I have been reading several biographies of Vincent Van Gogh. The damage inflicted by his childhood is clear, and its debilitating effect upon his adult life is equally obvious.. But it is not what fuelled his painting. Indeed, his psychological damage constantly undermined his ‘mission’ of supplying a gospel in paint, ‘evangelizing through art.’ He always recovered from his worst attacks of mental breakdown by regaining the spiritual fire of his painting zeal.
Thus the ‘real’ story of Van Gogh is nothing to do with the romantic myth of the mad artist. He not only carried severe psychological injuries from his early family background, but also he was assailed by a brain disorder diagnosed both in his time and more recently confirmed as epilepsy. It is interesting that Dostoyevsky also had epilepsy — the disease of creative genius, according to nineteenth century pundits — but Van Gogh had a ‘cerebral epilepsy’ that seemed to be inter-connected with his psychological damage such that when the brain short-circuited, so the unconscious complexes were more likely to surface.
The real story is of a man who, in spite of his early childhood hurt and brain disorder [epilepsy ran in the history of the Van Gogh family], is fated to strive with the Daemonic. The Daemonic wounded him, by placing him in worldly troubles and torments very early on, which is often its Way, but it also drove and inspired him on the journey of his art which he likened to going fast on a train– so fast you could not bother with the mundane details, and you were swept along by an engine you could not see.. Van Gogh loved ‘the real’ — not the imaginary or fanciful — and he sought for the ‘truth’ of the real, in all his painting. The Daemonic, having gotten a hold of his heart through a stabbing wound, took him on an incredible, almost unbelievable, fast journey. Vincent painted scores of works, most of them masterpieces, in his final two years [summer 1888 to summer 1890]. The story of Vincent Van Gogh, the real story, the truthful story, is of a very passionate and vulnerable ‘fanatic heart’, struggling with the Daemonic. He said he wanted an art “heartbroken and therefore heartbreaking.”
Van Gogh wanted to give his heart to the world, not to express himself but to ‘hearten’ the world that had lost all heart for existence, a dispirited world, but that very world – starting with his cold mother – did not want anything from him. He was comprehensively rejected, and even his brother Theo was markedly torn about him, near the end, tipping him over into his pre-mature death. Vincent was, from an early age, cast in the position of the Outsider.
He was ‘too much’ for everyone. As a painter, he was intense, earnest, vehement. Quite apart from his undeniable psychopathology which was not easy to be around, no one wanted to warm their hands near the flames of such passionateness in its striving for a truth, a reality, no one understood. He was sincere, in work and in life.
The bourgeois ‘normal world’ did not want any such fieriness. Equally, this fieriness caused ambivalent reactions among the only religious, or spiritual, artists of that era. Van Gogh’s art was not Impressionist, yet neither did it fit in with the enticing yet obscurantist other-worldliness evident in Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite, and Symbolist, art movements. Van Gogh’s art was too this worldly. His painting of the chair has a terrible, aching pathos because of its radical presence in the world of space, matter, and time. This painting moves the heart as no rhapsodically luscious, and suggestively mysterious, evocation of other worlds could ever achieve. It hits you in the way that suddenly catching sight of a beloved dead person’s shoes would. Van Gogh stood alone.
It is instructive to consider Van Gogh’s titanic battle with the amazingly gifted yet narcissistically arrogant, and personally dishonest, painter Paul Gauguin. Monsieur Gauguin portrayed himself to the art world as a ‘sauvage’= he was a consummate poseur — though if anyone was the savage, riding the wave of Fire of the Daemonic, it was the ‘wild’ Vincent. In marked contrast, Paul Gauguin was actually a city sophisticate, and a shrewd manipulator. Pissarro, his mentor, disliked such wiliness= “Gauguin is not a seer. He is simply crafty” [‘Paul Gauguin’, Ingo Walther, 1992, p 29].
This judgement is certainly unfair, in picking out an aspect of a complicated personality, and treating it as the entirety; however, there is no doubt that Gauguin was a cool, even cerebral, painter. Indeed, Walther points out that Gauguin’s “involvement with the human condition was marked by distance” [p 24].
The Symbolist approach championed by Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard — inventing their own version called ‘Synthetism’ — was clearly an art dedicated to Eros. They argued for art as an abstraction away from ordinary life, a quest for the ‘essential idea’ [the Symbolists talk in Platonic vein, without necessarily realizing it]. This pure ‘idea’, being an essence of meaning, could only be alluded to, conjured up metaphorically, in paint. The viewer of the art work, like the painter who created it, is always reaching after an alternative reality beyond the constrictions of the everyday. For this reason, Gauguin told Vincent to stop painting from nature, and instead paint from memory.
