Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith

Van GoghVan Gogh by Steven Naifeh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The two authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith previously won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, and are noted for their scholarship, especially in overturning the encrustation of myth that surrounds the biography of artists, an encrustation that seems to grow with astonishing rapidity both to aestheticize the messy details of a human life, and to serve a large and divergent set of critical and personal agendas. I did notice a tendency to "read" an artist's thoughts or ideas from what appear to be speculation or inference, a bad temptation and danger found especially in artist's biographies, and represents the one area they particularly received criticism for their work on Pollock. (I have not at this writing read the book, but I have it on my to-read list.)

What they set out to do, and appear to accomplish quite well, is provide a fresh perspective to what appears to be a familiar story. Lust for Life appears to have mainly assisted van Gogh scholarship, in causing the few people who knew van Gogh who were still alive at the time of release to come forward to talk to researchers: the book and movie so badly portrayed and mangled events, and van Gogh himself. (The book's footnotes are 5000 pages long: they are not included in the book, and are available online.) I will neglect many particulars of Vincent's life here that may be familiar to you, and only deal with those in which I gained some interesting viewpoints in the book.

Unlike Pollock, van Gogh was highly articulate and eager to explain himself almost to the point of mania, and in episodes, beyond it. In fact, van Gogh scholarship has an embarrasment of riches. He is an artist so talked about that the public thinks they know all about him, when in fact I often found myself surprised, and reevaluating what I knew. So they are often on firmer ground in making deductions, because they make the critical decision to fact check the statements made in Vincent's letters to Theo. This does not mean that Vincent was a fabulist, in the sense of artists like Gauguin or Gorky who clearly invented stories to create a myth. No, but he was frequently subject to delusions, obsessions, and irrational hopes and fears, as well as dependent for support on Theo, and excessively worried about what his family thought of him.



Despite the love and adulation that Vincent van Gogh receives (and deserves, more about that later) he is far less sympathetic and likable in his early life than some of the romanticizers have conveyed. First of all, he had a first class intellect, and was not the instinctive empathetic genius that is often portrayed. He had to sweat through his 98 per cent perspiration once he decided on pursuing a career in art, and never developed a slick facility for achieving conventional artistic skills such as academic drawing, and his erratic, obsessive, and stubborn nature and inability to get along with people that were trying to help, or to listen to any advice that contradicted his current obsession, impeded him at every turn. He definitely had brains, and deep feeling for visual things, had drawn a lot since childhood. He also had an extraordinary visual memory, something that allowed him to do somewhat useful work at an art dealers--as long as he was in the back room. But throughout the first half of the book, he piles failure upon failure, his theological ambitions, his missionary work, his self-abnegating life with the miners, then working and getting fired as an art dealer, etc., before he even starts to pursue art, destroys his reputation with his family, and frankly pisses off everybody who could be of service to him. Depending on mood swings, he often excercised questionable personal hygiene. Because of his shifting moods and ideas, he could be very kind, ingratiating, and likable at times, and then turn very quickly towards rage. Of course, his mental problems were not developed far enough then for people to see that he was not being willfully difficult, he gave the appearance of being enough in control of himself, when that was barely the case. He did feel intensely, and was very passionate and sincere most of the time, and very sympathetic in the abstract, but he was not empathetic to what reactions others would have, he was too wound up in his own dramas and saw through the lens of his own obsessions to see how others would perceive a situation.

Much of his early work is dark, forced and clumsy, and the book stresses this. In retrospect, knowing what we know, we can see glimmers of genius in these works, but his difficulties and inability to fully express what he felt must have been terribly discouraging, and they were certainly not very attractive to conventional or even advanced taste of the time. It is often forgotten that most artists turn out a lot of poor early work, sometimes totally ignored, sometimes retrofitted with 20-20 aesthetic hindsight. The point is that Vincent worked terribly hard, not having a natural facility, and his manic and obsessive tendencies, which cost him so much, really appear to have helped him here. I learned that he also had the presence of mind and originality to pick up and retain any new techniques he developed, such as the use of line as texture in his drawing, which later guided his hand to build the rhythms of his impasto wet on wet. His refusal to listen to Theo's advice to lighten his palette, an excellent example of his stubbornness, cause him to have to develop a facility for working quickly with condensation and few brushstrokes, because working on a black background, his modeling would sink in if he overworked it. These skills, earned by intelligence and hard work (and many wrong turns) serve him well when he arrives at his signature style. During this period Theo thinks little of his work, but tries to encourage him.

