Saturday, December 01, 2007


I have been dabbling in Irving Stone’s 1934 biography of Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life. Forty-four years after Van Gogh died, Stone was writing closer to the artist’s time than to ours; it would be something like me writing about Buddy Holly.

Stone includes no dates in his story; he tells it as a novel. At a certain point to keep my mind straight I found on the Web a timeline of Van Gogh’s life and printed it. In a bookstore over Thanksgiving (the old New Varsity for those who know it), shopping for music, I found something better: a boxed kit of Van Gogh paraphernalia—masks, stickers, tattoos, postcards—that included a CD with 186 of his drawings and paintings. Not everything he ever did, but a rich trove.

Decades ago, in a magazine ad for maybe a PBS show, I vividly remember seeing a collection of about a dozen of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, showing the progress of his artistic style as his genius exploded. Just the sequence of self-images spoke volumes about his state of mind. Staid browns give way to trembling pastels; the beard and ear bandage come and go; backgrounds go from flat to swirling whorls of rich color. The collection stuck in my mind, but I’d never seen it recompiled.

I was delighted to find I now had the tools to re-create the sequence:
It’s hard to read a novel about an artist without seeing the art. I can only imagine the effort Stone had to make to see a lot of Van Gogh’s pieces, scattered through collections across several continents, to get a feel for the flavor of the artist from different periods. An image on a screen isn’t the real thing, but I’m spoiled by the tools I have today to slice through the collection.

The text-based facts are easier to come by these days too. It reshapes research.

As I put the sketches, drawings, and paintings in rough order and sift through them, I see Van Gogh struggling to catch in his brush the way light reflects off a barn roof, the dart of a lark out of a cornfield, the lazy swaying of flatboats tied to a river bank, the way a tavern’s lights play off cobblestones in the street outside—the same things a kid with a Canon tries to catch today. Across a century and change, I follow his eye as it marks images he wants to share.

I’m put in mind of a remark I read several years ago, a rapper telling how hip-hop served as a kind of telegraph between communities. He said he could listen to a rapper from a different city, another coast, a far-off country, and through his words he could build an image of what life was like over there—the weather, the cars, the feel of the streets, the rhythm of neighborhood conversation.


elizabeth said...

I love your little self-portrait progression. What never ceases to amaze me is all that progression happened over the course of about three YEARS. It took Rembrandt decades to find that sort of shift. Damn crazy people, making the rest of us look like slowpokes. Maybe if i started eating my paint too....

operamom said...

Elizibeth, you got to remember that the quick transition of style in the time of Van Gogh was because he lived in a time when art and art movements were changing rapidly. If Rembrant had lived in the same time as Van Gogh, you would see the same thing I think. I find his first paintings so influenced by the art of the time and then, as he was hanging out with so many new artists who were all challenging the ideas of 'traditional art'- he is given social permission by his peers to take paint places it had never gone before. He is a talented product of the art of his times.

Tom Bant said...

I once had an art history teacher present a similar collection as visual record of vincent's progress toward insanity. I also appreciate operamoms take.

I am an Art teacher planning a self portrait lesson.

Could you e-mail me a high res of that Van Gogh collection you compiled please?