Jan 12, 2012

Van Gogh: The Life more delirium than starry night

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Van Gogh: The Life



The light-splashed colors of Vincent van Gogh's late paintings belie the dark narrative of his tragic life. Or, in another way of looking at them, the riotous pigments and swirling images reflect the state of his addled brain, maybe even epilepsy. Either way, he remains simultaneously one of the most acclaimed and pitiable figures in the long history of art, a doleful story familiar even to non-art lovers.

Now here is his story again, laid out again in staggering detail (868 pages, 6,000 pages of 28,000 notes available online) in Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga.

It's a tour de force of biography, 10 years in the making and containing new revelations about an already much-examined life. This is thanks to the authors' (and a team of translators) access to newly translated letters of van Gogh, a man for whom writing letters was almost as important as painting. Or breathing.

This is a well-written book, extraordinarily thorough and admirably restrained, even sympathetic to its subject. Nevertheless, van Gogh (1853-1890) emerges in these pages as a deeply unsympathetic, unlikable man, no matter that much of his infuriating, bipolar behavior was likely the result of his toxic inheritance of family insanity.
It is not an easy book thanks to all of the above. Prepare for mourning.

The yawning gulf between how van Gogh was perceived during his lifetime and how he is perceived now is heartbreaking, reminding us that the artistic verities of one era don't always carry into the next. (Recall that "impressionist" originally was a journalist's sneering epithet.)

In contrast with his end-of-life paintings, the expressive and emotion-drenched pictures that are the familiar wallpaper of our culture today, Vincent's early drawings were stubbornly dark, morose and utterly noncommercial. Even his late paintings, produced in a feverish last few years, were off-putting to his contemporaries, including many of the major painters of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist period. He never sold but one painting in his lifetime, did not get a good press review until just weeks before his death.

Yet today his paintings routinely command eight and nine figures; the list of 40 top-selling paintings of all time includes seven by van Gogh, rivaled only by Picasso's 10.

Vincent seems to have been born with a personality disorder at the very least. Despised and eventually rejected by virtually everyone he ever encountered, including members of his exasperated family, his name today adorns museums and exhibits that attract millions of admiring pilgrims. Hit pop songs have been written about van Gogh; few sing about Gauguin or Monet.

Vincent was intelligent, educated (spoke multiple languages), well-read and well-versed in art theory. He was also angry, alienated and extremely odd from childhood, born into a family of middle-class Dutch respectability with experience in the art world and a hidden history of madness and suicide over multiple generations, which the authors document. Van Gogh was sometimes so incoherent and inconsistent he could argue opposite sides of an artistic argument in the same letter, the authors report. Throughout his life he caromed between depressed isolation and religious ecstasy, self-denial and extravagant overspending, tenderness and paranoia.

Later, Vincent contracted from prostitutes a common ailment of the period, syphilis, which in the late stage leads to insanity. His beloved younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh, who supported him financially, artistically and emotionally via the mail, also had syphilis and died raving in an asylum just six months after Vincent.

The authors also discuss the probability that Vincent suffered from latent temporal lobe epilepsy, which seized hold of him with what they call a "fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain." They make a plausible argument that Starry Night (1889), one of the most famous and beloved paintings ever put to canvas, was at least influenced by a disordered brain.

"Guided only by 'feeling and instinct,' like the ancient Egyptians, he painted a night sky unlike any the world had ever seen with ordinary eyes: a kaleidoscope of pulsating beacons, whirlpools of stars, radiant clouds, and a moon that shone as brightly as any sun — a fireworks of cosmic light and energy visible only in Vincent's head," they write.

Yet what might have led to great art definitely put Vincent in an insane asylum, with half of one earlobe famously sliced off. At the end, he was trapped in a cauldron of furious delirium and terrifying hallucinations, not to mention impotence and rotting teeth. He was dead in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, at age 37 by his own hand (the official story), or was helped along to the afterlife by a gang of tormenting French schoolboys with an old gun (maybe). This latter revelation, which has received a good deal of attention, is plausibly argued in a detailed appendix.

No matter how he died, the previous 850 pages of this book make it plain that Vincent wanted to die. He was dying anyway — of syphilis, of loneliness and despair, of guilt he was a burden to his family, of the fear he was a failure as an artist, unloved and unappreciated until it was too late.

