Van Gogh’s New Religion

1 / 3
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.
2 / 3
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 ...
3 / 3
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.

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.

In Paris he had absorbed Japanese art and now on the road in Provence he sought a form of art-making that could replicate what he believed Japanese people, in particular its Buddhist priests, embodied–a lifestyle ritualized, through art, into a perfect accord with nature. 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, a society he thought was cannibalizing itself through pettiness, egocentricity, and greed. 

When Van Gogh biographers traditionally describe his Arles years as a slow burn period of unhinged mania, his letters tell a different story, indicating a disciplined mind attune to what we would today call “cultural criticism.” Having read a study of how love shapes the music of Wagner, and closely rereading Leo Tolstoy’s memoir My Religion, van Gogh maps out an anti-institutional, mass movement, predicated on absolute non-violence, that could produce a “new religion.” His utopia involves a new ethical system, however vaguely conceived, predicated on an aesthetic conception of existence:

“In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism, sceptisim and humbug and will  want to live–more musically. How will this come about, and what will we  discover? It would be nice to be able to prophesy, but it is even better to be  forewarned, instead of seeing absolutely nothing in the future other than the  disasters that are bound to strike the modern world and civilization like so many  thunderbolts, through revolution, or war, or the bankruptcy of worm-eaten states” (409)

As his own mental illnesses encroached on daily habits, van Gogh perhaps intuited how his troubles may have been indirectly caused by the sick society into which he had been born. To escape its fate, he envisioned an artist’s commune and successfully recruited Paul Gauguin to join him in the south of France. Presumably, Emile Bernard, a fellow Japanophile, would join this sort of open-air monastery populated by artists who would make art among the earth’s other laborers in the farms and fields of Provence. Van Gogh’s Arles, like Japanese art, represents a zone where art and nature merge; he once wrote a letter envisioning the Japanese “living in nature like flowers,” an ideal in which he also implicates himself. Increasingly, his fluid paintings emulate the growth spurts of plants, the slashing and slicing effects of rain and wind, the swelling and swaying of the sea, and the uneven geological convolutions of the earth itself. His self-confidence increased exponentially.

In Self Portrait as a Bonze (1888), a painting he gifted to Gauguin, van Gogh alters his physiognomy to correspond to what he thought the face of a Japanese monk ought to resemble. He depicts himself standing upright with his hair shorn, his angular face drawn and gaunt, concentrated and poised, his domed head haloed in luminescent greens. The reciprocal self-portraits sent to him by Gauguin and Bernard, which also cross-reference Japanese art, attest to their shared motivations, making their later breaks with their longtime friend all the more disconcerting.

But nature, that indifferent universe so revered by van Gogh, had other plans for the artist. By mid-1888, having been long bedeviled by anxiety and depression, his health began to suffer more acutely, even as his hopefulness and his output continued unabated. And it is this penultimate chapter of his life, in which virtuosic achievement dovetails with mental breakdowns, that has engrossed and bedeviled historians and critics.

Into that ongoing historical void have come two new studies, On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness (Yale University Press/Mercatorfonds/Van Gogh Museum, 2016) and Martin Bailey’s Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum (Quatro Publishing, 2018) which attempt, with mixed results, to collate the facts and present a coherent account of van Gogh’s health in his final months.

Despite its crude, sensationalist title, On the Verge of Insanity collates scholarly essays, medical timelines and vivid archival reproductions and photographs related to van Gogh’s institutionalizations. Assembled by a team of curators and researchers at the Van Gogh Museum, some of its forensic evidence fails prey to ipso facto illogic. Most glaringly, it conflates accounts of the young Vincent’s gloomy temperament with the far more sporadic and pitched battles of the middle-aged man. For instance, we are reminded that, in his early letters, van Gogh complained of an entrenched loneliness, of attacks of “nerves,” and of frequent digestive maladies, and these confessions are implausibly presented as if they are somehow early evidence of “insanity.” Also included as exhibits for what might be called the “madness hypothesis,” are the painter’s avowed workaholic tendencies, regrettable bouts of heavy drinking, and confessions of extreme exhaustion, especially as he readies his “Studio in the South” just ahead of Gauguin’s arrival. Yet, taken in total, these complaints hardly amount to evidence of a grave mental illness, especially when viewed in our current era in which complaints about mass hyperactivity, overwork and daily anxiety are touted almost like status symbols.

Furthermore, none of these autobiographical facts quite explains what led to the famous mutilation, at the end of 1888, when the artist severed a portion of his ear. The event was as shocking then as it is now and, unsurprisingly, in its immediate aftermath, Gauguin, who had been squabbling frequently with van Gogh, fled Provence; thereafter, the Dutch artist fell under almost nonstop surveillance by empathetic doctors and assorted local caregivers.

The first medical team to diagnose him attributed that near-suicidal ear mutilation to “an attack of acute mania with generalized delirium.” Both terms, we learn, variously referred, in that era, to insanity, agitation, and delusional states. Other doctors in Arles suspected epilepsy, which medical historians have linked to neurological conditions created by severe forms of venereal disease. Van Gogh, like many single men of that era, including the artist’s brother Theo, frequented prostitutes and both men had long been diagnosed with gonorrhea and syphilis. In particular, neurosyphilis, infects the nervous system, leading to states of dementia and other paralytic symptoms. Though On the Verge of Insanity remains agnostic about van Gogh’s illness, this latter malady seems most plausible; the artist’s brother Theo died of it in 1891.

