• John Diamond-Nigh

The #Gaiety of Vincent #Van Gogh

On a clear winter morning, like some cinematic delirium, aurora borealis ganged and flaunted ahead of us in the starry darkness. By daybreak we had arrived, set up, and were hard at work, blowing steamy breath between our frozen fingers. My father sent me to get coffee, and as I wandered down the wintry sidewalk, I entered a bookstore, just to warm up, still a bit boggled by those outer-worldly lights.

Van . . . something. Go? Anyway, #Dutch, I was pretty sure. All the onion farmers down the highway had that prefix. I picked the book up and leafed through the pages, suddenly overcome. No picture had ever struck me like these. There were #peasants, just like in #Tolstoy, working in fields. There were broad, rustic #landscapes, again like Tolstoy. But the colors, the brushstrokes, the crudity, everything was wrong. The paintings that I knew, the reproduction Renoir that hung in our living room, were as smooth as a caramel in your mouth. Even so, I begged my dad for the money; I bought the book. I bought more on that dreary, freezing morning than a book, I bought a #passion for #wrong that would overarch my life.

The colorful British painter, #David Hockney, mentions Van Gogh’s gaiety, which, given the succession of failures and ultimate tragedy of Van Gogh’s life, seems odd. Gaiety? Sorry, wrong number!

The poet #Robert Haas observes: It’s brutal the way some lives/seem to work and some don’t. Well, true, but lives that don’t seem to work do work if you paint like Van Gogh or compose like Mozart. Somehow out of that don’t work ore some superhuman alchemy emerges. In the same paradoxical vein, an early death, like that of so many artists, can fix the abbreviated achievement in a divine amber that greater longevity might have only depleted. Jim Morrison comes to mind. We see Van Gogh that way–those #crows, that #church steeple, those #blossoms, as poignant murmurs of an unsustainable life.

Hockney’s gaiety, if fact, comes from an #1888 letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother (letters I read soon after I got my book, and loved with all my heart): I am in a fury of work as the trees are in blossom and I wanted to do a Provence orchard of tremendous gaiety. It afforded him a dogged faith even in the hardest of circumstances–a yearning-hearted, wanting-love and god-forsaken elation.

We like Van Gogh, in part, because we can see #how he painted. Each blade of grass, each color, each indecision is rendered in those pudgy, strumming brushstrokes. Such intimate frankness draws us into the work. We’re watching him work as the easel jitters in the wind. Here Van Gogh exemplifies what is still so mesmeric about #modern art; we’re invited to #watch the process itself, like watching jazz musicians extemporize or a preacher who sets his notes aside and sweeps his listeners up just talking from the heart. #To hell with finesse.

I spoke of earth in my last column. Van Gogh was one of the last great landscape artists. He cut #sunflowers from fields outside Arles, sun-offspring of the scorched fields of southern France. The Dutch, it seems, can grow anything. The peasants, the irises, the trees, the wheat fields were an aesthetic tilling and gleaning, a sublime, paint-smearing agriculture before science and city would overtake us all. Van Gogh (for all his brazen technical invention) gave us a lyrical farewell #hymn to that old earth. Like #Virgil. Like Tolstoy.

His most famous work, of course, is #Starry Night. There it was, in that first book I saw, ruffling through me like a shock. A queer little Dutch church is planted in the middle of a Provençal landscape. It’s the only building where the lights are out. One god has died, but up in the sky a far more ancient, pantheistic carnival is underway. A cosmic hallelujah. It wasn’t a picture of Northern Lights but it looked a lot like what I’d just seen.

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