In fact, Gauguin painted from a rich imagination which augmented prosaic visual memory, rendering the familiar strange, so as to point to an intangible reality behind its ‘surface’ factuality. Gauguin’s art is interested “in things unseen, the interior life” [‘Gauguin’, Nancy Ireson, 2010, p 14]. One commentator refers to Gauguin’s ‘pursuit of the supernatural.’ Walther [p 24]= “His watchwords were happiness and harmony, and he arrived at them not through any struggle within himself but by yielding to the [attraction] of the.. promises of [exotic] worlds.”
But Gauguin’s art is not simply a paradigm example of the doctrines in the Symbolist Manifesto published by Emile Aurier in 1891. As Van Gogh recognised, Gauguin was a person of fundamental contradictions [he portrayed himself as a sexual libertine yet wanted to go back to his wife and children], and his art reflects that complexity. For Gauguin, seeking Eros is a quest for the lost Paradise of the Beginning which he believes still exists, even if in reduced glory, among indigenous tribal cultures. But his unconscious psychological problems, as well as cultural conditioning, inevitably interferes with, and distorts, his search for a ‘natural Elysium.’ There has been much comment on this..
More interesting is that despite the avowed desire in Gauguin to find a pristine, “barbarous”, untouched and uncorrupted, Eden somewhere in this wicked world, his paintings actually show he did not find it. Walther [p 24]= “Gauguin’s attention was not on the darker aspects of life, and he preferred to pursue the lighter sides of the imagination.” None the less, there is a Daemonic darkness that creeps into the Earthly Garden in many of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. The figure of death, the figure of the devil, and a pervasive fear of spirits evident in the Maori faces and bodies, haunts this Paradise. Most sad of all for painter and viewer alike is that whatever the native women are ‘connected’ to, they do not disclose it. They look away from us. Their mystery is impenetrable. There is no participating in it. Thus painter and viewer are essentially alone and lonely in this place of supposed contentment and peace. Despite Gauguin yearning for the Primal Eros, the Daemonic creeps in, at the periphery, and ‘spoils the party.’ Quite unconsciously, Gauguin’s entrancing, enigmatic, symbolical, paintings declare that there is no Garden of Earthly Delight where we can go to escape the Fallen World or the Daemonic which is its only remedy.
Though Van Gogh always regarded Gauguin the superior artist, out of his neurosis, and inherent humility, the Daemonic spirit in him also fought back against Gauguin, and insisted upon a very different approach to art.
Odd as it may sound, Van Gogh’s approach to how art works, and what art really is, parallels the way the Jewish Bible works, particularly in what scholars call ‘the Yahweh tradition.’ Van Gogh is painting the Daemonic ‘blazing’ in nature, and ‘burning’ in the pain of heartbreak deeper down in humanity. But it is not just that Van Gogh struggles to portray the Daemonic Fire, not wanting to cryptically ‘symbolize’ Eros, as in Gauguin’s art. More important, more significant, is that there is a commonality in how both Van Gogh and the Jewish Bible ‘portray’ the ‘unportrayable’ Daemonic Mystery of Fire= they both use the exact same means. The Symbolist Platonism of Gauguin is not present in Van Gogh or in the Jewish Bible. What virtually no commentary has realized yet — though the persons who see the Jewish Bible as using an existential language come closest — is that ‘portraying’ the Daemonic is simply impossible, so when it actually happens, it has to do the impossible and it does the impossible only in a certain way. It is that certain way in which the unpictureable Daemonic breaks through into images, and into words, both ripping them to shreds, like lightning burning up wood, and holding them in a certain very down-to-earth ‘particularity’, which the Jewish Bible and Van Gogh share.
We can get a better understanding of how the Jewish Biblical narrative operates, in short, from understanding the pictorial language of Van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s first positive reviewer summed it up. He spoke of a paradox in Van Gogh’s art= “an art entirely realistic and yet almost supernatural.” You meet these contradictory terms in many later reviewers. Like the Jewish Bible, there is something very realistic, indeed very literal, in his visual language. It may lack mundane detail [especially the human figures], but its sheer concreteness, its physical embodiment, its stark ‘thereness’, is very powerfully articulated. Such literalism brings something ‘right into our face.’ There is none of the ‘hinting’ at an ill-defined mysteriousness, as in Paul Gauguin. Yet, precisely due to that insistence on the literal, on the real, something transcendental rides in, not to demonstrate that it ‘surpasses’ the literal, but using the literal as its vehicle of arrival, yet bursting through it.. The literal, the real, makes the Mystery of Fire come to us, and its arrival is an ‘event.’
