My Review | Van Gogh: The Life

A year ago this month I finished reading Van Gogh: The Life, the 868-page biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Jackson Pollack. I loved the book and on one Sunday morning I laid in bed and typed up a book review off the top of my head on my phone … the one-fingered review.

Well, today someone from Slovakia liked my review and earlier this month a Van Gogh scholar and art historian from the Netherlands liked it. So I thought I’d republish the completely unremarkable review here with a bit of a Van Gogh update from my recent travels.

I saw this self-portrait of Vincent in 2011 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. He produced this painting in August 1889, after voluntarily committing himself in May 1889 to the mental asylum in Saint-Remy. Six months earlier he cut off his ear after a quarrel with Paul Gauguin. And less than a year later Van Gogh would be dead of a gunshot wound.

I saw this self-portrait of Vincent in 2011 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. He produced this painting in August 1889, after voluntarily committing himself in May 1889 to the mental asylum in Saint-Remy. Six months earlier he cut off his ear after a quarrel with Paul Gauguin. And less than a year later Van Gogh would be dead of a gunshot wound. This painting is spectacular; it nearly emits a sound, a reverberation from the pattern of blue lines surrounding his head and face with a three-dimensional quality.

The Review

I’ve never read a book so thoroughly detailed. At times it felt like a day-by-day account of his 37 years. The book establishes early on that Van Gogh was at best “quirky” and at worst had a few disorders, but hey, who doesn’t. I’m not a psychologist, but when you are sleeping with your walking stick in your bed to punish yourself, I don’t know, that’s probably a red flag for later developments.

For the first 600 or 700 pages, I developed a dislike for Van Gogh; he’s an unlikeable loser. But by the end there is empathy and compassion for all that he went through. Of course, he could have just gotten a job at some point, but then the world would be the lesser for not having his art.

He taught himself, researched, studied, applied new techniques, which all lead to him ‘becoming’ Van Gogh. The book doesn’t really spell out exactly why Van Gogh and his art became a worldwide phenomenom. It doesn’t critique the art; the book just details the life.

Most people are familiar with the art from Van Gogh’s final two years, the fact that he cut off his ear and killed himself. Obviously, those few items don’t tell the whole story, and the whole story which at times is repetitious is ultimately fascinating. He lived in interesting times in Europe and in art. Everyone wrote letters, kept family histories. Van Gogh exists at this crossroads between the old ways of society of manual labor and a new era. He was a craftman who appreciated the working man. He was relentless. You have to appreciate that.

At the end, I was sad that he passed; he had found his stroke, his style of painting that combined many of the interests and influences that became beloved by the world. But I was also relieved for him. He did not have an easy life. When he died, he became the embodiment of the suffering artist. The world learned of this solitary figure and fell in love with what they took to be a romantic figure.

The book theorizes that he did not kill himself and they make a very understandable and believable case that he did not.

The authors read everything that Van Gogh wrote and everything that Van Gogh read. The level of researching is amazing. The writing pulls you through a lengthy and detailed story, a life worth examining.

Prologue

In October, I visited New York City and the Museum of Modern Art and Zurich’s Kunsthaus, where I got to stand in front of five Van Gogh paintings.

So I’ve timed everything perfectly. I’m done with my conference. My plane is leaving in the afternoon, but I’ve got some time, so I take the subway to Central Park, get out at The Dakota. I do not find ‘the spot’ of the John Lennon shooting; I just cross the road and see the sites in the Park. But I’m on a schedule and I quickly return to the subway. Like usual, in my tightly compressed schedule, I did not allow for breakfast or lunch, so I find a great place right next to the subway stop and get a sandwich, some fruit and a coffee. I get my luggage and head over to MOMA.

The guy at the coat check is used to checking coats. I hand him my roll-y bag and my computer bag and he tells me that MOMA cannot be liable for my computer. For example, he mentions, that if there is a fire MOMA cannot be responsible for the safety of my stuff.

I say, “When’s the last time you had a fire here?”

Before he can answer, I say, “Just don’t drop my computer on the floor and I think we’ll be fine.” He’s just playing with me, giving me shit. I say that I’ll try and hurry and get back before the fire.

I’m walking into a gallery when I see a sizable group gawking at something on the other side of a freestanding wall. I walk up to the crowd and turn and gasp. It’s The Starry Night. I’ve got that print hanging up in my living room. Doesn’t look much like this painting though. You can’t really experience art via a print or a book or seeing something online; you actually have to go to a museum, wait your turn, get in front of it and experience the beauty and craftsmanship in person … the colors, the textures and lines … you’ve got to be there. Get up close, use your turn wisely. Look at it from all angles.

starry night detail left detail right

In Zurich, I was with a volleyball team, the Iowa Ice, and they were competing in the Women’s Club World Championships. We were at the venue a few days before the event and the team had finished training and were headed downtown to shop and have lunch. I headed to the museum. They had a room with four Van Gogh paintings, including another self-portrait that I recognized from the book. It’s the bandaged ear self-portrait. I was able to improve on this masterpiece using all of my Instragramming filtering talents.

kunsthaus portrait

I’m going to stop now. It’s Thanksgiving. Carli’s back from swimming; she’s a college athlete … I may add some photos later.

snyderemarks

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