Friday, July 06, 2012
Some thoughts on Vincent Van Gogh and the trials of the artist
WHAT IS IT with me and these “struggling artist” types? After spending more than two years of my life reading books by and about Herman Melville, and writing a book of my own about him, now I am chest-deep in an exhaustive, and exhausting, biography of Vincent Van Gogh. I’m not going to write my own book about this artist, but being about halfway through the biography, with all of its extensive detail, I want to reflect on and ponder the mystery of this great painter’s lifelong struggle to fulfill his ambitions.
Last year, while I was finishing up the manuscript mentioned above about Melville, I read another biography of a different artist who also struggled for most of his lifetime, Franz Kafka (see #9 on my Best Books of 2011 list). The year before that, I had plowed through two biographies on the author of Moby-Dick, one of which was fairly exhaustive as well (Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant). Like Van Gogh, both of those artists received far more accolades and appreciation after they were dead. Van Gogh: The Life, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, was published near the end of 2011. When I saw it at a bookstore, a massive hardcover of over 900 pages, I sensed immediately that it would be worth owning, even though I normally don’t buy hardcover books. I asked for it for Christmas, and my wife came through.
Melville, as is well documented, achieved popular success with the first novel he ever wrote, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. He enjoyed a brief stint as a literary celebrity, but his star quickly fizzled. In 1851, his great sixth novel, Moby-Dick, was a commercial flop. He was largely forgotten by the public and manhandled by most critics for the rest of his life, which lasted another four decades. He died in obscurity and relative poverty. Kafka experienced a moderate degree of commercial and critical success while living, particularly for his famous short works “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist.” But he didn’t make a lot of money, was burdened with terrible bronchial illness for most of his short life, and battled with anxiety and difficult family relationships. Even those who know very little about Franz Kafka understand that he was a guy with issues. If you’ve ever read his novel The Trial you can figure that out without digging much further.
I am fascinated by these artists. Why is that? Is it an ego thing - meaning I somehow imagine a future world, beyond my presence in it, where others lavish similar acclaim on whatever I leave behind? That seems absurd, and I hope it’s not what this boils down to, but I’m not discounting it either, because I want to be honest. No doubt my attraction to the stories of artists like this has a lot to do with my own experience so far with trying to engage on the competitive battlefield of the arts. Since I have been writing creatively for more than twenty years, with minimal success, it seems natural that I would draw something from those who worked so long and hard on their craft, and only later became renowned around the world for that work.
The danger to my great interest in and attraction to these stories is the proximity it brings me to the artists’ own intimacy with tragedy and darkness. These writers all suffered loss, loneliness and despair on the way to achieving what they did, and the great misfortune is that they each experienced far more of those than they did of success or joy. According to this huge biography of Van Gogh, it seems he suffered even more than Melville and Kafka did - maybe more than any other artist I’ve ever read about. One of the great questions that arises while reading about a life like Van Gogh’s is whether his suffering and continual failures were somehow essential ingredients to the work. In other words, if he had experienced even a little success from his early painting and drawing, would he have produced the great work he went on to create?
Nobody knows. But he did not have that experience. Vincent Van Gogh didn’t sell a single painting during his time walking this earth (less than forty years). Yet his pictures have impacted almost every educated person in Western society for over 130 years.
There’s a fascinating line on a recent rock n’ roll album that comes to my mind. It seems to relate to the same essential question. And I think it connects to my own obsessions as well. In 2010 a band called Arcade Fire released a critically and commercially successful record called The Suburbs that drew upon the members’ childhoods growing up in Canadian upper-middle class neighborhoods. It wryly examined the stifling boredom and lack of drive fostered by this kind of Americanized landscape. Even though I’m not from Canada, I am from the American suburbs, and I can identify with the boredom and suppressed passions that are explored on this album, particularly in songs like the title track, “Ready to Start,” “Empty Room,” and “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.”
The whole record is extremely interesting. But the line I am thinking of from comes from that last tune mentioned above, “Sprawl II.” Sometime-lead vocalist Regine Chassagne sings in the chorus:
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, won’t you please cut the lights
There’s something about the candor of that last part that I recognize, both within myself and in the work and life stories of the artists I am writing about. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a frightening one, but I also don’t want to know - at least, not right now. Either way, it seems to be the truth.
