For Those Who Don’t Know

Julian Bell

A prim and eager young clerk, working for his art-dealer uncle, is writing to his schoolboy brother. Pictures and books are the 19-year-old’s meat and drink: he soon adds Millais, Dickens and George Eliot to his love for Jean-François Millet, when in 1873, Goupil & Co, agents in lithographs, steel engravings and ‘modern paintings’, send him from The Hague to their branch just off the Strand. They are ‘such a fine firm’: he is ‘really very happy’ that Theo will be joining them too. With one hand pressed to his heart, this earnest youth sets the other on his brother’s shoulder: ‘Theo, I must recommend that you start smoking a pipe. It does you a lot of good when you’re out of spirits, as I quite often am nowadays.’

‘Good’, decent people; sound business practice; cultivated taste – these are the furnishings and fittings the story is supplied with. That plump 19th-century upholstery gets savaged and shredded in the course of all that follows. Repeatedly, the words and deeds of Vincent van Gogh stab at the framework beneath. With a peculiar and terrible force, his letters pit the reader against what’s hard in art and what’s cold in money, lashing out in search of something that, for want of a better term, could be called the soul. By turns grim and dazzling, vicious and tender, they are nearly always searingly lucid: the hawk-eyed art-dealer’s nephew was also a well-read preacher’s son, with a superb command of rhetoric. The reach and interest of these letters, that’s to say, extend well beyond the culture of modern art in which they have long been central.

They were first glimpsed in public just two years after van Gogh’s suicide in 1890, quoted in the catalogue of a retrospective in Amsterdam. As his reputation rocketed over the following decades, various volumes came out: letters to artist friends, notably Emile Bernard, were joined in 1914 by an edition of those sent to Theo, by far his most frequent correspondent. The 1963 single-volume selection that I bought in my student days was drawn from a co-ordinated English text published in 1927. In common, I guess, with countless other young people who have been drawn towards art with a sense of its romance, I would pore chiefly over passages from the summer and autumn of 1888, the miraculous phase of high achievement that the painter spent in Arles directly before his mental breakdown. The claim, for instance, that he brandished for the significance of his Night Café: ‘I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.’ And adjacent to that, his aspiration to ‘express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance. Certainly there is nothing in that of trompe l’œil realism, but is it not something that actually exists?’ Then beyond that, the wry, stormlit eloquence of his arguments with life:

I always feel that I am a traveller, going somewhere and to some destination.

If I tell myself that the somewhere and the destination do not exist, that seems to me very likely and reasonable enough.

  The brothel keeper, when he kicks anyone out, has similar logic, argues as well, and is always right, I know. So at the end of the course I shall find my mistake. Be it so. I shall find then that not only the Arts, but everything else as well, were only dreams, that one’s self was nothing at all.

It is quite another matter, however, to tackle the 2180 close-packed pages of the stupendous new comprehensive edition. Altogether, it falls in word-length somewhere between War and Peace and A la recherche du temps perdu, and as with these, the rewards outweigh the longueurs, though it’s true that after the cosy beginnings, the going gets chilly and very steep indeed. In 1875 Goupil & Co relocated van Gogh from London to their Paris branch. Naturally, he stepped out to the Luxembourg to admire the Millets and the Corots, at the same time adding, with Dutch facility, a mastery of French to that of English. Rather than engaging with ‘modern painting’ as we now know it, however (Manet, Monet), he turned towards the sermons of a French Protestant pastor. This new-found religiosity had social implications. Back in his father’s genteel country parsonage, success in this world and success in the next might have seemed perfectly compatible, but the type of revivalism preached in the great city of sin proposed that the two were essentially at odds. Van Gogh raised his sights from worldly business objectives; became curt with clients and superiors; and found himself dismissed. ‘When an apple is ripe, all it takes is a gentle breeze to make it fall from the tree,’ he consolingly pronounced to Theo. From this point onwards, Bible-like metaphors, often extending to near parables, became a stock-in-trade of his letters.

