Monday, July 27, 2015

Selfie with ‘Sunflowers’

Just as there are writers’ writers, so there are painters’ painters: necessary exemplars, moral guides, embodiers of the art. Often they are quiet artists, who lack a shouty biography, who go about their work with modest pertinacity, believing the art greater than the artist. Noisier painters sometimes unwisely patronise them. In France, the 18th century gave us Chardin, the 19th Corot, and the 20th Braque: all true north on the artistic compass. Their relationship with their descendants is sometimes one of influence, more usually one of semi-private conversation across the centuries (Lucian Freud doing versions of Chardin, Hodgkin painting ‘After Corot’). But it also goes beyond that – beyond admiration, beyond style, homage, imitation. Van Gogh, even as he was violently wrenching himself towards a form of painting which still startles us today, was filling his letters and his mind with thoughts of Corot (he also greatly valued Chardin). It was a tribute by the living artist to his predecessor’s clarity of seeing, an acknowledgment that this is what painting is. Just as the young John Richardson, visiting Braque’s studio for the first time, felt that he had arrived ‘at the very heart of painting’.

But these apparently quiet artists often turn out to have been more far-sighted and more radical than we assume. Corot, for example, once dreamed the whole of Impressionism. As Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in May 1888,
When good père Corot said a few days before he died: last night I saw in my dreams landscapes with entirely pink skies, well, didn’t they come, those pink skies, and yellow and green into the bargain, in Impressionist landscapes? All this is to say that there are things one senses in the future and that really come about.
By the time of Van Gogh’s letter, the century-long struggle in French art between colour and line had been settled in favour of colour. (Settled for the time being, that is – until a few years later Cubism restored the primacy of line.) Corot pink developed into a leading, raging, shocking colour: the pink loitering surreptitiously in shadows, the overt pink of Monet’s haystacks and Van Gogh’s Pink Peach Tree, and still active in the pink of Bonnard’s last painting, Almond Tree in Blossom. But yellow and green were there too, as Van Gogh noted, and orange and red; oh, and blue and black. The tops were taken off all the tubes, and colour seemed to get its freedom and intensity back: richnesses that had been suppressed – either by self-censorship or academic dictate – since the days of Delacroix.

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South). Yet there are always continuities in even the most style-changing of artists. Van Gogh’s subject matter, after all, remained much the same: the soil, and those who tend it; the poor, and their stubborn heroism. His aesthetic credo did not change either: he wanted an art for everyone, which might be complicated in means but simple to appreciate, an art that uplifted and consoled. And so even his conversion to colour had a logic to it. In his youth, reacting against the stolid piety and conformity of the Dutch Reformed Church, he had lurched not into atheism but its opposite, evangelism. His notion of working as a priest among the downtrodden was to end no more successfully than most of his other youthful schemes; but the fundamentalist, all-or-nothing streak in human beings, once aroused, never entirely goes away. So the striving painter who, in the most successful of his schemes, took himself off to Arles, first working alone, then alongside Gauguin, then alone again, then in the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy, was continuous with that violently principled younger man: he had grown up to become an evangelist for colour.

It has become harder over the last 130 years or so to see Van Gogh plain. It is practically harder in that our approach to his paintings in museums is often blocked by an urgent, excitable crescent of worldwide fans, iPhones aloft for the necessary selfie with Sunflowers. They are to be welcomed: the international reach of art should be a matter not of snobbish disapproval but rather of crowd management and pious wonder – as I found when a birthday present of a Van Gogh mug hit the mark with my 13-year-old goddaughter in Mumbai. But there is so much noise around Van Gogh besides the noise of his paintings. There is the work, then the several hundred thousand words he himself wrote, then the biographies, then the novel, then the film of the novel, then the gift shop, then even (as at the National Gallery) the Sunflower bags in which you cart your treasures away from the gift shop. The painter has become a world brand. (...)

The life gets in the way as well. We have become over-familiar with the lineaments of the biography. The poverty, the rage, the despair, the prostitutes, the madness, the ear-cutting, the suicide; the lifetime of apparent failure followed by a deathtime of astonishing success. Back-projecting, we read the painter’s encroaching madness into the paint: those whirls and whorls and disturbed trenches of paint, those black skies, those blacker crows taking off across the wheatfield. He suffered so that we might enjoy. Inevitably, we are tempted to equate the madness with the genius, to propose Van Gogh as the ultimate modern exemplar of the myth of Philoctetes: of the wound and the bow. And if that now feels a little dated, a little obviously reductive, the furious belief in the locatability of artistic creativeness remains, and has lately moved into genetics. A recent study of 86,000 Icelanders purported to find that those with genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder appear to have a greater chance of being creative. But sometimes the archer pulls the bow despite the wound rather than because of it. This is certainly what the painter himself thought. Less than three months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo: ‘Ah, if I’d been able to work without this bloody illness! How many things I could have done …’ One of Van Gogh’s uncles went to pieces and killed himself, while his sister Willemina was committed to an asylum in 1902 and spent 39 years there in near-total silence. Neither of them painted much. This seems to me to prove that it was madness which ran in the family rather than creativity.

by Julian Barnes, LRB |  Read more:
Image: Vincent Van Gogh via: Wikipedia