Under my byline

Letter and spirit

Posted in Architecture/Design, Art, Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 7 November 2009

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait, 1887OVERLEAF 54

Deprived of finer speech, my chief utterance during the time I spent reading van Gogh’s letters was: “Oh, this is brilliant… this is brilliant… brilliant…” It isn’t as often as one would like that one’s reading matter is of such quality as to interrupt one’s respiration, and even less often that form, substance and function come together so satisfyingly as they have in the latest, and finest, edition of the great artist’s collected letters.

Vincent’s letters (the informal is surely allowable) are no secret. They’ve been in circulation for more than a century. The credit for that, as for the amazing PR job that rocketed him to the first ranks of fame so soon after his death, belongs to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the widow of Vincent’s younger brother Theo, who died soon after his brother did. The two are buried together in the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris. The graves of the two men, at the instance of Theo’s beloved wife, wear a shared blanket of ivy, binding them together in death as in life.

Vincent and Theo's graves in Auvers-sur-OiseAbout 900 letters from 1872 to 1890 survive which were either written by or addressed to Vincent, of which the vast majority, about 700, were exchanged between the brothers. Theo was Vincent’s rock. For most of the artist’s painting years, which means the last decade of his life (he shot himself at 37), Theo, a moderately successful art dealer, regularly sent his brother money and painting materials. Because Vincent had no close friends, nor any real lover, he poured out his thoughts and accounts of his work and troubles in the letters to Theo.

As several reviewers have said, there is no better artistic autobiography in existence. Unlike other historical letter-writers, Vincent had clearly never thought of publication. The letters are unpolished and often messy documents, yet tumbling with ideas and emotions. They reveal the range of Vincent’s reading (astonishingly broad) and how he taught himself to understand as well as do art (by hard work; he wasn’t a born talent).

Some 242 letters contain simple sketches (“croquis”) by which Vincent showed Theo how he was progressing. Many offer a glimpse into the process that led to a painting — including some of van Gogh’s most famous, like The Potato Eaters (1885).

Theo van Gogh, 1872Indeed, so important are the letters that they helped create van Gogh’s reputation as an artist, no less, one might hazard, than his art. They are memorable partly because they are so readable — Vincent’s words are as vigorous as his paintings. But so far we have not had a truly complete and accurate collection. Theo’s widow had a set published, but of course some material was excised and the whole was cleaned up to read well. In 1958 an English translation from the original Dutch and French was published, but it was similarly flawed.

Now, after 15 years of labour, experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has the largest collection of his artwork and most of the letters, with the support of the Huygens Institute have contextualised the letters with a framework of incredibly substantial research. Vincent van Gogh — The Letters (Thames & Hudson, £325) shows each letter, full size, surrounded by the details one needs to fully understand the words. This includes notes on every individual, book and event mentioned and images of any painting referred to. One gets a virtual picture of the components of van Gogh’s thinking at that moment — gets inside his head, so to speak.

The editors (Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker) and the Museum, with great generosity of spirit, have made the entire book available online, free, at VanGoghletters.org. It is the best-designed website I have seen in years, beautiful and easy to negotiate. Reading Vincent there is what took my breath away.

Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885

(Here‘s another archive of van Gogh’s letters in an older translation, searchable in some ways, with some annotations, and with a useful “calendar of letters”. It isn’t as fresh in its language, however, nor as comprehensive in its backgrounding.)

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4 Responses

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  1. Anamika said, on 16 November 2009 at 11:59 am

    I think that’s what I love most about Vincent – how hard he worked on his craft. I haven’t yet read the letters, but I love his paintings, and gleaned most knowledge about his intense affair with art from his biography by Irving Stone. Have you read it? It’s main source are these letters. I also like the way The Economist has written up this story: http://www.economist.com/books/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14743354.

  2. Rrishi said, on 17 November 2009 at 12:28 am

    Yes, read that review — good –, but not the Irving Stone. There’s something so earthy about his paintings, or him, or the way he’s depicted, that I feel an electric charge whenever I see his work. Seems to be confirmed by these letters — the utterly plain and direct terms in which he describes his own canvases and everything else. It’s the voice of a man who doesn’t waste time or energy, for whom even the letter-writing is important work. I envy that.
    It’s true about how hard he worked — the constant refinement until nothing remained but his vision (i.e., the truth that he saw). It’s inspiring, yet appalling. Carving out the truth from everything else (I’m pretending that with writing I face a pale echo of the artist’s challenge) is hard work, and what you do to the material you also do to yourself. No wonder the greater the artist the more atypical the individual… though no doubt there are counter-examples, there always are.

  3. Anamika said, on 17 November 2009 at 9:47 am

    Ok, if he already inspires all these feelings in you, then the book won’t change much. I read the book pretty early on into knowing Vincent, and so I cannot be sure if the paintings evoke this twinge because I know how he agonized over each stroke and his intense awareness of being on the verge of exhaustion, hopelessness, poverty and of course madness. I totally agree with your last sentence: “…the greater the artist…”.

  4. Rrishi said, on 17 November 2009 at 4:36 pm

    You’re right of course — it comes at least in part from knowing how hard he worked. Did you see the letters site finally…? Do read the letters to his brother and others ’round the time he’s at the sanatorium/asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Among the mad people he’s still kept hold of the thread of his work/vision and is pulling himself along by that, it seems — impatient but also humble and uncertain… rather moving. One at random: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let772/letter.html


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