What does it mean when an artist seems to be saying, either directly or through their work, “I NEED the darkness?” If you consider almost any of Franz Kafka’s best known works, classic stories like “In the Penal Colony” and “The Judgment,” could you really say that he did not cleave to something dark within? How about Herman Melville’s entire novel Pierre, which is a total immersion into the black sub-strata of a failed artist’s heart; or the magisterial but deeply troubled monologues of Captain Ahab, who “spit his last breath” from “hell’s heart” into the jaw of his nemesis, the White Whale?
How much does it cost to go to those places? And is the result worth it?
There are numerous stories about artists who toiled for years, sometimes decades, for little to no gain in terms of worldly success or recognition. Kafka and Melville are certainly among the more famous examples. But compared to the story I am working my way through in Van Gogh: The Life, even those artists’ lives seemed like triumphant cakewalks. This massive biography of the man best known for legendary images like Starry Night and Wheatfield with Crows, and for the bizarre tale of how he tried to cut off his own ear because of unrequited love, is literally jammed with bleakness, paranoia, and heartbreak. At over 900 pages, too, it is a very long journey on which to travel through such treacherous terrain.
So why take the trip? This question hound me as I pass the halfway point in the book, following weeks of reading. After that much time it almost starts to feel like a continual bashing over the head with all of those negative forces described in the paragraph above. At first it feels like mental fatigue, like reading the book leaves you exhausted, drained of energy. Over time, though, part of me wonders if the continual bleakness will have any further, cumulative effect.
Yet I, for reasons I am still wondering about, have a far higher threshold for this stuff than most. One reason for it seems obvious. I am, or at least I am trying to be, an artist myself, and thus I am interested in other people who are doing or have done the same job. I’m not comparing myself to Van Gogh, but I am saying I want to do great work.
It runs deeper than that, though. There are times, especially in the case of Van Gogh, when I force myself to pause and say, “How much more of this do I need to put up with?” But then I return in my mind to the work he left us. What rises above almost every other consideration for me is how extraordinary that work really is. We’ve all seen Van Gogh’s pictures, because many of them have become permanent fixtures in our culture. If that were not the case, something like this movie poster for Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris would never work. But it does, because most of us have seen the image, even if we didn’t know who painted it.
How does one accomplish work of this quality? That is the fundamental question that I feel knocking around in my head when I pick up books like this biography. What does it require to achieve greatness? And is there any way to do memorable work without leading the sort of existence that Melville or Kafka did, let alone the kind of life Van Gogh endured? After reading over half of Naifeh and Smith’s book, I have to say that I am amazed the man lived as long as he did.
I only knew the basic stuff about Vincent Van Gogh going into this book. I knew he was eccentric; that he had a long and sometime contentious relationship with his younger brother, Theo; I knew that he had once tried to cut off his own ear over a romantic entanglement; and I know that he killed himself, or so it is believed. I wasn’t even sure of the exact period of time in which he had lived. I knew it was not in the twentieth century.
The only other things I knew before I began reading his story was what I had taken in through my own eyes. For even though I haven’t had many chances to travel, I was fortunate enough, several years ago, to make two business trips to Holland. Both times I was able to experience a little of the city of Amsterdam, and on one of the trips I went to the Van Gogh Museum, located in that city. There I saw many of his most renowned works. More on this a bit later.
Van Gogh was the oldest of six - although technically he wasn’t the oldest at all. Theodorus Van Gogh and his wife Anna actually had seven children. The first was a son named Vincent, but he was not the Vincent Van Gogh we know today. This child was stillborn, and there’s a burial stone you can find even today marked with “Vincent Van Gogh” on it, which was present all the while when the artist we know of was growing up. Whether this fact about his name and his birth order had any kind of ingrown psychological effect on the “second” Vincent would be impossible to say. But it would be at least somewhat unaccountable to a young man to know all while coming up into the world that he was not even the first person in his own family to bear his name.
It seems from the moment Vincent Van Gogh was born he had trouble relating with other people and to the world. He seemed continually engaged in an undeclared war against practically everybody. His mother and father were very strict Protestant Christians; in fact, Theodorus (“Dorus”) Van Gogh was the local pastor in the small village of Zundert in Holland where Vincent grew up. But they were also extremely class-conscious, and seemed to regard social standing and reputation as of paramount importance. They wanted nothing more than for Vincent to achieve a high rank in the social strata, find work in an acceptable and dignified occupation, and elevate the family’s station. But Vincent had no regard for these kinds of worldly ambitions. This put him into immediate and continuous conflict with his parents, and that never changed throughout his lifetime.