The Holy Fire blazes out of the literal, but only through the literal. This is Revelation, and both the Jewish Biblical words and Van Gogh’s images are revelatory.
The Holy Fire uses the realism of the literal to come to us. The ‘symbols of the ineffable’ deployed by Gauguin take us away from the boundaries of here and now, and point to a mystery beyond that limit. Nothing wrong with that. All sorts of realities exceeding the literal can be pointed at by symbolization in literature, art, religion= psychological, natural, spiritual. But this is not the way Biblical story-telling works, nor the way Van Gogh’s visualization in painting works. We are not transported from here and now to a distant reality left open to all sorts of interpretations.. Neither the Bible’s stories, nor Van Gogh’s paintings, are symbolic displays inviting a hermeneutics that can never settle on any one ‘reading’ over any other ‘reading’, rendering all readings equal. On the contrary, in both the Bible and in Van Gogh, a powerful transcendental reality invades, comes to us, by breaking in on the literal, the real= using it as its chariot, to ride in, to arrive, in an event wherein the Daemonic Mystery of Fire declares, ‘I am here and now.’ An event of arrival happens. The Mystery of Fire is brought to us, by the literal, by the reality, through which it arrives.
It ‘really’ happens= it is not a metaphor for something else far away, transcendent, that does not happen in the concrete, on the ground, in time. It happens, in truth, and for real, in order to ignite the human condition and change it, radically.
The Jewish Bible uses the impossible Daemonic imagery and words, just as Van Gogh does, to announce= this is real, this is happening, this is not confined to sheer facts [Fundamentalism] but neither is it static, eternal, above facts [Platonism]. That it is ULTIMATE and yet that it COMES, that it intervenes, that it explodes into history= this is the existential realism and strange poetry in the paintings of Van Gogh and in the stories of the Jewish Bible.
Vincent Van Gogh was also a harbinger of the holy person of the future. Not normal, not saintly, but holy.
W. Uhde, who introduces the Phaidon Collection of Van Gogh plates, says= “He was a missionary who painted” [p 5]. His sister wrote of him at the age of 16= “Despite this unattractive, awkward appearance, there was yet something remarkable in his unmistakable expression of inward profundity” [p 7].
Dr. Gachet, who attended him in his last days, wrote of him= “The words ‘love of art’ are scarcely applicable to him, one ought to say: belief even unto martyrdom” [p 6].
Uhde= “His life is the story of a great and passionate heart, ..filled with.. love and sorrow. Love, not in the sense of likings or preferences, of sympathy or aesthetic taste, but in its deepest form, ..a deep religious relationship to [humans] and things. ..This love of his led him to self-sacrifice, to a prodigal spending of his own [self]. His life was an uninterrupted giving of himself, and his painting was nothing but the most adequate means of giving himself which he discovered after many other attempts” [p 5].
“The violence of this love of his did not bring him within the community of [people], it separated him from them and made him suspicious and lonely. Thus, together with love, a second feeling entered his heart: sorrow, not indeed in the lighter form of melancholy, but in the graver form of deep suffering and often of despair.” His last words to his brother Theo were= ‘Misery will never end.’
“His employers were not pleased when Vincent told them that [capitalist] trade was nothing but organised theft” [p 8].
“The idea of consoling those who are unfortunate in this world became stronger and stronger in his mind” [p 8].
The Impressionists “loved the appearance of things and loved them with well-tempered bourgeois hearts. [Van Gogh] loved passionately the things themselves. They liked brightness. He was a fanatical worshipper of the sun. That was something different, something deeper” [p 14].
“Here in Arles.. he created his work, ..the work not of an eye, a palette, a hand, but of a great and generous heart. ..He gave himself completely and lavishly, as he had once done in the Borinage. ..He remained the deep, sensitive man he had been before. He had not become a ‘bourgeois’, nor did he become a ‘painter.’
..He did not love sunshine: he loved the sun; and it was the latter he wanted to paint, not the former.
..His landscapes too are not reflections of an eye, but actual experiences of a human being” [p 15].
“That the values of movement also play an important part in all his works is likewise not surprising when we consider his passionate temperament” [p 16].
In 1889, the year before Van Gogh’s death, the Mercure de France published a positive review about his work, and he sold 1 painting.
Fire-Bearers do not fit the designation Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal. There is no name for them because they come not from the past but from the future.