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Warrior Artist

Frank Freeman

Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him, by Mariella Guzzoni,  Thames & Hudson, 232 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-0500094129

Anyone who dips into Van Gogh’s letters will be struck by how much and how widely he read. He devoured and used books up as he did the people around him, though he never used people in a malicious way. It was just that few could match or live up to his passionate intensity. As Mariella Guzzoni, an independent scholar and art curator, writes: “It should be said . . . that though Vincent cherished books, he was not a book collector. More precisely, he was a book-user. For him, it was not important to physically possess books, but to make them his own.”

And what kind of books did he like to “make his own”?

In the books he cherished most several themes recur: injustice and sympathy for the poor; the value of simplicity, humility and hard work; celebration of the land and nature; the examination of the human soul. Vincent also believed in reading novels that were essentially popular in character, both as a form of recreation and of education; he appreciated these works, feeling that they struck “the note of the 19th century.”

In other words, he read books ‑ in Dutch, English, French, and German ‑ not about ideas but about life as it is lived, (though it can be argued that in his hopes for the future he was a utopian). He read mostly novels, but also history and biographies of artists.

Guzzoni’s book, however, is not an in-depth definitive guide to Van Gogh’s intellectual life. “Rather,” she writes, “I attempt to map an artistic-intellectual journey through his favourites, in a continuous dialogue between his work as an artist and the key authors and illustrators that inspired him.” Although Van Gogh’s correspondence totals 903 letters in six volumes, and although he was a great writer, he was primarily a painter; thus Guzzoni’s book divides this dialogue between his letters and his drawings and paintings. Her book includes many prints and colour plates of the work, as well of the illustrations he pored over in books, magazines and newspapers. One of the book’s refrains, a quote from Van Gogh, sums up its theme: “Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me.” Surely this is part of the wide popular appeal of Van Gogh’s work, that his vision is not merely an aesthetic one but includes all of life.

This vision was fundamentally the same even in his younger years, when, after working for the art galley Gouptil & Co for seven years, he quit to pursue theological studies, as his clergyman father had done before him. In the first chapter, “From Preacher to Painter”, Guzzoni demonstrates that even in the thick of his religious studies, Van Gogh saw art everywhere: in church he saw an old woman “who reminded me so much of that etching by Rembrandt”. Just before and during his three-year religious period, roughly 1876-1879, he devoted himself to French translations of the Bible and The Imitation of Christ. Guzzoni writes: “The sequence of events that emerges . . . –his reading habits predating and even predicting his life choices ‑ would become a recurring pattern throughout Vincent’s life.”

But Van Gogh always trod a rough road, often of his own making. After failing in his theological studies, he went to the Borinage area of Belgium to be a lay preacher to the coal miners. There, he truly imitated Christ: “His approach was radical: he gave all his belongings to the miners, cared for the injured, bandaged burn victims with strips torn from his shirts.” This literal reading of the New Testament did not endear him to the Evangelisation Committee, which let him go. For a year “he read intensely, and started sketching ‘mine-worker types,’ people who were ‘exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old’”. He was looking for “a modern gospel” as he called it, and the writers he found it in were Michelet, Hugo, Dickens, and Stowe. From Michelet, Van Gogh learned to “put the faces of the People at the centre of his ‘revolution in portraiture’”. Hugo taught him that “Supreme Art is the region of Equals. There is no primacy among masterpieces.” Guzzoni comments: “This was a concept that Vincent embraced wholeheartedly; his letters are scattered with juxtapositions between painting and writing, in tune with the idea that the arts are not separate entities . . . What is important is not the medium, but what the artist expresses.” Dickens and Stowe deepened Van Gogh’s insights into poverty and slavery and how the oppressed could teach the society around them. In a sense, he gave himself a year’s sabbatical: “In the Borinage, at the ‘free course at the great university of poverty’, Vincent immersed himself in reading, writing, drawing: he would rest on these pillars for the remainder of his life.”

Van Gogh burst out of his self-imposed cocoon in December of 1881 and returned to Holland, where, for two years, he took painting lessons and lived briefly with a pregnant prostitute, Sien Hoornik. He used a book, La femme by Michelet, to convince his brother, Theo, “to accept his choice” (though later the couple separated). He also collected and pored over illustrations of the poor in English and French magazines, especially the London-based The Graphic. Van Gogh considered a bound compilation of the latter to be “a kind of Bible for an artist”.

In those works, so lifelike and direct, where “the soul” was “most at work”, Vincent also found confirmation of his ideas on a question that remains at the heart of artistic discourse today: What is beauty? “The truth is beautiful in itself,” he wrote. Vincent’s concept of beauty never changed, regardless of the salvationist side of his nature: nothing should be beautified; the truth is always best. This was the founding principle of all his work, and the high expressiveness of many of the drawings from this period came from his own crude reality.