But from this point also began his gruelling, four-year self-mortification. Already he had launched a literary purge, warning Theo to chuck out the free-thinking volumes of Renan and Heine they had previously enjoyed – ‘dangerous stuff’. He now tried to reshape himself into a teacher in England; then into a candidate for the ministry in Amsterdam; then, when that proved unworkable, into a lay preacher in the mining villages south of Mons. The letters to Theo became insistent, arduous exaltations, bricolages of biblical texts and modern hymns from the likes of Moody and Sankey. The chief fascination of this phase, for readers of the new edition, is that a large and long neglected visual world is revealed: with encyclopedic persistence, the scholars involved have managed to track down almost every picture ever mentioned by van Gogh, and they are all reproduced here. They steep us in the decors of revivalism, from the marmoreal bondieuseries of Ary Scheffer and Paul Delaroche to the pity-inducing poor folk engraved by Gustave Doré. Sustained by these and by the louring atmospheric landscapes of the Hague School – Goupil & Co’s version of ‘modern painting’ – van Gogh forged himself a personal picturesque. Describing dawn at the Amsterdam docks, for instance: ‘The ground and the piles of timber in the yard were drenched, and the sky reflected in the puddles was completely golden due to the rising sun, and at five o’clock one saw all those hundreds of workers looking like little black figures fanning out on all sides.’ (This was August 1877, long before he had ever touched a brush.)

Beauty was to be found among the rough hands of those workers, rather than in slick nudes, so he told his uncle, to the dealer’s disapproval: ‘Sorrow is better than joy.’ (A slightly misremembered line from Ecclesiastes, the patient annotators inform us.) That aesthetic was all too suited to his circumstances, as the ‘out of spirits’ pipe-smoking youth was hitting obstacles in every direction. These culminated in 1879, when the church declined to re-engage him after a six-month trial in lay preaching. Van Gogh chose to stay on among the mining poor of south Belgium with their compelling demands on his compassion, evoking the industrial district’s ragged poignancy in letters to Theo before finally he fell out with him, along with the rest of the family. A year’s silence followed. The editors are fastidiously careful how they intrude on it – indeed, their tact and reticence are exemplary. But gradually the obscured narrative crux becomes clear. The older son, the van Goghs’ headstrong, churlish walking disaster, eventually got carried out of the ditch into which he had fallen on his younger brother’s back. Steady Theo, whose stock in Goupil’s Paris branch had smoothly risen, took careful note of Vincent’s idle reflection that he would ‘rather like to start making rough sketches of some of the many things one meets along the way’. It was Theo who, on a visit to the southern mines, proposed a wholesale change in direction, which at first Vincent rejected; it was he who began quietly to subsidise the incipient artist, along with the five other family members dependent on his income.

And thus, come 1880, the story proper at last starts to roll forward – and the real agony begins. Van Gogh was back in Holland for the next five years, variously billeted in The Hague, deep in rural Drenthe and back with his exasperated parents. In the eyes of most of the family’s picture-trade connections, the newcomer to art, starting work at 27, didn’t ‘actually do it very well’; and even those not alienated by the brusque hack of his pen and brush found him socially impossible. Behind that ugly outward face lay van Gogh’s resolute schedule of artistic self-education – he would reason out each procedure in a letter as he executed it, giving 19th-century art theory a test report. But behind that, the correspondence pivoted on a deeper contradiction. Artists – pre-eminently Millet, the great programmatic painter of 19th-century peasantry, the compassionate visionary who ‘reopened our thoughts to see the inhabitant of nature’ – were founts of self-will, imbued with genius: if that art theory had Realist trappings, its core was wholly Romantic. Having studiously admired that role from without, he had now taken it to heart. But the same picture-trade education also told him that what mattered was the market-worthy product, not the producer. In that light, how could he hold his head up, at once unemployable and unsaleable, a puppet on a remittance? What did this inner authorial voice amount to, first whispered into his ear by his brother?

