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The Words of Van Gogh

However, Vincent’s was not a hurrying nature. In no way did he share the current belief in the importance of being at the center of things. The impressionists might have outlawed black, for instance, some years earlier, but Vincent went on thinking that Frans Hals’s command of twenty-seven different kinds of black was one of the most wonderful things that had ever happened in painting. “Is it true for me?” was his only criterion; and if it wasn’t, he went on as before.

Anyone else might have gone underground in these matters. Painting full-time takes all a man’s energies. What is talked about rarely gets done. Cézanne in his great years never wrote a letter if he could avoid it. Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien because Lucien was in England and Pissarro didn’t want him to get out of touch. Degas’s letters are tantalizing fragments from the hand of one of the best and most mischievous of recorded talkers. We love the letters of these men; but unless we know their paintings well there is a great deal that is puzzling. And the letters in question, though everywhere fascinating, are discontinuous.2

But in the case of van Gogh the narrative is as seamless after 1880 as it was before. Only during his sojourn in Paris between 1886 and 1888 is there a hiatus; much as we should like to know more about the only period in which Vincent was in regular contact with his peers, he was living with Theo at that time. Not only did he at last see the gamut of recent French painting at first hand, but he was in touch with Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Armand Guillaumin, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac and Emile Bernard, contacts which must have called for a prodigious effort of assimilation. With so much to talk about and so many gifted people to talk to, van Gogh in Paris did not need to write letters. At all other times the correspondence was as rich as ever in self-sufficing statements which can be lifted out of the context of art and prove ideally applicable to our general concerns. Every reader will make his own choice among them—as Edmund Wilson said, “No two people read the same book”—but here are some examples, taken at random:

Admire as much as you can; most people do not admire enough.

A man may have a great fire in his soul, and yet have no one ever come to warm himself at it. The passers-by see only a wisp of smoke come through the chimney as they go on their way.

How rich art is! A man who can remember what he has seen need never be without food for thought or feel himself truly lonely.

There are no more unbelieving, hard-hearted and worldly people—with some exceptions—than clergymen and, especially, clergymen’s wives.

The “men of the day” are the men of one day. But the man who has so much faith and love for what he is doing that he actually takes pleasure in what other people find dull—that man will ripen, slowly but surely.

Painters are like a family—a fatal combination of people with conflicting interests, each one of them opposed to the rest. If two or more of them are of the same mind, it’s only because they want to annoy the others.

I am always greatly drawn to English draftsmen and English authors because of their Monday-morning-like soberness, and their studied simplicity and solemnity and keen analysis. There is in them something solid and strong that can help us in the days when we feel weak.

In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug, and want life to be more like music.

We cannot but be aware of nothingness, emptiness, and the betrayal of what is desirable, beautiful and good. Yet in spite of that we allow ourselves to be eternally deluded by the charm that things outside ourselves exert on our six senses. It is as if we could not distinguish between objective and subjective. Fortunately for us, we never give up that particular stupidity, that particular hope.

Faced with passages such as these, we remember what van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard, the young painter who had made friends with van Gogh and Gauguin and was later to make friends with Cézanne:

So many people, especially among our painter-colleagues, imagine that words are nothing. But the contrary is true: to say something well is as interesting (and as difficult) as to paint it.

As may by now be clear, Vincent van Gogh rarely said an ambiguous thing. Lucidity was his aim, and if it took him to the very frontier of platitude he didn’t care. He was not writing with big-city people in mind—Parisians in particular struck him as “faithless and changeable as the sea” and as “unnatural, foul, and sad”—but in language that would be accessible to the peasants of the Brabant for whom his father had given all that he had to give.

Intermingled with maxims of universal application there are of course passages beyond number in these letters that relate to art. Many of them now seem both timeless in their validity and remarkably prescient in their general outlook. Before how many great paintings of our own century could we not recall that van Gogh said: “The painter of the future will be a colorist such as there has never been before”? And when van Gogh wrote in 1885 that “Color expresses something by itself” (and was not, that is to say, a mere badge of identity) he said something that was fundamental to Matisse, to Munch, to Kandinsky, and to many of their successors (not least in the United States).

It was van Gogh, likewise, who unriddled what for the layman has always been one of the more bothersome aspects of modern art: distortion. When a fellow-artist complained that the figures in his Potato Eaters were distorted, van Gogh said,

Tell him that I should be in despair if my figures were “correct,” in academic terms. I don’t want them to be “correct.” Real artists paint things not as they are, in a dry analytical way, but as they feel them. I adore Michelangelo’s figures, though the legs are too long and the hips and backsides too large. What I most want to do is to make of these incorrectnesses, deviations, remodelings, or adjustments of reality something that may be “untrue” but is at the same time more true than literal truth.

