Wednesday, December 28, 2011

thoughts on: Van Gogh, the Life

Van Gogh: The LifeVan Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh

Van Gogh was a complicated, demanding, and offensive individual, and Naifeh and Gregory White Smith do not shy away from this.  Unlike many popular portrayals of the great artist, here we meet a man less misunderstood by his family and more alienated by his own difficult behavior.  Sympathy runs both ways - for Vincent who is unable and unwilling to behave in a manner which would allow the closeness he desperately sought with others, and for his family, especially his brother Theo, who were emotionally and financially drained by the demands of an adult son who would not support himself and left a trail of broken relationships behind him.  It is this conflict which dominated Van Gogh's life - his desire for close familial bonds with either his own family or one he invented, a dream made impossible by his own obsessive and overbearing nature - and much of the narrative is devoted to the way this cycle repeated itself throughout his life.

Artistically, it was interesting that the painter considered a master of color and landscape so long resisted either.  Despite pleas from his brother, he insisted upon drawing pen and ink portraits for years, despite his lack of skill in this area.  He was drawn to what eluded him, both in life in art.

Vincent's mental illness, compounded by syphilis and alcohol, is explored as it was revealed at the time.  In this way, we see Vincent as both he saw himself and as others saw him.  I think that is the brilliance of this biography - being able to feel for both Vincent and those who did care for him; not judging or romanticizing either; knowing that great art came from great pain and longing and that none had the means of easing that pain.

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