Guzzoni concludes this chapter with discussions of Van Gogh’s devotion to the works of Zola and Dickens. “Vincent found himself in perfect harmony with Zola’s worldview,” “and agreed with Zola’s statement that a ‘work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament’”. And he not only read Dickens for stories about the poor, but also to see how his work was illustrated.

Van Gogh’s primary artistic master was Jean-François Millet, and the next chapter, “Peasant Painter”, examines this relationship. For Van Gogh, Guzzoni writes, “it was a book on Millet that struck him perhaps more than any artwork”. This book was La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet by the writer-poet Alfred Sensier. Sensier quoted Millet as saying, “Art is a battle ‑ you have to put your whole life into art,” and Van Gogh took this, as he took everything, to heart. Millet’s most important artwork for Van Gogh was a drawing, The Sower. Guzzoni contends that Van Gogh never managed to “get onto the canvas” the “gesture of sowing” that Millet did, a judgment with which some who have looked at Van Gogh’s painting The Sower, completed in June of 1888 in Arles, may disagree. But what was also important was what Sensier said about Millet’s The Sower: “ . . . when a man puts on the white grain-bag, rolls it around his left arm, fills it with seeds, the hope of the coming year, that man exercises a sort of sacred ministry.” “Art as a mission,” Guzzoni adds, “Vincent’s credo, was intrinsically present in the figure of the Sower,” and Van Gogh’s devotion to Millet led to the creation of his first masterpiece, The Potato-Eaters, painted at Nuenen in the spring of 1885.

To develop as an artist, Van Gogh could not stay in his homeland. He next went to Paris, where Theo lived. There he frequented the Louvre, met other painters, and “fell under the spell of the Japanese art that permeated the city’s air”. He collected prints and magazines focused on Japanese art and continued to read Zola, along with Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Germinie Lacerteux by the De Goncourt brothers. He also painted still lives of books in such works as French Novels and Roses in a Glass and his famous Portrait of Père Tanguy, Japanese prints hung up like a tapestry behind the subject. But, Guzzoni writes, “As the New Year rolled around, Vincent began to feel worn out and in need of renewal. The fervour of Parisian society had slowly built up inside him, like steam in a pressure cooker. He decided to leave for Provence, in search of a stronger light, a livelier sun.” In two years, “he had produced far more than 200 artworks.”

Provence was the setting for Van Gogh’s journey into colour. Japanese art and Delacroix, whom he called “the greatest colourist of all”, inspired him. He not only wanted to paint the Southern light with more vibrant colours, he also wanted to create a community of painters. But his friendship with Gaugin fell apart and his mental illness worsened until the infamous self-mutilation of his ear. However, he continued to study Japanese prints and read Whitman, whose work he adored; Baudelaire’s decadence left him cold. An anonymous Japanese print of a blade of grass inspired him to write to Theo: “If we study Japanese art, then we see a man . . . who . . . studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants ‑ then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure.”

Guzzoni’s penultimate chapter is about the drawings and painting Van Gogh did of people reading books, focusing especially on Liseuse de romans, about which she writes: “Vincent greatly advanced beyond the portrayals of silent readers of his day, with a painting that wholly embodies the modern concept of individual reading for passion, knowledge, and personal growth.” She ties this into the nineteenth century explosion of journalism and books and the deep private connections between writers and their readers. One can only smile ruefully when Vincent writes to Theo: “I keep telling myself that I still have it in my heart to paint a bookshop one day with the shop window yellow-pink, in the evening, and the passers-by black ‑ it’s such an essentially modern subject. Because it also appears such a figurative source of light.”

During his time in mental hospitals Van Gogh  rebelled against the idle life and read when he wasn’t painting. He read Shakespeare, Maupassant ‑ the preface to Pierre et Jean, in which Maupassant described his apprenticeship under Flaubert and his own artistic credo, excited him ‑ Dickens, Daudet, Balzac, and he returned to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In these last days, he was working on “large panoramic canvasses” such as Wheatfield with Crows, but also “close-ups of everyday images”, such as Tree Roots, recently deemed by experts to be his last painting.

Despite a few questionable artistic judgments and some awkward diction and phrasing, this book, for anyone interested in Van Gogh and/or the interface between painting and writing, is a luminous joy to read and pore over. It is also a beautifully wrought artefact in itself, which you finish wanting both to read more deeply and widely and to look at Van Gogh’s works with fresh eyes.

1/3/2021

Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry and The New York Quarterly, his reviews in America Magazine, Commonweal, and The Weekly Standard, among others. He writes from Saco, Maine, and hopes to someday visit Ireland and her bookstores again.

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