Sunday, 3 April 2016

ART SUNDAY - VAN GOGH

“I want to give the wretched a brotherly message. When I sign my paintings ‘Vincent,’ it is as one of them.” – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, in full Vincent Willem van Gogh (born March 30, 1853, Zundert, Netherlands, died July 29, 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, France), was a Dutch painter, generally considered the greatest after Rembrandt, and one of the greatest of the Post-Impressionists. The striking colour, emphatic brushwork, and contoured forms of his work powerfully influenced the current of Expressionism in modern art. Van Gogh’s art became astoundingly popular after his death, especially in the late 20th century, when his work sold for record-breaking sums at auctions around the world and was featured in blockbuster touring exhibitions. In part because of his extensive published letters, van Gogh has also been mythologised in the popular imagination as the quintessential tortured artist.

Van Gogh, the eldest of six children of a Protestant pastor, was born and reared in a small village in the Brabant region of the southern Netherlands. He was a quiet, self-contained youth, spending his free time wandering the countryside to observe nature. At 16 he was apprenticed to The Hague branch of the art dealers Goupil and Co., of which his uncle was a partner. Van Gogh worked for Goupil in London from 1873 to May 1875 and in Paris from that date until April 1876. Daily contact with works of art aroused his artistic sensibility, and he soon formed a taste for Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and other Dutch masters, although his preference was for two contemporary French painters, Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot, whose influence was to last throughout his life. Van Gogh disliked art dealing. Moreover, his approach to life darkened when his love was rejected by a London girl in 1874. His burning desire for human affection thwarted, he became increasingly solitary.

He worked as a language teacher and lay preacher in England and, in 1877, worked for a bookseller in Dordrecht, Netherlands. Impelled by a longing to serve humanity, he envisaged entering the ministry and took up theology; however, he abandoned this project in 1878 for short-term training as an evangelist in Brussels. A conflict with authority ensued when he disputed the orthodox doctrinal approach. Failing to get an appointment after three months, he left to do missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. There, in the winter of 1879–80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life. Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was thereupon dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching. Penniless and feeling that his faith was destroyed, he sank into despair and withdrew from everyone. It was then that van Gogh began to draw seriously, thereby discovering in 1880 his true vocation as an artist. Van Gogh decided that his mission from then on would be to bring consolation to humanity through art. This realisation of his creative powers restored his self-confidence.

His artistic career was extremely short, lasting only the 10 years from 1880 to 1890. During the first four years of this period, while acquiring technical proficiency, he confined himself almost entirely to drawings and watercolours. First, he went to study drawing at the Brussels Academy; in 1881 he moved to his father’s parsonage at Etten, Netherlands, and began to work from nature. Van Gogh worked hard and methodically but soon perceived the difficulty of self-training and the need to seek the guidance of more experienced artists. Late in 1881 he settled at The Hague to work with a Dutch landscape painter, Anton Mauve. He visited museums and met with other painters. Van Gogh thus extended his technical knowledge and experimented with oil paint in the summer of 1882. In 1883 the urge to be “alone with nature” and with peasants took him to Drenthe, an isolated part of the northern Netherlands frequented by Mauve and other Dutch artists, where he spent three months before returning home, which was then at Nuenen, another village in the Brabant.

He remained at Nuenen during most of 1884 and 1885, and during these years his art grew bolder and more assured. He painted three types of subjects (still life, landscape, and figure) all interrelated by their reference to the daily life of peasants, to the hardships they endured, and to the countryside they cultivated. Émile Zola’s ‘Germinal’ (1885), a novel about the coal-mining region of France, greatly impressed van Gogh, and sociological criticism is implicit in many of his pictures from this period—e.g., ‘Weavers’ and ‘The Potato Eaters’. Eventually, however, he felt too isolated in Nuenen. His understanding of the possibilities of painting was evolving rapidly; from studying Hals he learned to portray the freshness of a visual impression, while the works of Paolo Veronese and Eugène Delacroix taught him that colour can express something by itself. This led to his enthusiasm for Peter Paul Rubens and inspired his sudden departure for Antwerp, Belgium, where the greatest number of Rubens’s works could be seen. The revelation of Rubens’s mode of direct notation and of his ability to express a mood by a combination of colours proved decisive in the development of van Gogh’s style.

Simultaneously, van Gogh discovered Japanese prints and Impressionist painting. All these sources influenced him more than the academic principles taught at the Antwerp Academy, where he was enrolled. His refusal to follow the academy’s dictates led to disputes, and after three months he left precipitately in 1886 to join Theo in Paris. There, still concerned with improving his drawing, van Gogh met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and others who were to play historic roles in modern art. They opened his eyes to the latest developments in French painting. At the same time, Theo introduced him to Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and other artists of the Impressionist group.

By this time van Gogh was ready for such lessons, and the changes that his painting underwent in Paris between the spring of 1886 and February 1888 led to the creation of his personal idiom and style of brushwork. His palette at last became colourful, his vision less traditional, and his tonalities lighter, as may be seen in his first paintings of Montmartre. By the summer of 1887 he was painting in pure colours and using broken brushwork that is at times pointillistic. Finally, by the beginning of 1888, van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist style had crystallised, resulting in such masterpieces as ‘Portrait of Père Tanguy’ and ‘Self-Portrait in Front of an Easel’, as well as in some landscapes of the Parisian suburbs.