At just the half way point in the book, Vincent discovers color, and everything starts to come together for him. His ability to work hard, and persevere, and his manic energy, combined with his ability to draw with color and economy and speed is perfectly suited to an Impressionist and Post Impressionist aesthetic. These manic periods of truly productive work, give him the first positive feedback, but they alternate with terrible emotional, and then psychotic crashes.

I think that Vincent had an unequaled gift to convey a supernaturally living intensity though vivid painted color. And for that gift, we are eternally thankful and grateful.

I won't go into the familiar stories, but I think that there is a temptation to look for villains, and I think that this book is fairer to Gauguin than most. Pirate like, ambitious, and looking for advantage, still yet, who could actually stand living in close quarters with Vincent? In fact he was not the first choice to share the Yellow House, and to be fair, Gauguin did not really push for it either. But once Vincent decided it, Gauguin was harranged by Vincent, and subsidized by Theo to make the trip. Nothing Gauguin did was really responsible for the collapse and the cut off ear, as Vincent regularly had emotional crises around Christmas time, and I suspect Gauguin left both terrified and worn to a frazzle. The book points out that Theo was Gauguin's dealer, and Gauguin had every self-interested reason for sticking it out and remaining on good terms with the family.


Everyone wants to play amateur psychologist with Vincent, and we can't really harm him any more than the doctors of his day, who had fundamental conceptual difficulties with periodic mental illnesses; they thought you "got sick" or "got well" or maybe you had a nervous weakness, that made you "susceptible" to another attack. Based on reading this book, I think that Vincent had multiple problems. My guess is that he had at least two intrinsic conditions, severe bipolar illness complicated with significant seasonal affective disorder, and what has been called temporal lobe psychomotor epilepsy, or some other progessive condition that causes psychotic brainstorms from psychological triggers. In addition to these two organic conditions, it is certainly true that Vincent had syphillis, which may have reached the tertiary state and kicked in on top of these two conditions, attacking his brain towards the end of his life. In addition, there is the possibility of a fourth, heavy metal poisoning, which affects mental function and exacerbates irritability. Almost all brilliant colors available in his day were based on toxic metals: lead, chromium, cadmium, cobalt. Vincent often sucked on his brushes when thinking. If he was negligent in cleaning them (and I would be surprised if he was not at times) there could be residues, generally a bad idea, even if an artist is meticulous about cleaning. During his hospitalizations he was allowed to paint when lucid, but on more than one occasion, he had a sudden attack and swallowed his paints before he could be prevented.

Everybody takes note of the fact that few people even wanted these canvasses that are now worth billions.

But in paying attention to the chronology, the story is even more tragic. His use of imagery as symbols and divided regions of color, use of color as an expressive force, rearranging nature to develop expressive force, experiencing the forces of nature and painting outside, developing an individual style--his dynamic brushstrokes, and even the cult of the artiste maudit, the artist as outsider, as madman, all of these converged as THE critical consensus of the emerging art of the 1890s. This was exactly Vincent's moment.

At precisely this point, Theo was starting to get inquiries about purchases. Vincent dominated the Salon des Independents with a staggering collection of works. In spite of the famous artists participating, Monet, Gauguin agreed that van Gogh was the stunner of the show. Albert Aurier released a rave review about the disturbed but great genius. And a painting was purchased. Not much, but remember that Gauguin had only begun to sell, and a massive change in taste was underway. And at the very moment that all this was happening, Vincent was hospitalized, and in a delirium, and only had a handful of months to live.

I admit that at this point, I began to cry.

After Vincent's death, Theo, guiltridden and griefstricken, made every effort to try to redeem his brother's reputation. Theo, who had a full blown case of tertiary syphilis, further progressed than Vincent's, collapsed under the strain, went insane and died. Vincent's desire of making a successful partnership with Theo was very nearly achieved.


I would add, the book in an appendix speculates on Vincent's death and comes up with the rather sensational non-suicide theory. The ideas are not unreasonable, as the actual story that is usually told is full of holes. The ideas are labeled as speculation.

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1 comment:

  1. Odd, I read the same book and was convinced by what I thought was their conjecture that Vincent suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. I don't remember them even mentioned bi-polar disorder, although I admit that earlier, after having read The Yellow House, I was convinced of that diagnosis. The epilepsy was what his doctor in Arles diagnosed and it seems to explain all his symptoms and behavior.

    I knew Vincent was difficult, but didn't realize how difficult until reading this book. But I don't agree that they made Gauguin seemed not so bad. I thought they showed clearly how self-serving and opportunistic he was. And he didn't suffer from any illness! I also thought they implied that he did indeed have much to do with the crisis and mental collapse that Vincent suffered that December. Christmas was only part of it.

    Just to add, I loved this book.

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