I am trying to analyse why the second and third sections of this six-volume set contain some of the most uncomfortable reading I can remember undergoing. ‘If it’s at all possible send me another 10 francs, say. A week’s work depends on it.’ ‘I promised to pay my landlord 5 guilders … I hope you’ll send me what I so greatly want.’ ‘In a few days, you understand, I’ll be absolutely broke’. That juncture was one that nearly all the letters, however long, eventually came round to. Was it – so both writer and reader must have wondered – what all the verbalising eventually boiled down to? Was the driven man of vision no more than a beggar with an act? And therefore, since the mirage of commercial viability – ‘It won’t be long before you no longer have to send me anything’ – never seemed to draw any closer, Vincent flailed. He demanded, preposterously, that Theo become a painter too. He then berated his benefactor, not only for failing to promote his work but for his inartistic, indeed his reactionary ‘cold decency, which I find sterile’. ‘You’re of no use whatsoever to me, nor I to you,’ he taunted, again and again. To demonstrate some autonomy, he snuck half his subsidy into the support of a prostitute in The Hague; at last bowed to Theo’s advice that this course of action was unsustainable; then rounded on him furiously as her persecutor. It all has the appearance of some grisly experiment to investigate the meaning of money. Money – but of course – is what we directly, concretely need: for lack of it, Vincent’s teeth were falling out, after years of getting by on dry bread and water, and his robust inborn stamina was coming near to breaking. But no less essentially, money – credit – is sheer abstract belief, expressed in numbered units: the metal and paper faces of mutual trust, the fulcrum Vincent was trying to twist until it snapped. Money was a nothing; an everything: an almighty it. After he parted with the Belgian miners, Vincent’s spiritual instincts moved uncertainly forward out of the doors of the church; towards the end, he was inclining towards Tolstoy’s doctrine of a purely immanent kingdom of God. But in a certain sense, his existential thrashing about within the contradictions he had entered in 1880 was quite as religious as anything that had gone on before.

The more so because, all the while, a fixed love for his brother and a longing for frankness pervaded the letter-writing. Surges of feeling swept now from this side, now from that, across the page, rarely less than trenchantly expressed: ‘One can’t present oneself as somebody who can be of benefit to others or who has an idea for a business that’s bound to be profitable – no, on the contrary, it’s to be expected that it will end with a deficit and yet, yet, one feels a power seething inside one, one has a task to do and it must be done.’ Much more than his daily slog to apply the gospel of Millet to the peasants of Holland – an agenda that had already been largely delivered by the Hague School painters – and more even than the continual redefinitions of his predicament, it is that formless ‘seething power’ that dominates what he himself apologetically calls ‘these extremely long letters’. Altogether, his looking and learning and reasoning and raging come at us oceanically: he brims with a great inward flood of spirit, rolling beyond control. Its tang stays long in the reader’s mind.

But after five hard-working years of van Gogh’s new non-career, the evidence of that potency remained chiefly verbal. Nowadays, naturally, we read back many virtues into his early studies of the Dutch countryside, and into the urgent, pungent little impressions of these efforts he inserted in his letters. We would hardly be alert to these dark, dogged beginnings of his oeuvre, however, if a visit to Amsterdam’s new Rijksmuseum in October 1885 hadn’t rekindled van Gogh’s taste for city life. A few months later, Theo, who must often enough have groaned at the postman’s approach, instead found Vincent himself knocking at his door. Back in Paris at last, he could discover what this Impressionism that Zola loved to write about actually looked like: he had frequently wondered, from a distance. And so the picture-dealer suffered nearly two years of bohemian mayhem in his apartment; and the correspondence hit its second great gap.

It had left off in Dutch; it resumed in French. Volume IV jumps us to February 1888, with the 34-year-old Vincent arriving in Arles to pursue a notional ‘Japan’, or land of manifest colour, in the south. The disjuncture is drastic. His tastes have turned a right angle. We now encounter a savvy checker-out of trendy Seurat who wonders whatever he might once have seen in dismal Delaroche. A broader change of persona goes with this. Dutch Vincent had been overwhelmingly swingeing, earnest and righteous; French Vincent now found room to be droll, somewhat sensual, somewhat sadly absurd. He composed consciously charming letters to his kid sister, Willemien; he bantered with keen young Emile Bernard, contrasting ‘good fucker’ Courbet to voyeur Degas; ruefully moaned to Theo that he himself never saw ‘any but the sort of 2-franc women originally intended for the Zouaves’, and that anyway, he wasn’t even up to them: ‘According to the excellent master Ziem, a man becomes ambitious the moment he can’t get a hard-on. Now, while it’s more or less the same to me whether or not I can get a hard-on, I protest when it must inevitably lead me to ambition.’