After two years van Gogh was tired of city life, physically exhausted, and longing “to look at nature under a brighter sky.” His passion was now for “a full effect of colour.” He left Paris in February 1888 for Arles, in southeastern France. The pictures he created over the following 12 months (depicting blossoming fruit trees, views of the town and surroundings, self-portraits, portraits of Roulin the postman and other friends, interiors and exteriors of the house, sunflowers, and landscapes) marked his first great period. In these works he strove to respect the external, visual aspect of a figure or landscape but found himself unable to suppress his own feelings about the subject, which found expression in emphatic contours and heightened effects of colour. Once hesitant to diverge from the traditional techniques of painting he worked so hard to master, he now gave free rein to his individuality and began squeezing his tubes of oil paint directly on the canvas. Van Gogh’s style was spontaneous and instinctive, for he worked with great speed and intensity, determined to capture an effect or a mood while it possessed him.

In Paris van Gogh had hoped to form a separate Impressionist group with Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others whom he believed had similar aims. He rented and decorated a house in Arles with the intention of persuading them to join him and found a working community called “The Studio of the South.” Gauguin arrived in October 1888, and for two months van Gogh and Gauguin worked together; but, while each influenced the other to some extent, their relations rapidly deteriorated because they had opposing ideas and were temperamentally incompatible.

Disaster struck on Christmas Eve, 1888. Physically and emotionally exhausted, van Gogh snapped under the strain. He argued with Gauguin and, reportedly, chased him with a razor and cut off the lower half of his own left ear. A sensational news story reported that a deranged van Gogh then visited a brothel near his home and delivered the bloody body part to a woman named Rachel, telling her, “Guard this object carefully.” The 21st-century art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, however, examined contemporary police records and the artists’ correspondence and concluded that it was actually Gauguin who mutilated van Gogh’s ear and that he did so with a sword. Whatever transpired, van Gogh took responsibility and was hospitalised; Gauguin left for Paris.

Van Gogh returned home a fortnight later and resumed painting, but several weeks later, he again showed symptoms of mental disturbance severe enough to cause him to be sent back to the hospital. At the end of April 1889, fearful of losing his renewed capacity for work, which he regarded as a guarantee of his sanity, he asked to be temporarily shut up in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in order to be under medical supervision. Van Gogh stayed there for 12 months, haunted by recurrent attacks, alternating between moods of calm and despair, and working intermittently: ‘Garden of the Asylum’, ‘Cypresses’, ‘Olive Trees’, Les Alpilles, portraits of doctors, and interpretations of paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Millet date from this period. The keynote of this phase (1889–90) is fear of losing touch with reality, as well as a certain sadness. Confined for long periods to his cell or the asylum garden, having no choice of subjects, and realizing that his inspiration depended on direct observation, van Gogh fought against having to work from memory. The best of his Saint-Rémy pictures are bolder and more visionary than those of Arles.

Van Gogh himself brought this period to an end. Oppressed by homesickness and loneliness, he longed to see Theo and the north once more and arrived in Paris in May 1890. Four days later he went to stay with a homeopathic doctor-artist, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a friend of Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, at Auvers-sur-Oise. Back in a village community such as he had not known since Nuenen, four years earlier, van Gogh worked at first enthusiastically; his choice of subjects such as fields of corn, the river valley, peasants’ cottages, the church, and the town hall reflects his spiritual relief. A modification of his style followed: the natural forms in his paintings became less contorted, and in the northern light he adopted cooler, fresh tonalities. His brushwork became broader and more expressive and his vision of nature more lyrical. Everything in these pictures seems to be moving, living. This phase was short, however, and ended in quarrels with Gachet and feelings of guilt at his financial dependence on Theo (now married and with a son) and his inability to succeed.

In despair of ever being able to overcome his loneliness or be cured, van Gogh shot himself. He did not die immediately. That evening, when interrogated by the police, van Gogh refused to answer questions, saying, “What I have done is nobody else’s business. I am free to do what I like with my own body.” Van Gogh died two days later. Theo, his own health broken, died six months later (January 25, 1891). In 1914 Theo’s remains were moved to his brother’s grave site, in a little cemetery in Auvers, where today the two brothers lie side by side, with identical tombstones.

Largely on the basis of the works of the last three years of his life, van Gogh is generally considered one of the greatest painters of all time. His work exerted a powerful influence on the development of much modern painting, in particular on the works of the Fauve painters, Chaim Soutine, and the German Expressionists. Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings that constitute his life’s work, he sold only one in his lifetime. Always desperately poor, he was sustained by his faith in the urgency of what he had to communicate and by the generosity of Theo, who believed in him implicitly. The letters that he wrote to Theo from 1872 onward, and to other friends, give such a vivid account of his aims and beliefs, his hopes and disappointments, and his fluctuating physical and mental state that they form a unique and touching biographical record that is also a great human document.

The work above is ‘The Road Menders’ of 1889; Oil on canvas, 71 x 93 cm; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The painting is quite monumental, the four large trees separating the painting diagonally into halves. One the left, the passers-by and the houses, on the left the angular blocks of stone and the road menders. The women in black seem more substantial and solid than the lightly coloured road workers who ethereally seem to almost float above the road they are mending. Yellows predominate in the painting and they are tempered by greens and ochre-browns. The painting displays the style of St Remy based on dynamic forms and a vigorous use of line.

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