Here a great part of twentieth-century art is foreshadowed in something Vincent van Gogh said before he knew anything at all about the progressive art even of his own day.

Van Gogh also argued for a new openness and candor in the movement of the brush. As against the crafty and rhetorical methods of the past, he stood for “brushwork that would cut out stippling and the rest and offer simply the varied stroke.” With the help of remarks such as these it would be easy to present Vincent van Gogh as a protomodernist: a man who knew exactly in which directions art should go and was able to put them into words.

But that is not how van Gogh saw himself. It was not in his nature to race toward the future. The Provençal cypress seemed to him “as beautiful, in line and proportion, as an Egyptian obelisk.” Even when he came to know the founding fathers of modern art at first hand he insisted that “a man must be blind not to think that Meissonier is an artist—and a first-rate one.” When people vaunted the scenery of Provence as unique and without parallel he broke it down, color by color, and said,

You will see that it constitutes something like the color-combinations in those pretty Scottish tartans—green, blue, red, yellow, black—which, alas, one hardly sees anymore nowadays.

When people carried on about the painting of the future, he said,

Well, I must say what I so often told Gauguin—that others have done it already. I for one cannot forget all those beautiful paintings of the Barbizon school. It seems hardly possible that anyone will do better, and in any case it’s unnecessary.

One consequence of the close and loving family connection that was maintained throughout the lifetime of V.W. van Gogh may be that we are as far as ever we were from having, as distinct from an authentic text, a critical edition of Vincent’s letters that would bring out connections between his letters and his painting. It is as if posterity in general were engaged in a conspiracy of expiation which made it unthinkable to say that van Gogh ever painted a bad picture or said a silly thing.

Before he died however, Vincent’s nephew saw through the press a two-volume set of facsimiles of nearly all the letters that van Gogh wrote between his arrival in Paris in March 1886 and his death in July 1890. As far as possible, the letters are reproduced actual size, and certain datings have been revised in the light of Dr. J. Hulsker’s researches.

What might seem to some severe natures no more than a very expensive souvenir album of material that is already available in full is in fact a venture of genuine historical importance. Quite apart from the poignancy of seeing (for instance) the exact look of the note in which Vincent announced his arrival in Paris (“I shall be in the Louvre from noon onwards. Please let me know at what time you could join me in the square gallery”), the facsimiles offer invaluable evidence both of the state of mind in which Vincent wrote each letter and to the points which he wished to emphasize in ways that cannot be mimicked in print.

Above all, they make us intimately aware of the prodigious effort of self-observation with which van Gogh strove to keep his illness under control. Karl Jaspers and Meyer Schapiro3 have written on that point; for confirmation of it we have only to turn to the letters in facsimile. For much of his life van Gogh wrote in a regular, open, and self-evidently generous hand that was the very antithesis of what we think of as an “inspired” or “visionary” script. “With a rare lucidity,” Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1946, “he watched his behavior to foresee the attacks [of madness] and to take precautions against them, until in the end his despair destroyed him.” In the facsimiles of his letters we see that watchfulness made visible, over and over again.

Only in the facsimiles, in fact, do we see exactly how van Gogh gave an ordered majesty even to a straightforward listing of colors and could lay out page after page, quite unselfconsciously, with every word given room to breathe and every individual letter within each word set down as a loved object. For him, the written word was an object like any other object, a “real thing” (as he used to say). “I love things that are real, things that are possible,” he once wrote. Objects were for van Gogh, as Meyer Schapiro put it, “a symbol and guarantee of sanity.” And among those objects a letter ranked high: just how high is clear from every page of The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

  1. 2

    Degas’s Letters is available in an English translation from Hennessey and Ingalls, Inc., Los Angeles, for $7.95, and a revised and enlarged edition of The Letters of Camille Pissarro to his Son Lucien is published in English translation by Paul P. Appel, Mamaroneck, New York, at $22.50. There is a new and enlarged edition of the correspondence of Cézanne in the original French. Like its predecessor (first published in 1937) this has been edited by John Rewald. It is published by Grasset in Paris, costs sixty-five francs, and includes 233 letters, as against 207 in the earlier edition. It is also notably richer in its annotations.

  2. 3

    Meyer Schapiro’s “On a Painting of Van Gogh” is included in his Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, a collection of essays published by George Braziller and priced at $20.00.

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