Van Gogh’s New Religion

How well do you really know van Gogh? Part 2 of a two-part series that reevaluates the legendary painter.

  • Put another way, Paris made the earth invisible to the artist and for van Gogh the earth was, in a word, his sole subject and muse.
    Photo courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • Furthermore, he envisioned humanity, and by extension art itself, becoming indistinguishable from nature, resulting in a transformed consciousness that would cure Western society of its diseased soul ...
    Photo courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • Lost in the ultra-fame and commodification is van Gogh’s ambition to undo the schism between everyday life and artistic production, a gap that has only widened in our current millennium, as art becomes increasingly monetized, intellectualized or institutionalized, almost completely removed from everyday experience and access by ordinary people.
    Photo courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

On the afternoon of July 27, 1890, in a wheatfield north of Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the 37-year-old painter Vincent van Gogh fatally shot himself in the chest with a Lefaucheux pinfire revolver. The gun was unearthed some 80 years later. Historians deduce the artist had taken it from Gustave Ravoux, the owner of the lodging house where Vincent had been living in the final months of his life. In retrospect, almost a century and a half later, that suicidal event looms in cultural memory as a shot heard round the world. It marks van Gogh as a kind of secular martyr in the cause of insurgent European 19th century avant-garde art. And from that single act, he came to be known, somewhat misleadingly, as a manic visionary undone by an intensity and inner drive so volatile that it consumed, so this oversimplified story goes, his sanity itself. That van Gogh archetype also consolidates the peculiarly Western myth about the modern artist as social outcast, a stereotype common even in the painter’s lifetime, disseminated as it was by popular novels and operas about a burgeoning urban bohemianism in London and Paris. 

Certainly van Gogh’s well-documented penniless, wandering life shaped this legend of the artist-as-gypsy. But his existential flameout, at peak creative and intellectual powers, amid an unparalleled output of paintings guided by advanced experimentation, is a more complex story than that of a semi-delusional bohemian gone off the rails.

When Van Gogh departed Paris in 1888, he wanted to lose the morbid trappings of the city–the cloudy weather, the competitiveness among painter-peers, the monetary rat race, and, most decidedly, the relative absence of sunlight and natural forms. Put another way, Paris made the earth invisible to the artist and for van Gogh the earth was, in a word, his sole subject and muse. Unlike equally gifted Parisian painter friends like Louis Anquetin and Henri Toulouse Lautrec, van Gogh found city life an unsuitable subject for his art, mainly because he viewed cities as unhealthy, unreal spaces, a perspective he shared with generations of leading thinkers before, during and even after his lifetime. In addition, the artist idealized those who lived and worked close to the nature and the earth; he interpreted human bodies as extensions of the natural world; portraiture and landscape painting were, in his remaking of them, simultaneous genres. And he viewed reality as a trinity wherein physical labor, art-making and transformations in nature’s daily rhythms unfold in synchronicity. Work and aesthetic activity depend upon–and pay homage to–nature and sunlight. The art of painting rendered that simultaneity of labor, art, and environment. As a result, van Gogh’s late period paintings convey ordinary and humble meanings alongside metaphorical and poetic significations, and this double-layering of realism and inventiveness is probably why he is thought to be a forerunner to much early to mid-20th century art: the muscularity of German Expressionism, the flatness in Cubist geometric abstraction, and the high-keyed joys of Pop art are each prefigured in van Gogh’s final works.

His alchemy involved making the mundane fantastic while unearthing the sublime from the seemingly unremarkable. In Olive Grove: Orange Sky (1889), the deep-rooted trees resemble field laborers congregating after the workday, dressed in russet colored boots. The russet trees’ angular and twisting trunks look like human torsos and limbs as the olive branches fan upward like collectivized green hands,  leaves like manifold fingers, branches like myriad hands raised as if in a harvest celebration. The sky itself, like an artist at the canvas, scatters green and yellow lines that mirror the palette of the outlying fields below.

Similarly in Two Diggers Among Trees (1890) the slate blue overalls of two hunched men are indistinguishable from the calligraphic flourishes of a painter’s hatchings and dabs. The workmen’s blue forms angle, their sleeves billow in the wind, and, overall, their relatively minute figures appear like small stones or slates protruding from the earth, two colorful earthen forms among others: the tree stump near where they dig and the shovel’s long wooden handles rendered in an harmonious mix of browns, replicating the color of the bark on the thick-textured trees that rise alongside them. In the distance, crows, made of abrupt, single strokes of black paint, soar over gold fields, blue mountain ranges and, further up, bob in a turquoise sky. Human labor, semi-wild nature and the act of painting converge into a single spectacle; representation, lyricism, abstraction join together with disarming force and directness.

Even as he painted at a relentless clip, van Gogh’s idealism in the final years, from 1888 to 1890 also pursued sociological and revolutionary objectives, however naïve and doomed those ambitions came to be.  Having bristled at the commercialism and competitiveness in Parisian art circles, he aimed, by personal example, to transcend those onerous cultural imperatives by translating art into a new secular religion.

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