So why return to this sad saga, especially in such detail? In our post-modern era it's considered uncool to explore the artist behind the art. Not so in Vincent's era, the authors explain. No one more than he believed in the importance of biography in art; he always said that his art was a record of his turbulent life.

"No one could truly see his paintings without knowing his story," the authors write, and then quote Vincent: "As my work is, so am I."




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Impressionists broke with convention to change the way we see the world

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Constable's The Hay Wain is probably the most popular of all English art. We see it often on calendars and in books. A famous English critic said that it inspired Impressionist painting. The painters themselves were furious and they said that Impressionism was a natural growth: it was a reaction against several centuries of what is called Classical painting.

To say that The Hay Wain inspired Impressionism was nonsense. All the painters in this revolution were individuals and even though we hear about the school of Impressionism, there was no such school. They were all fiercely self-motivated. Most of them lived in Paris or nearby and they met quite often in some congenial cafe.

Cezanne, even though he was probably the most individual of all, regularly attended but sat in the quietest corner and seldom spoke. Between those painters there was, of course, envy and jealousy but the sense of camaraderie overcame all. They were young men embarked on a great adventure and this more than made up for any ill-feeling between them.

Manet was the most articulate of them all. He made one of the few puns in the Latin language -- Manet et manebit --which means more or less, I am Manet and I will remain. There was no record of Van Gogh ever attending those meetings. He said "I have nothing to learn from Impressionism." And he probably hadn't. The Impressionists created a revolution that has lasted down to the present day. The critics scorned them and, of course, the public followed the critics and many of the painters were lucky to have a private income.

We saw a similar reaction in Irish poetry. The classical tradition reached its ultimate in the work of Aogan O Raghallaigh. It was like Welsh poetry. It was based on complex structure. You can see a reaction in the poetry of Owen Roe O'Sullivan. You could call this romantic poetry as distinct from classical poetry. Owen Roe is probably the most popular of all the Irish poets.

The Impressionists broke all the rules: they used colours in combinations that had never been seen before. They broke even the rule of perspective so that some things got bigger as they receded. This was sheer apostasy. Even though Cezanne did not think of himself as an Impressionist, he did not use concentional perspective.

He did this deliberately but when he painted his most popular work about the countryside around his homeplace, he kept to the rules fairly well.

Cezanne was lucky in his father: he was a solicitor and a businessman but he gave his son an income that would last him all his life. He spent his early years in Paris with his friend Zola. His friend wrote a novel in which he depicts Cezanne as a failure but he became more popular as the works of Zola lost favour.

Novel

Has there been a similar revolution in the English Novel? It is hard to say. There have been several attempts. Joyce may have thought that he created a revolution with Ulysses but nobody followed him. The book is rubbish except in the minds of American 'scholars'. DH Lawrence described it as "A mess of pottage" and it is hard not to agree.

We will go back to the Impressionists. Manet's Girl Behind The Bar In The Olympia is deemed the greatest of all the Impressionist paintings. Monet became famous as a painter of flowers. Utrillo became famous for his paintings of the rooftops of Paris. Van Gogh, even though he claimed to owe nothing to the Impressionists, left behind a marvellous painting of Paris at night as seen from a cafe in Monmartre. We cannot but be impressed by Impressionism even if we do not admit it.

Cezanne stayed on in Paris until the war came and then he went back to the South and painted the countryside all around him. Many people deem this his best work: that was natural because in both senses he was very much at home there. His most famous painting in this period is his Chestnut Trees In The Jas de Bouffan. And his depictions of the hilly country around his birthplace are all evocative and memorable.

He was respected and liked by a little group of intellectuals in his hometown and so his life wasn't as unhappy as he gave us to believe. He painted and painted with great dedication until one day he collapsed on the roadside and was brought home in a post office van. On the morrow he was up and painting but he died two days later of pneumonia. He is now more popular than ever.




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Emily Brontë portrait goes under the hammer

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Painting set to fetch £4,000 at auction, a month after smaller portrait of Wuthering Heights author was sold for £24,000



Emily Brontë portrait for sale
A detail of the Emily Brontë portrait expected to fetch between £3,000 and £4,000 at auction.
 
