herald

Thursday 23 November 2017

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van gogh brought us bright sunflowers, but lived in the shadow of mental illness

A life of light and shade

In the late 1960s The Hayward Gallery in London put on an exhibition that was packed for days, although the artist to whom it was dedicated only sold one painting, and that was to his brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris.

Vincent Van Gogh, the son of a Dutch pastor, was born into a solidly conservative family which he meant to leave as quickly and as irrevocably as he could. He enrolled in an art school in Paris where some of the students laughed at his strange way of speaking and where the teachers were baffled by his drawings, the likes of which they had never seen before.

They advised him quietly that he had no future as an artist. And so he went away and studied the Old Masters in the galleries and libraries where their work could be seen in reproductions in books. He learned a lot from this intensive study, but he was determined to go his own way. He believed that classical painting had run its course.

His early life was a thing of false starts. He taught for a while in the East End of London but because most of his pupils came from poor families, he wouldn't take their fees. The management was not impressed and so Vincent went on his way.

He worked for a while in an art gallery in Paris. He wasn't a good salesman and if he believed that a client was about to buy a painting that Vincent didn't like, he would tell him to go elsewhere in the gallery and find something worthwhile. This happened so often that the management were not pleased and so Vincent went on his way again.

For a while he was a missionary with the poorest of the poor in Belgium. His paintings depicted men and women doing tasks that were almost too much for them. He painted with unrelenting honesty. And his friends asked him: "Vincent, why must you always paint pictures of poverty and hardship? Is there any brightness in your life?" He thought about it and decided to go to the south of France.

He settled in a town called Arles. He was happy enough there and became acquainted with a Danish banker called Gauguin who had given up his profession and come to the south of France hoping to cleanse his soul. He wasn't very happy there and so he went to the South Sea Islands, where among a primitive people he believed he would find the good life.

Gauguin found that they were very human and some of them were degenerate. Nevertheless, he did his best work there and left behind a number of strikingly original paintings.

Back in Arles the man from Holland was getting on fairly well. Occasionally, he became drunk and abusive but the people remained friendly and there he did much of his best work.

There, he painted his studies of the sunflower, at least two. The bigger one, the one with which we are most familiar, could be seen in a great many students' apartments a generation ago in these islands. And maybe that is still true.

What is different in those paintings that marks him out as original? The big one is like an explosion of light. In that he differed from the classical tradition, as he did in most of his work.

While in Arles he suffered two mental breakdowns. Both coincided with the births of children to Theo and underlined the truth of his desire to have an ordinary life. He said: "I would love to have a home and a wife and a family like everybody else, but I fear that it cannot be."

While still in Arles he suffered his worst ever mental breakdown, so much so that Theo, who always minded him, decided to place him in a hospice in the north of France where the head doctor was an amateur painter and was delighted to have an artist in his community.

Vincent was happy enough but one evening he put a bullet into a part of his body where he knew that it would cause only a flesh wound. The next day he stayed in bed and was sitting up and smoking his pipe and talking confidently about his future but he was in such poor health that the wound festered and he died a few days later.

He was buried locally and as Theo said: "My brother sleeps among the fields." He was just 37 years old.

The ironic aspect of Van Gogh is that he did not see himself as a rebel. He admired the Impressionists but believed that he had nothing to learn from them. They used to meet fairly often in cafes in Paris. There is no record of Van Gogh ever taking part.

Van Gogh's reputation is now well established. A new book about him came out in the autumn of last year. A friend brought me a copy and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Fogra: We read the disappointing news about marathon runner Martin Fagan. He has been banned for two years by Athletics Ireland following his failed doping test. We hope that he will keep up his spirits and come back

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