Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Vincent van Gogh

I can't imagine what I could say about Vincent van Gogh that hasn't been said a hundred times already, but I'll sure give it a try; for a man whose brief life and prolific career were spent in utter obscurity, his posthumous fame has meant that almost anyone can provide a thumbnail sketch of him: unheralded in his lifetime, bit of a nutter, cut off his ear, committed suicide... This is the kind of Q rating many an art school brat would give, well, their left ear to a prostitute named Rachel to achieve...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1853, van Gogh lived only 37 years; yet how many people on their fortieth, fiftieth, or sixtieth birthdays can say they've lived as much as he did in the short time he allotted to himself, felt as much, expressed as much... To many he is the quintessential artist, while to those who don't fully understand the mechanics of an artist's life and mind he may seem merely self-indulgent, as if that were a bad thing.

Van Gogh may have painted from madness, he may have acquired madness from painting - literally; the use of lead-based paints may have been his undoing. This is not so dangerous in itself, but the fact that he used to eat the paints (possibly in an ill-advised attempt to infuse himself with the colours) was. Nevertheless the uneasy balance he achieved, and was able to maintain - at least until he shot himself in July 1890 - had already fascinated the general public for a decade prior to 1934, when Irving Stone's biographical novel Lust for Life was published.

When the book was later adapted into a movie of the same name, many questioned the wisdom of casting tough-guy Kirk Douglas in the lead role; yet Douglas' personal vigour matched van Gogh's own workaholism (possibly induced by a manic condition known as hypergraphia, which is the overwhelming compulsion to write - a condition about which I know nothing) as much as the actor's appreciation for visual art, which is evident in the size of his own well-known art collection, housed at his home at Palm Springs. The artist has also been portrayed by Tchéky Karyo in the 1990 film Vincent and Me, Tim Roth in Robert Altman's film Vincent & Theo from the same year, and Jacques Dutronc in the following year's Van Gogh, directed by Maurice Pialat.

In the end, van Gogh could have had no better executor than his brother Theo who, along with Dr. Paul Gachet (as often described as van Gogh's patron as he is the man who failed to treat his depression) did as much to further the painter's reputation after his death as the painter himself did to earn it while still alive. English critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell (affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group, whose members knew a thing or two about the connection between creativity and madness) brought the life and works of van Gogh to the attention of the English-speaking world as early as 1924; publication of Vincent's letters to Theo in book form have allowed professionals and amateurs alike to delve into the complicated psyche of one of the greatest artists of all time, providing an array of medical and psychological diagnoses as well as the necessary lore to make Vincent van Gogh a genuine cultural - not to mention pop cultural - icon.

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