The Letters of Van Gogh

What makes a good letter writer? Interesting letters. What makes letters interesting? Simplicity, directness, topicality, insight into oneself and others, spontaneity, and in most cases, genuine intimacy. Letters written for publication may be good literature for other reasons, but they are really just a special form of essay. What we want in a collection of letters is unconscious autobiography. If the writer is a great artist or a profound thinker or an important historical figure, so much the better. Van Gogh certainly fits all these desiderata. He is the ideal letter writer, and his Collected Letters is almost as important as his collected paintings would be and much more easily domesticated. They are not only intimate, revealing, beautifully written, but they have a special sort of sweet profundity about them that is unmatched by anyone else. What other letters could provide a popular actor with an extremely successful concert repertory? Yet there is nothing theatrical about them. They are as quiet as a conversation by the fireside in a Dutch parsonage. We think of Van Gogh as a fierce, rabid sort of personality. Perhaps this is all legend. The letters are so gentle, modest — I guess the word is endearing. And every letter is haunted by the pathos of Van Gogh’s life.

The correspondence of the great artists and idealists in the history of Western Man is mostly about money. The more unworldly they were, the more it is about money. They found it scarce. They worried about it all the time. They nagged and cajoled and begged to get it. The personal correspondence of millionaires is never about money. In fact, it is considered excessively bad form ever to mention money among the rich, except in a place of business between the hours of ten and three.

It isn’t just capitalism. We don’t have the real letters, but the set pieces, the verse letters of Horace and Catullus, are at least implicitly about money. And it isn’t even just Western Man — the Chinese poet Tu Fu is every bit as bad. The poets and artists who did not write letters about money are unknown to history — they did not survive. Everybody knows why this is. Unless the artist is in league with magic, miracle, mystery and authority, as Dostoevski put it, he may even get rich — like Rubens — but he never has what nowadays is known as security. And so he frets and schemes and begs. Blake, Baudelaire, Rembrandt, Michelangelo — Van Gogh is no exception. But if not an exception, he at least differs in several interesting ways.

In the first place, he was not a very revolutionary artist. In fact, his early painting was the conventional “proletarian art” of the period. Sculptors like Meunier and painters like Millet were already rich from doing the same sort of thing. Then he changed to a kind of painting that was becoming quite chic, and which has remained, if not chic, at least extremely fashionable among the more conservative, and which has become fabulously expensive — the brightly colored, highly decorative painting produced on the border or transition zone of Neo- and Post-Impressionism. This is the last period in Western art to be genuinely popular and Van Gogh is the most popular of all. Large color prints of The Sunflowers, The Postman, The Arlésienne, The Chair, The Poolroom, The Bedroom and the others can be found decorating the over-mantel space, not in the homes of intellectuals, or even the educated, but in the homes of Negro janitors, Filipino bus boys, in the parlors of Polish auto workers in Hamtramck and Hungarian steel workers in Gary.

When the first big Van Gogh comprehensive show came to San Francisco before the Second World War, the Southern Pacific ran a “Sunflower Special,” with a blow-up of the picture at the tail of the observation car, on each of its routes into town. The Palace of the Legion of Honor was accessible only after an hour’s wait. This went on for weeks and broke all records for art exhibitions anywhere in the world. The intellectuals thought it was simply dreadful and did nothing but bitch. It was back in the salad days of the John Reed Clubs when all the really au courant young minds were busy debating the theses of Leopold Auerbach on Proletarian Culture.

The ordinary people who buy reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings and hang them on the wall think they are pretty. They make the sitting room more cheery. It killed Van Gogh to paint them. Did it? Is this true? Is Van Gogh some sort of Rimbaud or Dylan Thomas, burned alive in the fire of his own vision? Everybody assumes so, and the assumption is implicit in almost all the immense number of books written about him. I think it is false.

Van Gogh may have been a lay saint, but he was a simple kind of saint, like Brother Lawrence or St. Theresa of Lisieux, not a tormented one, like St. Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross or the characters of Dostoevski and Bernanos. Nobody can read these eighteen hundred pages of ingenuous communication and believe anything else unless he is totally blinded by presuppositions. If you believe that everybody must carry around an abysm in his heart, as Baudelaire said of Pascal; if you are like the French Catholic intellectuals who write articles for Esprit — “De Sade Belongs to Us!” — if you believe that every notorious evil-liver was seeking illumination and every disastrous life was really a clandestine career of piety; in other words, if you hold the presently fashionable apocalyptic view of human destiny; you can find it in Van Gogh if you are bigoted and persistent enough.