Willy-nilly, ambition had gripped hold of his work. Through the astonishing months of 1888, as his never less than hurtling workrate moved into overdrive, the letter-writing kept pace. Each day, a fresh canvas grappling with the colour of the south; each evening, another six-page screed to Theo. ‘I’ve never had such good fortune; nature here is extraordinarily beautiful.’ Breakthroughs, we would now call those paintings; for Vincent, as his funny disclaimer suggests, the dynamic of the situation was that he had not yet broken through to the painting of the future, whatever that was to be; and that in fact, he himself could never be the man to do so: he could only pave the way.

Who then would do the painting of the future? Gauguin? The melodramatic aspects of their nine weeks together in Arles get modulated in the reading of their written exchanges. (Another change in the later, slightly more house-trained Vincent is that he keeps the letters he receives, and that we get to hear his interlocutors: previously, one presumes, he used the paper to wipe his brushes, or worse.) While he is being coaxed to leave Brittany, Gauguin is whiny and pompous: hearing him yowl – ‘You turn the dagger in the wound when you do all you can to prove to me that I must come to the south, given that I’m suffering on account of not being there at this moment’ – you realise how utterly unself-regarding, by contrast, his correspondent always remains. But remarkably, after the debacle in late December 1888 – the night of the famous ear-cutting and Gauguin’s subsequent flight – an increasingly respectful, indeed actively genial to and fro gets going between them. It’s conceded they differ, but why should that bar them from mutual admiration?

The tone of these letters of Vincent’s – and of all his communications until suddenly, without a note, he turned a gun on himself in July 1890 – is nearly always lucid, frequently comic (he caricatures himself as a ‘jerry-built’ fellow with ‘a papier-mâché ear’), and ever more prevailingly tender and generous. Most of these letters came from an insane asylum. However we define what kept repeatedly descending on van Gogh’s mind – the diagnosis remains open to debate; perhaps these days he might have lived on to become a jaded old ham on Largactil – his writing self presented it as a hideous, just-about-unenterable opposite state. (The hard drinking that may have helped precipitate it leaves another blank in the record.) It is as if his ‘seething’ consciousness had now split, hard upon his hour of ‘good fortune’: the axe-blow of it left him – and in turn, his eloquence leaves the reader – achingly sad. Here is the nearest his syntax ever gets to derangement: ‘From time to time, just as the waves crush themselves against the deaf, desperate cliffs, a storm of desire to embrace something, a woman of the domestic hen type, but anyway one must take that for what it is, an effect of hysterical over-excitement rather than an accurate vision of reality.’ (You can trust these editors: others might have succumbed to rationalising here and inserted a dash or two. You can trust the translators too: they have forged from van Gogh’s Dutch and French a wholly plausible and coherent colloquial English voice.)

The pathos of the final volume of letters is heightened by van Gogh’s often stated conviction – even as he set out, between spells of madness, to paint yet more ambitious work – that what he produced was of virtually no account. Clearly, some kind of self-protective instinct was at work when, politely but insistently, he refused the praise handed him in an article published six months before his suicide – the first onset of the van Gogh boom that he and Theo would never live to witness. (Theo followed him under six months later.) Go look instead, he urged the critic Albert Aurier, at Adolphe Monticelli, the bizarre (and now pretty obscure) Provençal colourist, whose trail he had headed south to follow. But what van Gogh wrote generally had some substantive meaning. How did he imagine the painting of the future actually ought to be?