Still, the ear mutilation was only the first shot across the bow in van Gogh’s mysterious war against mental ill health. Released from the hospital shortly after that event, he promptly resumed work at his now famous Yellow House on Place Lamartine in Arles. By now, though, he was an object of scorn and ridicule by bigoted locals, many of who stalked his home and signed a petition requesting the mayor remove the artist from their midst. At least once while in Arles he was coerced through public pressure into another hospital stay. Mental setbacks followed, with extant doctors’ reports noting, on at least one stay, “a true delirium”; another reports notes the artist suffered auditory hallucinations. Nevertheless he continued to paint at a brisk pace both in and out of the local institution, writing lucid letters to friends and family, and acknowledging, without fanfare or much self-pity, that his plan for an artist commune was finished. “I no longer dare to urge painters to come here [to Arles]” he writes to Theo, “after what has happened to me, they run the risk of losing their heads like me.”

If, by 1889, the anguish of an incurable mental illness had brought him back to the self-destructive thoughts, that darkness does not manifest explicitly in the paintings, or, for that matter in his judicious, well-reasoned letters. Even in a painting as harrowing as Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), the redemptive, color-rich background, featuring a Japanese lithograph, materializes alongside the wound. Feeling unnerved by unpredictable attacks, van Gogh submitted, in early 1889, to being admitted to Saint-Paul Asylum in the town of Saint-Rémy. Backed by a letter from his brother Theo and accompanied by Arles’ Protestant pastor Reverend Salles, van Gogh settled into the asylum where he was largely cared for by Dr. Théophile Peyron.

Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum delves into that institution as it existed before, during and after van Gogh’s stay and turns a critical spotlight on the masterpieces that the artist created within and without the institution’s walls. The artist’s letter serve double duty as confessional narratives and as unflinching testimonies about the dehumanizing conditions even in Saint-Rémy’s relatively humane and spacious asylum. Residing there for most of 1889, van Gogh continued to churn out successive masterpieces–The Bedroom (1889), Cypresses (1889), and Self-Portrait with Swirling Background looming as the most well-known. He also continued to write letters laying out parallels between musical composition and violin playing and the painter’s execution of his own compositions, with colors taking the place of notes and scales. His workload as he lived at Saint-Paul remained astonishing. We learn that over the course of one particular two month stretch he produced 60 drawings and several paintings. Having never been so isolated for such a long stretch, by the winter of 1889-90, he wanted back to Paris and out of Saint-Paul Asylum, writing that he felt he was “more catching the illness of the others than curing my own.”

The subsequent suicide many months after his release from Saint-Paul remains a mystery shrouded by contradictory facts. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo Ellen Bonger-van Gogh, confesses in her memoir that, when she Vincent in person for the first time when he visited the newlywed couple in Paris in spring of 1890, she was struck by how healthy and robust he looked. “I had expected a sick man,” she writes, “but here he was sturdy, broad-shouldered man, with a healthy colour, a smile on his face and a very resolute appearance […] He stayed with us three days, and was cheerful and lively all the time.”

This apparent contradiction between a rejuvenated van Gogh and the fateful suicide near Auvers has caused art historians to pore over every late painting seeking clues of that impending self-erasure, reading omens into images such as thunderclouds, rains, and crows. Even a painting of two pale, nameless figures walking in the woods has been taken as a forewarning. These misreadings displace the inherent complexity in these works with reductive and speculative biography. Worse still, the art is pathologized, reduced to a symptom or sign, ignoring the fact that  just as many paintings from his final year attest to a rugged optimism, with their sun-drenched scenes, religious enunciations, and, frequently, paradisiac tableaus of peasant life.    

Van Gogh the man has been gone for so long that it seems unreal just how perpetually present his image, and the accompanying myths about him, haunt our collective consciousness. One can only imagine what van Gogh would make of this universal notoriety, the endless melodramatic biopics, the mass reproductions of his art on calendars, fashion accessories and furniture, let alone the staggering sales figures offered for his art by the global super-rich in auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s, and, as always, the lines queuing up, decade after decade, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, or the hordes of tourists flocking around his paintings in museums in every corner of the planet.

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. 

If van Gogh left us a final hopeful word on this goal, it was the paintings themselves, especially one called “Almond Blossom,” (1890), completed weeks before he took that revolver into the wheatfield and aimed it at himself.  “Almond Blossom” was said to commemorate the birth of Theo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent. It shows how far van Gogh had exceeded, in a mere matter of months, the innovative stylizations he had culled from Japanese art, or for that matter, the work of his accomplished peers.  Unevenly shaped, flourishing green branches intertwine and crisscross, growing up, outward and around, extending from outside the frame, invading the center from the picture’s perimeter. The branches and blossoms intertwine against a pale blue sky so crystalline that the viewer is tempted to extend an arm through the spaces between the stalks and blooms. Here, as in his other paintings and his investigative letters, van Gogh’s restless originality succeeds by balancing rawness and refinement perfectly. It results in an enduring, resonating wholeness that he thought to be the truth within the universe and the very purpose of art. It all remains with us in these hundreds of van Goghs: unrivaled accomplishments of studied inventiveness, legacies bequeathed to us by a clear-headed, relentless virtuoso.

Tim Keane teaches creative writing and literary modernism at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York City. Read Part 1 of this article in the Fall 2018 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.