 
For the second time in two months, a previously unknown portrait captioned "Emily Brontë" is to be auctioned, showing the Wuthering Heights author as a winsome but pensive young woman.

Painted in oils and with the subject gazing directly at the artist with clear brown eyes, the picture is less formal and possibly more flattering than the smaller, bonneted study that sold in December for £23,836, exceeding the reserve price of £10,000-£15,000.

Measuring 33 by 24cms (13 by 9.5ins), the painting has been reliably sourced to the mid-19th century and has a note of the subject probably made by the artist around the time of painting. But absolute attribution is unlikely, as has been the case with most supposed Brontë portraits apart from the famous study of the sisters painted in 1835 by their brother, Branwell.

The painting has been sent for auction by the Northamptonshire firm JP Humbert, which handled the "bonnet picture" sale. Jonathan Humbert said a private owner brought the portrait into the firm's office after reading about the previous sale. "One unknown portrait of Emily Brontë is lucky enough, but two in two months is quite remarkable," he said. "I am amazed that both have turned up on our doorstep."

Anything with a Brontë tag appears to sell well, although uncertainty about the authenticity of the latest picture has seen the reserve set at between £3,000 and £4,000. Last month the Haworth Parsonage museum, which has the world's greatest trove of Brontë relics, was outbid by a Paris museum for a miniature magazine made by Charlotte Brontë when she was 14.

The dainty handwritten manuscript was bought at Sotheby's by the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits for £690,850, more than twice the reserve and a record for a literary work by any of the three sisters. The price of the bonnet painting was driven up on the same day by determined phone bidding to Northampton from the US.



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Picasso and Mondrian paintings stolen

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Picasso and Mondrian paintings stolen in dawn raid at Greece's biggest art museum

  • Sketch by Italian painter Caccia also taken
 
Burglars broke into Greece's biggest art museum this morning and stole two paintings and a sketch.

Pablo Picasso's 1939 Woman's Head and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian's Mill were taken in the dawn raid at Athens' National Art Gallery.

They also took a sketch by Italian painter Guglielmo Caccia, donated to the gallery in 1907.

Stolen: Picasso's Woman's Head painting was taken in a dawn raid
Pen and ink drawing by 16th century Italian painter Guglielmo Caccia
Stolen: Pablo Picasso's Women's Head (left) and Guglielmo Caccia's sketch (right) were both taken from the National Art Gallery in Athens


Taken: Piet Mondrian's oil painting Mill was also stolen in the early morning raid
Taken: Piet Mondrian's oil painting Mill was also stolen in the early morning raid


The value of the pieces have not been revealed. But the Picasso, given to the Greeks by the artist himself in 1949, is thought to be worth at least several hundred thousands pounds.

Mondrian's 1905 painting Landscape was dropped on the floor as the thieves made their getaway, police said.  

The burglars entered through a balcony door. They had intentionally set off alarms on several occasions, at 4.30am, without actually entering the building, prompting guards to disable at least one.

The burglars still triggered a sensor in the exhibition area, but a guard only got there in time to see a man running off.


Crime scene: Greek police collect evidence next to a broken door outside the National Gallery
Crime scene: Greek police collect evidence next to a broken door outside the National Gallery


An official said: 'After the alarm went off the guard discovered that the two paintings were missing. Another was lying on the floor. 

'It all happened in seven minutes'. Police are still investigating if any other art is missing.    

Picasso had donated the cubist female bust 'in homage to the Greek people' for their resistance to Nazi occupiers during World War II.

The National Gallery's collection also includes a Mondrian drawing entitled the Study of Flower.

In October, police in Serbia recovered two paintings by Picasso stolen in 2008 from a gallery in Switzerland and worth millions of dollars.    


Warning: Museum bosses said the alarm went off just after 5am but the thieves escaped undetected
Warning: Museum bosses said the alarm went off just after 5am but the thieves escaped undetected

In September Greece recovered a painting by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens stolen from a museum in Belgium in 2001 and arrested two Greeks who tried to sell it to undercover police for about one million euros.

And only last week the £2.75 million René Magritte painting Olympia, which was stolen at gunpoint from a Brussels museum two years ago, was handed back.

The thieves decided to cut their losses after it failed to sell on the black market.








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