Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Another Perspective on Van Gogh

V. Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889
CLICK on all art to enlarge!
No question that Facebook has been cutting into my blog writing, but here's a blog post inspired by an on-line discussion of Van Gogh, and I think it extends into the whole media perception of artists, visual and even musical and film: we love our artists tortured.

There's no better tortured artist than Van Gogh, and for a century, we've speculated on just how tortured he was. Certainly, he had issues. His depressions are well documented, and there's evidence that he was self destructive, possibly to the point of losing an ear (though a recent theory blames Gauguin for cutting it off!).

But does his art, with it's explosions of color and strangely tight, yet disconnected, strokes reflect the breakup of his wits? Some have suggested it's a reflection of his world breaking up around him. Some have suggested he suffered from astigmatism and couldn't see clearly (then how could he see the canvas well enough to put the pain on it?). Perhaps signs of absinthe poisoning?

If you follow the textbooks you know it's any or all of these things. BUT...

If you're an artist, you know that art is a discipline more than anything. To get better at expressing yourself, even unleashing your inner demons, you have to develop a skill and a technique and that can take years. Besides, Making art makes you feel GOOD. Even if you, or Vincent, are having a terrible time, spending a few hours just painting or drawing is a wonderful escape. It's calming and, as I like to say, it's like running a comb through your brain.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I saw the things you never see-- his beginning paintings, the art that influenced him, and he was placed within the context of HIS period, and not ours. And a very different Vincent emerged.
According to my friend: "...when you look at the development of his artistic style over the course of his career, his illness manifests itself very clearly in his brushstrokes and use of colors..."
To which I say: "Sure it would seem so, but when you go to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam you find a bunch of interesting things that dispel the myths. There's a wall of his paintings as a beginning artist. He starts out pretty average, but works with great discipline, producing up to three paintings a day, just to develop his skill. A lot of people forget that art is a skill that requires years to develop, both technically and strategically. 

Left, Woodblock print by the Japanese Master Hiroshige.
Right, Van Gogh's painting of the same

Secondly, Japanese woodblock prints (Hiroshige, et al) were taking Europe by storm due to the vividness or their colors and the use of broad, flat abstract areas of color, in contrast to the typical earthy European pallet (and consider how dark and moody the Dutch pallet had been prior to that modern age. There are paintings where Van Gogh copies Japanese prints, and paints in the style of those prints to learn how to use colors in that way. (you don't see those outside of the museum, much). The Asian influence, along with the desire to shock the establishment, were the biggest influences on impressionism. In that regard, he was just going along with the rest of the kids. And then there was the German influence. At the same time the Impressionists were horrifying the art world with their raw imagery, German chemical companies had discovered how to produce vivid colors that fueled the impressionists' madness.

And finally, he and his brother Theo owned an extensive collection of Gustav Dore's etchings, and you can find that illustrative style of strokes used by Van Gogh in both his drawings and in his paintings, where he was a pioneer of "non-painting" brushwork, but not the only one in his day (look at Seurat's pointillistic paintings).  
One of Van Gogh's drawings, utilizing the same kind
of strokes he used to apply paint.
Drawing of Montmajour.

Van Gogh may have suffered from debilitating mental issues, but he was also an extremely disciplined, dedicated pioneer."

I'd also go so far as to reiterate that
I'm not sure whether his art was the expression of the illness or an escape from it.  

Dore's original
"Prisoner's Exercising."

Van Gogh's painting of Dore's
"Prisoners Exercising"

Images from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Are you more curious? Check out the museum's website: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en

Special thanks to Carl Allen Salonen.