Van Gogh had visions, but of miners and potato-peelers at first and then of sunflowers and chairs, never of angels or demons. They excited him, but they did not trouble him the way Ivan Karamazov’s visions of similar simple things troubled him. In his young days he was a lay preacher, not a very successful one, to be sure. He never thought of himself as bringing a torch to the countryside and the slums. His favorite episodes of the Gospel were incidents like the supper at Emmaus, the widow’s mite, the marriage at Cana. He thought of Jesus not as coming to bring a sword to the heart of an intellectual like Paul, but to bring just a little peace and dignity and rest to exhausted and brutalized human beings in slums and hovels. There is something profoundly Dutch about this kind of unpretentious evangelism. It is in Rembrandt, of course, but it goes back to late medieval Pietism, the Beguines and Beghards, Blessed Jan Ruysbroeck, Thomas à Kempis — a movement which involved the whole society of the Lowlands for centuries and which survives today in sects like the Mennonites. Nothing less like Baudelaire exciting himself with a Black Mass in his mistress’s boudoir can be imagined.

What was wrong with Van Gogh then? Why did he do all those crazy things that make such successful movies of his life? Something physical. There is a bit by a psychiatrist in the documents appended to these letters. It is amusing because it is in the jabberwocky of an only recently abandoned school of psychiatry and makes you realize what jabberwocky our own psychiatry will be in another fifty years. And it says absolutely nothing. Van Gogh, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea: “I have been a bit beat the way I used to be in the past, when I had that venereal trouble in the Hague and got myself looked after in the hospital.” His friends had a good idea, too — the most obvious explanation. He lived a bachelor life. Artists need somebody to see that they eat. He used to paint all day in the fields without eating, come home and try to satisfy his hunger with some burned beans he had left on the stove and instead go out and quiet the demands of his stomach with liquor — pastis, probably, the little absinthe of Provence. By night he was drunk. Still excited by the day’s painting and with no place else to go, he went to the whorehouses and raised Cain.

Now you can raise all the Cain you want in a whorehouse if you pay for it, but Van Gogh didn’t have the money. This made him very unpopular in Arles and seems to have been one of the chief complaints of the neighbors. Such habits are annoying, but there is nothing apocalyptic about them, nothing even existentialist or eschatological. I have known dozens of the most mundane overworked commercial artists who behaved in exactly the same fashion every night. It didn’t make them immortal. The snippet Van Gogh took off his ear may have made him familiar to the readers of the movie magazines; it is irrelevant to his immortality. But normal people eat, marry by the time they are his age, don’t go around dressed in filthy shirt and pants covered by a ragged overcoat which has been used all winter as a paint rag. Van Gogh was abnormal; as Hokusai said of himself, he was an old man crazy about painting. He was too busy to bother, and then one day it was too late. A lot of simple things like alcohol, pellagra, spirochetes, possibly slight brain damage dating from his birth (he seems to have had mild epileptiform attacks all his life) converged on him and struck him down. Like people who make the cover of Time, he died of overwork.

Much has been made of his relations with his family. It is certainly true — to use our own jabberwocky — that the key to a psychosis is to be sought in the family constellation. I see nothing wrong with Van Gogh’s and I have read all these eighteen hundred pages, mostly of very affectionate correspondence with, of course, his brother Theo, but also with all his family. Given the late nineteenth century, a Dutchman, a painter, a large family, a father who is a small-town parson, genteel poverty, the results seem to me, not just exemplary, to use Van Gogh’s own estimate of his family, but positively ideal. It won’t do to identify Van Gogh with the great revolts of his period. Oedipus Complex, Mother Fixation, Sibling Rivalry. If every twentieth-century American family had as few of these bogeys haunting them as the Van Goghs did, we’d all be a lot better off. Van Gogh is not a kind of self-taught Strindberg in paint, and the attempt to make him such is a sort of historical proselytism.

