Monday 1 December 2008

Was Van Gogh an Artist?

I was recently invited to Amsterdam to take part in a conference on Reading versus Watching, organized by the Dutch Reading Foundation. It was a wonderful experience, and I met many interesting colleagues working on the topic of reading and fiction from various different perspectives. While in Amsterdam I visited the Van Gogh museum, and this sparked a number of thoughts regarding the definition of an artist. Seeing Van Gogh’s work in person was humbling, and I discovered a number of great paintings of which I was unaware. However, I found myself most perturbed by the narrative presented by the museum with regards to his life and career, which in my mind appeared strategic, contrived, and not recognizable as residing comfortably within our familiar definition of an “artist.” An artist is typically seen as someone who is compelled by the muses to explore truth through beauty. The story of Van Gogh, however, shows little evidence of this. This is not to say that Van Gogh was not a great painter; he clearly was. I think, however, that there is some room for debate as to whether he should be considered an artist. Or, perhaps, some debate on our definition of artists.

Van Gogh was unemployed, and at a loss of what to do with his life, when his brother Theo (then working as an art dealer) suggested he become an artist. Vincent agreed, having at this point never engaged in any drawing or painting. He quickly set out to learn these skills, although he eschewed the traditional method of attending a school, opting instead to teach himself. His early works are recognizable by a very dark palette, often employing backlit compositions of hardworking peasants and related rural scenes. At this time, he was intent on depicting the noble life of peasant labourers, and it is these paintings that I happen to feel are his best. Theo soon encouraged his brother to paint with brighter colours, however, more in line with what he was observing in the contemporary French art scene of which he was a part. Theo even went so far as to suggest that Vincent refrain from using any black pigment at all. Vincent complied, turning to a brighter palette. He also began to paint portraits (of prostitutes, primarily, the only women who would sit for him) and townscapes, knowing that these pieces would be more likely to sell compared to his paintings of the poor. In 1886, when Vincent first arrived in Paris, his reaction to the modern art being painted there was unequivocally negative, and he criticized it in the harshest terms in his writings of the time. However, before the year had ended, he had befriended a couple of young Parisian painters and begun to adopt their impressionistic techniques. He also began to paint with even brighter colours, and explicitly believed that this would be his lasting contribution to modern art. “Soon we will be selling,” he wrote Theo. His self-portraits at this time, perhaps some of his most famous works, were not meant to be explorations of his own identity but an attempt to improve his portrait technique while experimenting with his newly adopted palette and impressionistic brush strokes. Around this time, he expressed a desire to create an artistic collective with Gauguin and others, located on a farm. This was intended to not only foster collaboration, but also to create greater financial stability for himself and his artist friends, and also to increase the likelihood that the group would dominate and shape modern art.

A number of Vincent’s paintings are undeniably derivative. He created pieces replicating the Japanese wood-cuts that he and his brother so admired, but these “copies” lack all of the subtlety and beauty of the originals, appearing as garish pop-art knock-offs. Similarly, during a period of his first hospitalization, he painted copies of famous pieces based on black-and-white reproductions of them, injecting his own (now) electric palette and impressionistic brush strokes. Looking at the originals and the copies side by side, one cannot help but get the feeling that nothing new or interesting has resulted from the modern exercise. As Vincent’s illness worsened, and he moved to a new hospital, he began to focus less on the bright colours and more on graphic line work, and also returned more fully to those topics that interested him initially such as plants and nature.

In this brief survey of his life, I believe there is some compelling evidence that Vincent Van Gogh had goals of finance and fame that superceded any goal to approach truth through beauty. If anything, Vincent appears to have been willing to let popular trends determine both the style and content of his paintings, in great contradiction to our impression of artists as uncompromising individuals who are driven to create in response to the muses. Vincent, it seems, was creating in response to Theo and the modern art scene in Paris at the time, at least during his most productive period during which most of his familiar paintings were created. Now, I will readily confess that I am not an expert on the life of Van Gogh, and perhaps a reader more knowledgeable with regards to this topic may correct me. This was, however, the impression I gained from the summary of his life provided by the organization most invested in portraying him as an artist: the Van Gogh museum.

