvenient sense of either timing or manners.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Van Gogh
With nothing but the big morning star to light his way, Van Gogh managed to see it all: the spire-like cypress bridging earth to heaven; the mute, squatting church he added—perhaps a symbol of that other, failed vocation; the moon dazzling as a comet among the lesser lights—all of them, ironically, as wide open as morning eyes. Of the dark hours, Van Gogh claimed they were, “more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Perhaps "The Starry Night," this most well known of the artist’s night studies, is a plea not to miss what’s there when the lights go out.
Van Gogh learned to suffer, to accept his life of ambiguity, to live by the light of the diamond chips that rule the night as he wandered the shadowy landscape of mental illness and poverty and loneliness. The imbalances of his brain chemistry brought flocks of blackbirds to peck at his eyes, yet he still saw and painted with flawless inner vision. He produced hundreds of starry nights, some of which survive as established masterpieces. It’s perhaps the extreme turbulence of this most famous of them, the sense of perpetual, romantic chaos there, that makes things move inside for most of us in its presence. I viewed it at 17 in the New York Museum of Modern Art on our senior trip. I’d like to think the pounding of my heart had mostly to do with the emotional vibrancy of that painting and less with the proximity of a dark-haired boy in a green sweater. Yet I must attribute the pounding to both, for to view Van Gogh is a haunting, just as love is. We can speculate that Van Gogh may have been hard wired to go at life by the light of one trembling inner morning star. There may not have been another way. Yet to walk in the dark cost him dearly. It will cost anyone who accepts the night on its own terms.
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,” Vincent van Gogh reportedly said. In the case of his most famous painting, The Starry Night, he may not have dreamed it, but may have found it in the words of Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo and Vincent van Gogh never met in person. However, an avid reader of fiction, Van Gogh was extremely moved by a passage in Hugo‘s masterwork, Les Miserables. This is, according to William J. Havlicek, Ph.D., author of the marvelous Van Gogh's Untold Journey, the passage from Les Miserables which inspired Van Gogh:
“He was out there alone with himself, composed, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart to the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts that fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart as the flowers of night emit their perfume, he lit like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding in ecstasy the midst of creation’s universal radiance, perhaps he could not have told what was happening in his own mind; he felt something floating away from him, and something descending upon him, mysterious exchanges of the soul with the universe.”
We often think of Vincent van Gogh as a nut job: a reckless artist who cuts off his ear as a gift to his lover, a man in so much pain he offs himself. If we take the time to actually glimpse the pentimento beneath the true portrait of van Gogh, we might find a very different painting. This portrait might show the artist as an avid reader, a thoughtful writer (writing over 1000 letters in his brief lifetime), an artist devoted to evoking the divine in his work, and a follower of Jesus.
In a Letter to Emil Bernard on June 26,1988 van Gogh wrote,
“Christ lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh. In other words, this peerless artist, scarcely conceivable with the blunt instrument of our modern, nervous and obtuse brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor books. He maintained in no uncertain terms that he made…living men, immortals.”
This letter was written a year before van Gogh checked into the asylum in Saint-Remy France. He moved into the asylum for sleep disorders and fits. The latest information points to van Gogh suffering from chronic sleeplessness due to a combination of genetic epilepsy and brain damage from absinthe abuse. New information gathered from Pulitzer Prize winners, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, indicates that Van Gogh did not commit suicide, but that he was killed by some local town ruffians when a gun malfunctioned. In a pointed assumption by the writers, they believe because of van Gogh’s “Christian nature,” he kept the incident from the authorities. It took several days for the artist to die, and while he was dying Van Gogh told the authorities that the wound was self inflicted (he was terribly sick anyway). The theory is that he did not want the accident to destroy the young lives of his assaulters.
As a culture, we are fortunate that Hugo and van Gogh met not in real time, but “in the center of the starry night”. For without Hugo’s writing, van Gogh may never have been inspired in the way that he was to paint what has become one of the most beloved and recognized paintings of the modern epoch.
(Painting by Vncent van Gogh)