He was socially awkward and an introvert as a young child, with a cantankerous, brooding disposition. Apparently this was something his mother and father could neither change nor tolerate. As soon as they could they shipped him off to a distant boarding school, where he was even less able to fit in both socially or academically, and was eventually expelled - the first in a long line of firings and retreats that would continue throughout his life. Wherever he went, from that point forward, he rebelled against conventional expectations. He approached everything with his own singular vision of how things ought to be done. It was a way of living that frequently brought him to loggerheads with authority figures of every stripe, so that it became nearly impossible for him to attend school, participate in apprenticeships, or maintain employment.
Ironically enough, all he ever seemed to want was his parents’ approval and admiration. But this was the one thing he was never able to secure. For many years, even as an adult, he lived under their roof, desperately seeking their blessing of his drawing and painting, even while becoming engaged in increasingly bitter and acrimonious disputes with them over how he lived his life and how he spent his time. They seemed alternately baffled and frustrated by him at almost every turn. While he was living at home in the 1880s, his father collapsed and died one day after visiting members of his flock, leaving a lifetime of discord and dispute with his artist son unresolved. His mother, for her part, continued to consider Vincent’s art “ridiculous” even after her son had already lost his own life and finally gained a broad and strong reputation for his work.
I feel both fascinated and befuddled as I make my way through this, one of the densest and most troubling biographies of a genuine artistic genius that I have ever come across. Vincent Van Gogh was overwhelmed with darkness and anxiety, anger and lust, and he could barely contain any of these rumbling monsters doing battle within him. He fought with just about everybody he ever knew; he visited prostitutes routinely; he starved himself; he maimed himself; he dressed in rags; he abused his brother’s love and tremendous forbearance; he refused to be properly educated; he even discarded and ridiculed the advice of other artists who wanted him to succeed. He was not an amoral person: he felt great solidarity with the poor and the disadvantaged, and he had many periods of spirited religious fervor. He knew the Bible backwards and forwards, and he admired the work of great Christian thinkers like Thomas a Kempis. Yet at other times in his life he denounced God entirely, especially in rebuke of his preacher father.
How does one get their head around a person like this? I aspire to produce great art myself. But I do not want to descend into mania and mental illness in order to unleash my best creative work. Sometimes, in my darker moments, it feels like that is the direction I am moving in. But those moments, luckily, are rare. What I feel more often, and thank God for it, is the joy in actually doing the work - writing, in my case. When I am fully engaged in it is when I feel the most happy and the most alive. One can only hope that Vincent Van Gogh - and the sickly Franz Kafka, and the bruised and defeated Herman Melville - experienced great rushes of the same feeling at times while they worked. Because God knows, if their hard working and talented biographers are correct, they didn’t feel a whole lot of that at any other times.
Just under ten years ago now, on a bright and sunny Spring day in the amazing city of Amsterdam, I was lucky enough to get an hour or two to explore the Van Gogh museum. I saw a lot of famous images, like Bedroom in Arles, Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, and especially Wheatfield With Crows, one of my all-time favorites. I remember being amazed at the humble size and scope of that last painting, which can be seen in this photograph. These, and so many others, are truly breathtaking images, and seeing them up close and in person makes a tremendous difference.
Another great blessing I had on that day, I remember so well, was encountering this image, which I did not know about at the time I visited the museum. This memory is a special one to me, because I was an expectant father at the time, awaiting the birth of my first child, my eldest daughter, who today is nine years old. I have four children now, and am a long way from those initial paternal stirrings, but I remember the rush of mysterious and powerful emotion I felt upon making the discovery. I will hold on to that moment for the rest of my life.
But the thing I remember more than anything else from that day was how I spent the whole time in the museum hunting high and low for the one picture that I was most interested in seeing. That picture was Starry Night, referenced earlier here. I didn’t want to consult the guide booklet - I just wanted to discover it on my own. But after nearly two hours, I still could not locate it. So finally I approached a uniformed staff member in the middle of a bustling crowd. “Where would I find Starry Night?” I asked him.
The man smiled and replied, “San Diego.”
Turns out the picture was on tour. After coming all that way to Holland, I was denied seeing the one picture I was most excited to experience? It couldn’t be! I remember the stinging disappointment - but then, afterwards, resolve. I was a writer, after all. I had learned many times already that the best things in life never come as easily as you hope or expect them to. But I also knew, even then, what Vincent Van Gogh never quite understood - that if I could just hang in there for long enough, my moment, one day, would come.