Richard Shone

The optimism of a suicide

A postal strike would have been a disaster for Van Gogh.

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Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker

Thames & Hudson, pp. , £

A postal strike would have been a disaster for Van Gogh. Letters were his lifeline and consolation. Not only did he receive through the mail his regular allowance from his brother Theo but, in letter after letter in return, he poured out his thoughts and feelings, recorded his work in progress and conveyed his impressions of books, people and places. In his often solitary existence, he was an avid recipient and kept in touch with a variety of correspondents, especially when he was in the South of France during the last two years of his life.

The glory must be shared, however, with Theo, in that he kept Vincent’s letters, many of which contained drawings, either appended or on the sheet itself, surrounded by his tumble of words. These letters have long been published in various editions, establishing themselves as one of the great correspondences of the world. Now we have been given them afresh in six superb volumes. They are the fruit of 15 years’ scholarly labour on the part of the three Dutch editors at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. It is surely one of the finest publications of our time, in the way that production and scholarship match the extraordinary human and aesthetic interest of the story that is revealed.

Many potential readers may feel that Van Gogh’s life is so well known to them that these volumes, however attractive, are superfluous. This is not the case. Although it must be admitted that there are no startlingly new revelations, the gains are manifold. To have the over 800 extant letters, along with other related documents and letters to, rather than from, Vincent, in a fully annotated and illustrated edition, places them beyond all other publications on this complex and endlessly fascinating man. At the same time they make us think again about his position in the broader history of art.

It has hard to gauge Van Gogh’s current reputation, aside from the immense fame of his name and the allure of his severed ear and suicide. Exhibitions and books still proliferate; cheap pastiches of his work abound for the tourist market; he is a star-turn of the auction houses; and the Van Gogh Museum remains a place of pilgrimage for an international audience. No history of the development of modern painting can possibly omit him. But his influence as a painter, at its strongest in the first decade of the last century, has inevitably waned, now that he has taken his place in the canon, and the image of a crazed, untutored Kirk Douglas as Vincent in Lust for Life (1956) has long since faded from the general public’s perception. Perhaps Francis Bacon was the last considerable figure to have received a direct inspirational hit from Van Gogh’s work.

But it might be said that it is his drawings rather than his paintings that continue to be influential, showing his astonishing progress as an artist perhaps even more acutely than do the paintings. A wonderful feature of these volumes is the reproduction of every extant drawing he sent to Theo, sometimes more resolved and pointful because they were made after a particular painting had been finished and were intended as a record to keep his brother informed of his current work. Great draughtsmanship is at the heart of even his most blazing and spontaneous canvases.

Furthermore, this edition also illustrates, even if only at stamp-size, nearly every work of art Vincent mentions in his letters, ranging from the old masters to his contemporaries such as Seurat and Gauguin. Considering that, as an art dealer early on, Vincent saw, handled and wrote about hundreds of paintings and prints, this was a brave editorial decision. Along the way we are thus treated to dozens of preachy, sentimental Victorian works, now mostly forgotten, which Van Gogh poured over, particularly during his stay in London in the early 1870s. To see these reproduced here is to recognise even more fully the huge (and welcome) transformation of his taste and practice once he had become a painter full-time.

Parallel with his appetite for art was his voracious reading in Dutch, French and English (and he wrote in all three languages). Long extracts from poetry and history were copied out by hand and sent with his letters. He greatly enjoyed Keats, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot (particularly Adam Bede), as well as Bossuet, Michelet, Balzac, Zola and Daudet. But his own style of writing was by no means literary (once he had passed the stage of constantly echoing the Bible). He is direct and conversational, not blessed with much humour (save sardonic flashes) and, early on in the correspondence, rather a bore on his youthful troubles, such as his highly strained relations with his pastor father.

Like his paintings, Van Gogh’s letters reach out beyond himself. The most mundane of painted motifs — a jug of flowers, a chair, a pair of shoes — have a force and allusiveness that endow them with a life that transcends the simplistic or a drift into sentimentality. In the earlier letters the questions of ‘how to live’ and ‘how to be useful’ are faced (but not answered) with Christian zeal; later, once painting is his sole preoccupation, the necessity of self- expression, fuelled by absolute honesty, answers those questions. When he felt his mastery of his chosen medium was running away from him, owing to his increasing periods of madness, he killed himself. But what is so exhilarating is that self-pity and whining play a minor role. It is Van Gogh’s optimism and enthusiasm that win us, alongside his practicality and terre-à-terre appraisal of a given situation.

Read chronologically, the letters unfold as an unconscious autobiography. The only substantial gap in the narrative is the two years (1886-88) in which he lived with Theo in Paris, when, of course, there was no need to correspond. It was then that Vincent awoke to and embraced ‘modern’ painting as it was happening around him in the studios he visited and the artists’ groups he joined. How we would have liked this Dutchman’s take on the café life into which he was drawn but which he felt compelled to leave behind on his fateful journey south to the provincial town of Arles. But it was there that he painted everything that is the raison d’être for this magnificent publication.