Van Gogh’s art, in common with much of the outstanding ‘modern’ work of the 19th century, was historically conceived as a journey back towards the heroic values of the 17th century – after some long, regrettable detour, some arch and etiolated ‘periwig age’, as he vaguely termed it. On the far summit stood Rembrandt, with ‘that heartbroken tenderness, that glimpse of a superhuman infinite’. (Italian art, by contrast, hardly existed for van Gogh.) Forty years earlier, Millet, his mainstay, had pointed the general direction of travel; vehicles to assist it came from Delacroix, Monticelli and from distant Japan. As a result, one now worked up towards Rembrandt’s ultimate human values by alternative routes. ‘Today … we’re working and arguing colour as they did chiaroscuro.’ Nonetheless, all the tubes of Chrome Lemon, Veronese Green and Geranium Lake for which he kept pestering Theo were intended as a language in which to reach the heart’s deepest emotions, to aim for what The Jewish Bride delivered.

Colour was the modern means, but for a fully human art you still needed human figures. That became his great practical conundrum. He – the self-confessed misfit, the man with ‘no talent’ for ‘relations with people’ – longed above all to get real, living people to pose directly before his easel – preferably endlessly, as if he were Frans Hals. During 1888, letter after letter speculates about the possibility of a modern portraiture. But that agenda proving more or less personally unsustainable, there were alternative manoeuvres. The most radical was to ape Gauguin and paint figures from imagination. He was trying that when his mental crisis arrived, with his controversial canvas La Berceuse. Afterwards, though, he decided that was quite the wrong thing for him to do (correctly, I reckon – it’s his sole bogus moment) and rounded on the whole tendency towards ‘abstraction’ in an invective addressed to Gauguin’s acolyte Bernard (26 November 1889) that is both as caustic and as exactingly moral as anything in 19th-century art criticism.

While he was by now toying with an alternative rat-run round the problem – colourising chiaroscuro prints of his heroes’ figure compositions, postmodern-fashion – he had also reverted to the middle ground of his practice, landscape painted straight from the motif. Landscape punctuated with near equivalents to figures – the sun, the stars, the trees. At its furthest reach, pervaded with them, so that the familiar biblical metaphor swished both ways and all grass was flesh. Investing vegetation with intent was a knack he had learned early in his self-training; back in 1882, he realised he could make a bunch of roots ‘express something of life’s struggle’. It exhilarates us, but it didn’t impress him. It was default stuff.

Not long before he died, he saw the kind of thing he might have wished to do, if his journey had not already wound up in ‘shipwreck’. It was a canvas version of a Puvis de Chavannes multi-figure civic mural (this whole publication is an adventure into another century’s visual imagination). In a phrase that now seems lovelier than the picture itself, he wrote that to gaze at the wan, classicistic reverie was to ‘think one was present at an inevitable but benevolent rebirth of all things that one might have believed in’. On some alternative, future plane, art might yet succeed in consoling and embracing all society – ‘when the socialists logically build their social edifice’, perhaps, as he expressed it to Bernard. He wouldn’t be there: politics wasn’t for him, though looking back, he liked to think of his sojourn among the miners as an immersion in ‘religious and socialist affairs’. And yet real life belonged to people, not to pictures, and the latter must always seek to serve the former. ‘It has always been so much my desire to paint for those who don’t know the artistic side of a painting.’ The unimaginable extent to which that desire got realised is a story beyond these volumes.

Their production values are delicious. The story they contain feels to me like a very, very long 19th-century novel – dotted, incidentally, with characters who could slot straight back into the corniest of triple-deckers, such as Joseph Roulin, the indefatigably good-hearted Arles postman with a passion for General Boulanger, or the still more angelically benevolent Johanna Bonger, the sweetie Theo marries in 1889. Its protagonist, though, is larger than anything outside Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. For a proportionately long final quotation, I turn back to 1884. We’re still in Holland, and the weirdo in the parsonage outhouse has just screwed up again. He has been carrying on with a vulnerable young village woman, to the disgust of his parents, and now she’s tried – not quite successfully, thank God – to poison herself. Theo has written from Paris, upbraiding him. Vincent’s rejoinder to his brother – vehement, outrageous and magnificent – ends up with nine postscripts, and this is from the seventh:

To be good – many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm – and that’s a lie, and you said yourself in the past that it was a lie. That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralysing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerises some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares – and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs onto that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’ – they say.

  Let them talk, those cold theologians.