It is a challenge to arrange my thoughts about this massive book into proper writing.
Van Gogh is undoubtedly one of the most known artists in our time. Van Gogh museum is the most visited museum in the Netherlands, and stands in the top most visited in the world even though the entire museum is devoted to a single artist only. Who does not know Sunflowers
, who has not seen Starry Night
? Oh that color, oh that contour, oh that haziness, those halos, those bright bold colors... And well, someone murmurs, oh that tragic life
Yes, interestingly, I have the distinct feeling that we generally do not become fans of some artists because of some certain paintings in particular, but rather because of artists' fascinating stories, especially considering the fact that modern art is terribly difficult to comprehend and to appreciate (at least in my case). Right, we are captivated by artists' mysterious personalities, their eccentricities, we admire their persistence, their passion, their bravery. And consequently, we mark their artworks as beautiful and our favorites. No matter how much I want to prove that I can actually find the beauty in a certain art work, I cannot help but being aware of the fact that the mere name of its famous author on the label alters my evaluation dramatically. Oh, this is by Rubens, it must be great
, even though Rubens produced paintings in a factory-like manner, in a series of professional workshops, employing an army of specialized artists.
Now, Vincent van Gogh, this Dutch man, has a prominent position in modern art. Despite (or thanks to?) his madness, his loneliness, his poverty, his unfortune, we are deeply moved by his paintings. Sure, there are some works that by themselves can move us, but there are also some others, so intriguing, so... unsettling, that I, honestly, am not attracted to. Their values are derived mainly from the only fact that they are by Vincent.
What happens in this book is that Naifeh and Smith interpret Vincent in a less flattering light, less lyrically.
Vincent is seen as an (almost) complete loser. He was socially awkward and could not fit in at all with the society even his family, no matter how hard he tried and vied for friends and love and undersanding. He strived to live independently but whatever he did, he failed every time. He was cruel to his family. He was an unpleasant and sometimes unbearable companion. He was stubborn and quick-tempered. He was financially incapable and so he lived off from his brother, Theo. And then the most precise word and one repeatedly used by these authors is "delusional." He lied to himself about the non-existent happy past and the unrealizable promising future.
The main source of this book, as well as many biographies of Vincent, is of course Vincent's correspondences, chiefly with Theo. The authors track Vincent's every year meticulously and work through the massive letters and have to present a separate websites for detailed notes. This is indeed a huge project. I have not read all these letters to compare (and not intend to do so) and thus could not determine whether quotations are used properly and interpreted not too narrowly. Whether the authors are capable of diagnosing accurately Vincent's mind remains to be seen. Letters are tricky. Meanings are not straightforward, and writings, as I have been told so many times, are a way of self-fashion. What are his real thoughts? We may never know.
Naifeh and Smith are a bit too harsh in many occasions, but after all, I have to agree that Vincent is a difficult man to love. (And that is the reason that at first I plan to finish this book in one week but then drags it for almost two months. I could not bear him for long, his attitude.) The fact that virtually no one in contact with Vincent can stay with him for long, can grow to like him, tells us something (not even Vincent's mother, father, sisters, but only except for Theo, and yet his relationship with Vincent is quite rocky). I tried, various times, to see his words and behaviors in different angles, put them in more forgiving lights, but after all, sadly, if I could not love him
Yes he did have mental problems, but still that does not mean that it is easier to like him. We can just try to be less stern to him. This book shows exactly that. Although we, modern audience, sympathizes with him so much and often accuse his contemporary society of being too cruel, we have to admit that if facing such personality as shown so vividly in his own writings and others', it takes all the effort not to hate him and to doubt his ability, his genius.
And then, there is this ending of his life that I did not know of. This is not that big a spoiler, and not that big an impact, but it shows how Vincent's life is not so poetic, so painfully beautiful as in Lust for Life
. It can be just a simple accident. A life that ends not that profoundly. It is, overall, a very sad sad life. And a lonely one.
But that is all this book offers, a personal story of Vincent. The value, the beauty, and the reason for the success of Vincent's artworks at the end of his life and afterwards, are not discussed. They are somewhat even challenged (a product of public media? is he really any good?) Consequently, it raises a question: will you still like his art?
Interestingly, even though I could not love the man and can only pity and feel sad for him, my love for some of his works still does not diminish. Starry Night
, and its older version Starry Night over the Rhone
, for example, still bewitch me.
Yes, the answer is Yes.