Last month in Canada Automattic had its annual meetup reunion. I did a short talk on some of my favourite passages from Van Gogh’s letters.
Vincent often represents the paradigmatic idea of the tortured artist, whose work is seen both as the brilliant deliriums of a madman and yet inconceivable without some kind of mental distress. It is portrayed as the great result of an illness. I believe such a vision does an incredible disservice to his work, his creative genius, and his suffering.
We have the privilege that a vast collection of his letters — mostly sent to his brother Theo — have been preserved. One of their most striking aspects is the great insight, eloquence, knowledge, serenity, and awareness that he displays in them. The evolution of his style follows a determination to find beauty and a very precise artistic expression.
All kinds of eccentric and bad things are thought and said about me, which makes me feel somewhat forlorn now and then, but on the other hand it concentrates my attention on the things that never change — that is to say, the eternal beauty of nature.
The Hague, 1882
At a time that art theory recognises as the birth of the avant-garde movements, it’s wise to recall that the artists weren’t necessarily seeking novelty, but often instead trying to return to a sense of purity and directness in their contact with the world that may had been forgotten by art.
What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.
Van Gogh tried — unsuccessfully — to create a community of artists in southern France with the purpose of working together in the pursuit of great art. An intrinsic obstacle for this effort was, in his mind, the inability of artists to collaborate:
However, I shan’t labour the point, because I realize that life carries us along so fast that we haven’t the time to talk and to work as well. That is the reason why, with unity still a long way off, we are now sailing the trackless deep in our frail little boats, all alone on the high seas of our time. Is it a renaissance? Is it a decline? We cannot judge, because we are too close to it not to be deceived by distorted perspectives.
He often writes with close attention about the works of other masters. The following is a great description of Rembrandt, for instance:
This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. He is dreaming, dreaming, and his brush takes up his self-portrait again, but this time from memory, and the expression on the face becomes sadder and more saddening, He dreams, dreams on, and why or how I cannot tell, but — as Socrates and Mohammed had their guardian spirits, so Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.
And finally, the impulse behind a sense of purpose constantly emerges from his writing; a sense of figuring out what was important to him and how to develop his craft towards his ideals.
On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed. But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.