VIN­CENT’S HAR­VEST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

in­cent van Gogh was born in 1853 and died by ap­par­ent sui­cide in 1890; Arthur Rim­baud was born in 1854 and died af­ter the am­pu­ta­tion of a leg in 1891. These al­most ex­act con­tem­po­raries, each only 37 at his death, be­came paradig­matic fig­ures of the mod­ern pain­ter and poet, partly be­cause of their re­mark­able tal­ent, but equally be­cause of their pro­foundly dis­turbed characters and tragic lives.

Rim­baud was a pre­co­cious genius who could com­pose so­phis­ti­cated po­ems in Latin at 14 and made his mark as an avant-garde poet while still a school­boy. He formed a re­la­tion­ship with the older and al­ready fa­mous poet Paul Ver­laine, which ended in a quar­rel in Brussels dur­ing which Ver­laine fired a pis­tol at his young lover. But by 21 Rim­baud had turned away from po­etry and spent the rest of his life trav­el­ling from Java to Cyprus, even­tu­ally set­tling in Ethiopia, where he traded cof­fee and oc­ca­sion­ally arms.

Vin­cent — as he pre­ferred to be called, since only the Dutch can pro­nounce his sur­name prop­erly — had a very dif­fer­ent ca­reer path. If Rim­baud flow­ered pre­co­ciously, then dis­ap­peared into a strange af­ter­life, Vin­cent strug­gled through a va­ri­ety of jobs and re­la­tion­ships be­fore find­ing his way as a pain­ter; al­most all of his great paint­ings were pro­duced in a pe­riod of lit­tle more than two years be­fore his death.

There are many mis­un­der­stand­ings about Vin­cent’s life and work, in­clud­ing the idea that he painted un­der the in­spi­ra­tion of mad­ness. The truth is that he was al­ways deeply neu­rotic, un­happy and alien­ated, and his fam­ily con­sid­ered hav­ing him com­mit­ted for in­san­ity dur­ing his 20s. He suf­fered a psy­chotic break­down at the end of 1888, fol­lowed by re­cur­rent episodes in 1889 and 1890. He did not paint dur­ing these at­tacks, how­ever, but only be­tween them.

An­other com­mon fal­lacy is that Vin­cent toiled for years without recog­ni­tion; this fits con­ve­niently with mod­ernist myths about the ob­tuse pub­lic and con­ser­va­tive art world fail­ing to recog­nise avant-garde genius, but less con­ve­niently with the facts. All the work that was later so greatly ad­mired was done af­ter he left Paris for the south of France early in 1888, where he worked in iso­la­tion for the next two years. Had he died in the win­ter of 1887-88, Vin­cent would to­day be a foot­note in art his­tory.

By the end of 1889, thanks to the ef­forts of his brother Theo, some of Vin­cent’s paint­ings had been shown and had at­tracted favourable com­ments. If he had con­tin­ued to paint and ex­hibit in this way, his rep­u­ta­tion would soon have grown; but his sui­cide both ce­mented the myth that he had been over­looked and pro­pelled him into post­hu­mous star­dom.

The myth of Vin­cent has pushed his work to ab­surd prices at auc­tion, and has more re­cently led to one of the more prom­i­nent art con­tro­ver­sies of the past year or two — af­ter the dis­cov­ery of a so-called Car­avag­gio that was clearly never touched by the hand of Michelangelo Merisi. It was an­nounced that a pre­vi­ously un­known sketch­book full of draw­ings by Vin­cent from the early pe­riod of his stay in Ar­les had sud­denly been dis­cov­ered in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances.

A spe­cial­ist in Vin­cent’s work, Bo­gomila Welsh-Ovcharov, de­clared the sketch­book au­then­tic. She se­cured the back­ing of an even more se­nior scholar, Ron­ald Pick­vance, even though the ex­perts at the Van Gogh Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam flatly de­clared the draw­ings to be forg­eries. The sketch­book was duly pub­lished by a re­spectable French pub­lisher, and the English edi­tion is avail­able from gallery book­shops in Aus­tralia: at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Canberra and now at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria as well. And yet that es­teemed con­nois­seur Blind Fred­die could tell that the sup­posed self-por­trait on the cover was not done by Vin­cent. In­side too, the draw­ings are the sort of fee­ble pas­tiches a forger im­i­tat­ing the artist’s man­ner­isms and fa­mil­iar mo­tifs without re­ally un­der­stand­ing his in­spi­ra­tion would pro­duce.

What is most im­por­tant to un­der­stand about Vin­cent is that his late vo­ca­tion as an artist emerged from the fail­ure of ear­lier as­pi­ra­tions. Af­ter at­tempts to make a ca­reer in the fam­ily art-deal­ing busi­ness and stints as a book­seller and teacher, Vin­cent be­came ob­sessed with re- A Wheat­field with Cy­presses

Still life with wild­flow­ers and car­na­tions pota­toes ( Farm­house in Provence li­gion and hoped to be a mis­sion­ary. He was sent on a pro­ba­tion­ary ap­point­ment among the poor coalmin­ers of the Bori­nage area, but be­hav­iour that might have been con­sid­ered saintly in the Mid­dle Ages seemed de­ranged in the mod­ern world, and he was sacked.

He spent a year or so wan­der­ing in a state of dis­ori­en­ta­tion and mis­ery, writ­ing few let­ters and thus leav­ing lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about his ac­tiv­i­ties. But by 1880 he had de­cided to be­come an artist. His in­spi­ra­tion came from pic­tures of the labours of the fields by Jean-Fran­cois Mil­let and the early works are post-Chris­tian im­ages of harsh labour in a fallen world, of hu­man­ity ex­pelled from par­adise just as he had been ex­pelled from the church.

There were more dra­mas: a bro­ken heart and then co­hab­i­ta­tion with a hope­less, drunken, preg­nant and syphilitic pros­ti­tute. But even­tu­ally he found his way to the cul­mi­na­tion of the first half of his paint­ing ca­reer in The Potato Eaters (1885). By then Theo, who was work­ing as an art dealer in Paris, urged him to come and see what the im­pres­sion­ists were do­ing.

By the time Vin­cent came to Paris in 1886, the move­ment had gained ac­cep­tance and new di­rec­tions were rep­re­sented by Seurat’s neo-im­pres­sion­ism as well as the art of Cezanne and Gau­guin. Vin­cent grudg­ingly swapped his dark tonal style for the brighter pal­ette of the im­pres­sion­ists, and sub­se­quently pro­duced a number of works in this man­ner — mostly mi­nor con­tri­bu­tions to late im­pres­sion­ism.

Some­thing im­por­tant hap­pened when, in the spring of 1888, he de­cided to move to the south of France. As his let­ters say, he felt the lessons of im­pres­sion­ism melt­ing away: he had never been in­ter­ested in op­ti­cal ef­fects or the tran­sient mo­ment. He re­turned to the great sym­bolic themes that had in­spired him from the be­gin­ning of his vo­ca­tion as an artist: the peren­nial ac­tiv­i­ties

(sum­mer 1887), above; Plant­ing Septem­ber 1884, Nue­nen), be­low; (June 1888), fac­ing page

Van Gogh’s

(early Septem­ber 1889, Sain­tRemy), left;

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