Does this mean that Vincent Van Gogh should not be considered a great artist, although he was clearly a great painter? Was Van Gogh more of an artist when he began painting as opposed to when he was popular? When he focused on a topic that fascinated him (i.e., the hard life of rural peasants) with no concern for whether these paintings would sell and afford him a living? Or perhaps it is our conception of what constitutes an artist that should change. Have we romanticized the idea of an artist willfully, elevating this role to a transcendental plane where the everyday concerns of humanity (e.g., fame, fortune, admiration) cannot touch them? To what degree does a flourishing art market destroy the potential for artists? Perhaps it is better that there be little to no reward for art, so that we can be assured that those who toil in creating art are motivated by something nobler than financial reward. Lastly, to what degree is intent the primary factor to consider? If Van Gogh paints a painting with the aim of creating something he knows will be popular and will sell, but this same painting is capable of creating a profound experience in the viewer, should we view it as less a piece of art? All of these questions, I think, can also be applied to fiction and the debate that commonly arises about whether there is low or high literature, and might these have different influences on a reader.
Keith's Comment:
What you say, Raymond, about van Gogh, is very interesting. You mention two salient issues. One is the idea of the muse. It's an idea that still has much to be said for it: that an artist must be open to what comes, in the way that Lewis Hyde writes about it, as a kind of gift (see my post of 17 November). The second issue is that of craft versus art. The book that has influenced me on this is R. G. Collingwood's The principles of art, in which he argues that there is a set of activities, let us call them crafts, in which an end point is envisaged, such as the van Gogh brothers' idea of what would sell, and worked towards by well-understood methods. Art, says Collingwood, is different. There is no aim towards a particular outcome. Instead, art is exploratory of things we don't understand, principally having to do with the emotions, which we come to understand better as they are expressed and explored in the various languages of art such as the novel, architecture, music, and so on. I think Collingwood is onto something. The implications for the person who reads Madame Bovary, or walks through the Alhambra, or listens to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Schlummert ein from Bach's Cantata 82, are both structured and open. That person too can explore. He or she is not being directed by a craft of having, for instance, certain emotions induced, as anxiety is induced in a thriller. So, was van Gogh seeking to induce certain emotions in us?

Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.

R.G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dear Keith,
This is a very interesting point that you make, on the distinction between art and craft. I must confess, this theory aligns very closely with my own beliefs. However, I think it also begs some troubling questions regarding intent, and its necessity and sufficiency. If someone creates something with no particular intent to explore and idea or an emotion, yet the result is thought or emotion-provoking, is this still not a piece of art? Similarly, if an artist has the intent to explore an emotion or an idea not well understood, but the product fails to provoke a similar response in any viewer, is that person not an artist and the piece created not art? Should we assume the most demanding criteria, that both intent and some success with regards to an audience are necessary? Stated another way, if an artists creates but no-one is around to view it, is it still art? I don't know enough about Van Gogh to speak of his own intentions, but I think that my impression of his life did serve to raise some troubling and broader issues with regard to the definition of art and artists.


Anonymous said...

"Was Van Gogh an Artist?"
Wow! Yes,... myself as knowledgeable as I believe I am about this artist,... YES, of course he was! What a question to ask other ones with eyes and ears that work well to see and read with, while listening attentively on what is being said by knowledgeable people and in reading all the letters which was written by him.

I know that some museums and foundations leave a lot of questions in the minds of their gallery viewers & on-lookers, especially since their help is most time unsure themselves about who they are representing.

In Reading this little write up of this recently invited guest to Amsterdam, to take part in this conference on reading versus watching, I can't really agree with him that it was all that wonderful for him as the participant, especially while at the van Gogh Museum.

The information usually given there seems to me to be a little undecided, along with a lot of untruths of what really happened in this artist's supposed short artistic career that has been accredited to his 37 years of life.

You would think that something would have been said about his many years of employment, since that happen to be his first line of work, working at all of his uncle's fine art establishments at the Hague, London, Amsterdam, and Paris, France. No,... its like he wasn't even there!

I could go on for hours,... but what is the use? It's Like Pablo Picasso had said himself, "Museums are full of lies and people who make art their own business are mostly Impostors".

Raymond A. Mar said...

Thank you for this comment. I fully concede that I know very little about Van Gogh and his life. What I learned while in Amsterdam, however, seemed to me to be an interesting entry point for discussing the definition of art and artists. I do think that there is some evidence that our common, and perhaps romantic, conception of artists does not conform well to the life of Van Gogh. The real question, however, is whether this means that our understanding of Van Gogh needs amending, or our definition of art.

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