Of course, most of the letters begin “Dear Theo,” and there are those who have made much of this, as they have made much of his last days with Gauguin before the breakdown. In the first place, Theo kept all his letters; they are the ones which survive. In the second place, those who find “a struggle with suppressed homosexuality” in the love of men, brothers or not, united in work to which they are passionately devoted, need to stop reading books and go to work. Gauguin is a worse than worthless witness; the Van Gogh family have disdainfully omitted only his letters from the documents of this collection — and rightly so. Gauguin was that most despicable sort of Bohemian, the artist who sponges on other artists because he hasn’t the courage to attempt the rich. Even professional panhandlers and pickpockets would rather starve than prey on their own kind. So such a person is always rotten with guilt, always backbiting and boasting, always trying to kick himself free from his benefactors. Van Gogh’s kindly, wistful letters about Gauguin at Arles are far saner than Gauguin’s own sickening self-justifications, which are, in fact, quite paranoiac and add up to the claim that he “taught Van Gogh to paint and it was too much for his simple brain to take.”

We try to fit Van Gogh’s objectives into our own, we try to assimilate his art to our own Post-Surrealist, Post-Existentialist aesthetics. It won’t fit. He knew very well what he was doing, step by step. He is still a boy and at home, and has been writing Theo about the Barbizon peasant painters, Millet, Breton and the rest, and the Dutch painters of the working class:

Uncle Cor asked me today if I didn’t like “Phryne” by Gérome. I told him I would rather see a homely woman by Israels or Millet, or an old woman by Edouard Frère: for what’s the use of a beautiful body such as Phryne’s?

Eventually, he was to discover that his evangelism was on the wrong track. He realized when he saw the brilliance of Impressionist painting that this was what he wanted. He wanted to do certain things with it and use it for certain purposes. At the height of his achievement during the last days at Arles he speaks again and again of carrying on the work of Monticelli and Brias, the painters of the Midi. Now what Monticelli, like Raffaelli and even Redon did, was to use the broken color of Impressionism for decorative rather than representational ends. Van Gogh knew exactly what he was doing. And for what ends? In a curious unconscious way he seems to have had a premonition of modern color reproduction. (As everybody knows, he was devoted to Japanese prints.) Although he and Theo had to think of selling the paintings to “rich Americans” (for a maximum of $125!), he always writes about them as if they were going straight from his easel to the walls of the simple people who sat for his portraits. And he had discovered that what these people wanted was not a somber, gnarled painting of a starving woman peeling rotten potatoes:

I have just said to Gauguin about this picture [La Berceuse] that when he and I were talking about the fishermen of Iceland and of their mournful isolation, exposed to all dangers, alone on the sad sea — I have just said to Gauguin that following those intimate talks of ours came the idea to paint a picture in such a way that sailors, who are at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of their Icelandic fishing boat, would feel the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own lullabies. Now it may be that it is like a chromolithograph from a cheap shop. A woman in green with orange hair standing out against a background of green with pink flowers. Now these discordant sharps of crude pink, crude orange and crude green are softened by flats of red and green.

Overworked, undernourished, alcoholic — in those days at Arles, Van Gogh had exalted visions, but they were visions of the utter substantiality of the real. “This, Sir,” said Sam Johnson to Boswell as he kicked the rock and solved once for all the Epistemological Dilemma, “is the ineluctable modality of the visible!” Chairs, tables, beds, pool tables, people, fields, trees, flowers, caught up in the simplest decorative patterns, naïve, gaudy, but designed to bring a little peace and dignity and rest and even glory to people with the most ordinary tastes — like the marriage at Cana and the supper at Emmaus. Dutch, pietistic, evangelical — the lay evangelism of ordinary reality.

An age that prides itself on its self-consciousness and “alienation” may judge Van Gogh to be a minor painter, a decorator, who produced glorified pin-ups for sailors’ cabins, but there is no question about the letters. He was indisputably one of the very greatest letter writers who ever lived. You can’t get so refined that you cannot recognize his collected letters as one of the major classics of the world’s literature, another of the Hundred Best Books the man forgot to put on that list.



This review of The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh originally appeared in The Nation (13 December 1958) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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