Monday, March 31, 2008

Both Sides Now

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

From “Both Sides, Now” by Joni Mitchell

Is there any artist more buried by his mythological status in popular culture than Vincent Van Gogh? Born March 30, 1853, Van Gogh embodies the romantic ideal of the tortured artistic genius ignored in life and discovered tragically too late. A surefire way for any museum to score a big attendance hit is to run a show featuring Van Gogh in some way. Even people who don’t like “art” like Van Gogh, or at least pretend to. People who do love art then feel compelled to reclaim a more exclusive Van Gogh for themselves, like Diane Keaton’s character in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan overpronouncing his name as “Van Gaach.” We all think we know Van Gogh from the many self-portraits (such as the amazing Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, above, from 1887), the letters, Irving Stone’s novel Lust for Life, and Kirk Douglasfilm of the same name, but I think we’ve all been too presumptuous to believe we truly know him at all. Like Joni Mitchell’s clouds, we only know the “illusion” of Van Gogh, a caricature of the multidimensional man and artist.

The one myth I always find the most amusing about Van Gogh is the idea that he came out of nowhere, free of all influences and painting directly from his magical imagination and profoundly exuberant heart. Van Gogh loved the masters, from Rembrandt to Millet, taking pieces here and there and absorbing them into his own vision. Some people think that such influences diminish Van Gogh, but I see them as a strength—the coming to terms with the visions of others and overcoming them to use them for your own purposes. Van Gogh’s use of non-Western sources, such as the Japanese print, appears in the beautiful work Japonaiserie: Plum tree in Bloom (after Hiroshige) (above, from 1887). Many other contemporaries of Van Gogh produced similar Japonisme, but Van Gogh achieves a different sort of homage, taking the spirit of the original culture and seamlessly weaving it into the fabric of his own artistry. It makes me think of the great jazz artists and their ability to listen and learn while remaining true to themselves, even when breaking all the rules. Charlie Parker allegedly believed that you had to learn a song in every key, developing the ability to quote any tune at any time in any key that he used to great effect in his collage-like compositions. Louis Armstrong placed the mouthpiece on his lips incorrectly, leading to mouth problems later in life (which necessitated his “second” career as a vocalist) but also to the unique sound that gave birth to the virtuoso jazz soloist. Like Parker and Armstrong, Van Gogh learned art the “wrong” way, but from that “error” created something much greater than he could following any standard lesson plan.

The other myth that I find amusing and befuddling about Van Gogh is the idea of him as a secular saint. Van Gogh famously disdained organized religion, but mainly out of his sense of social justice for the poor that the church no longer served. I’ve always seen Van Gogh not so much quitting religion as religion quitting Van Gogh. The obvious feeling of a work such as his Pietà (After Delacroix) (above, from 1889) comes not just from his admiration for Delacroix but also from a heartfelt identification with Christ as the Suffering Servant. Van Gogh recognized the godhood in each person, regardless of social class, including himself. The self-portraits often elevate him to the status of a deity, surrounded by the nimbus of brilliant color. Van Gogh elevates us as well, placing himself in the role of Everyman, just an ordinary man full of the same extraordinary soul found in each of us. Many of the portraits, of course, show the suffering Van Gogh, struggling to keep it all together. Beneath all the clutter of what we think we know about Van Gogh, it’s important to remember that he was a man who struggled, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always a man and not a myth.

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