Vincent van Gogh’s last pictures—the huge body of work that he executed in the fifteen months before his death in July of 1890 at the age of thirty-seven—are mostly about spirituality, about spirit-power moving in the universe. A spiritual mood, I suppose, is one in which people fall to pondering the common lot of lives—birth, growth, maturation, death—and the ways in which these finalities may be imbued with sacramental meaning. Though to paint a head or a shoe or a cypress has never been considered a sacred act, Van Gogh in the presumed foreknowledge of his imminent death summoned up the will to sanctify in a way his metier. In the collective memory, too, he appears as a holy-man, a red-faced, straw-hatted evangelist with a rippling wheatfield behind him as pantheistic evidence of the Resurrection. Much of this is Hollywood, of course, but by no means all of it, for what gives his images their iconic aura is their genuine, simple prayerfulness. Look, he raptly tells us, there are poppies growing in the orchard; or, This crooked lane goes just like this—and he draws a line around it to stress his joyful wonder. There is in his famous letters to his brother Theo a pathetic sense of despair soliciting hope. Art, he perceives, is long, and life is short, he sees, and already his life is guttering out, like a candle on a straw-bottomed chair; it has somehow always been too late for him, too late even to grasp the truth of this orchard, these poppies, this lane—and yet, and yet . . . isn’t there every reason to hope? Isn’t everything, in the end, precisely as it was meant to be?

What gives his images their iconic aura is their genuine, simple prayerfulness.

The Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition of Van Gogh’s work from Saint-Rémy and Auvers follows, with a slight lapse of time, an earlier show of the painter’s preceding period at Arles.1 Both shows were curated by Ronald Pickvance, who also wrote the not-quite-matching catalogues, which are very intelligently put together and profusely illustrated. It is generally held that Van Gogh in Aries was a rather greater artist than Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, and painful though it is to accept conventional wisdom, I too prefer the earlier period. In May, 1889, the severely troubled painter arrived in the Provencal village of Saint-Rémy, where he voluntarily committed himself to a mental asylum; thenceforward to July, 1890, when he took his life at Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, he seems to have been too agitated to sustain the creative power he had so abundantly manifested in Aries. The show at the Met was weakened as well by its inclusiveness: a very great deal of what Van Gogh produced during his final months was proudly put on display, and the artist’s reputation cannot emerge unscathed from this warts-and-all presentation. Nonetheless, this body of work, with its many delicate inner correspondences, certainly deserved to be viewed at least once precisely as the Met presented it.

In Van Gogh’s previous phase at Aries his characteristic stubble of blunt strokes had been put to as many uses as the staple of a peasant diet. Isolated, the strokes could stand for things like flowers or stalks; aligned, they could build planes; twisted around, they could delineate a head or a thatched roof; reduced to dots, they could indicate density or aerial perspective; running all together in skeins, they could point the way. But during the painter’s first months at Saint-Rémy the strokes’ configurations shift. They seem to rebel against being the mere constituents of things; they want a life of their own. It is as if the bricks in a wall were to mutter against their lowly estate and then to swarm like bees; and as the strokes in the pictures swarm along in their characteristic vivid wavelets they begin to remind us of other sorts of directional phenomena, like the braided ripples in brooks, or magnetized iron shavings. Often they scarcely represent matter or discrete objects at all, but rather the vectors of some fierce force field.

A sign of derangement? Decidedly not—Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings never resemble those of a madman, for his way of picture-making was perfectly rational if somewhat overcharged. The state of spiritual fermentation in which he knocked these things out, though interspersed with episodes of the direst melancholy, was absolutely a factor in his favor. To glimpse in the unfolding pageant of nature some unifying flow, some strangely palpable prophecy that everything here is just as it must be—that is not merely a permissible part of representation but actually its prime occasion. The old Japanese draughtsmen whom Van Gogh so deeply admired used to speak candidly of something called ki, which was, I believe, the energy that flowed through any motif: if a man could not discern it in the whorls of a tree-bole or a dancer’s sleeve then he had better not lift his brush—not, that is, till he saw it coursing in his subject. Yet if the Dutchman’s bustling spirituality could only lighten his endeavors, he set himself something of a snare in his attempt to reconcile it with a certain quaint conception of pictorial simplicity. This notion, offering itself to his Christian conscience under the guise of humility, pressed him rather often to run a severe yet rustically irregular line around an object or a part of one. Such contours, which often undulate so vigorously that the scene seems glimpsed as in a pond or a blistered mirror, were derived from such nineteenth-century sources as Japanese prints, images d’Epinal, children’s books, and illustrated papers—an essentially populistic pictorial trove. Presumably Van Gogh felt that with these dark lines he could achieve the stylistic propinquity to the great unwashed that had been his standing aim; at the same time they secured for his paintings some of the thrilling semi-abstract linearity of his reed-pen drawings. As it happens, to conjoin the populistic outlines with the swarming brushstrokes was by no means an impossible task; but it was not an easy task either.

A good many pictures in this exhibition ought by all rights to have belonged to the great and honorable fraternity of those canvases which are made, often at an early age, to stand in a corner with their faces to the wall. Van Gogh simply does not seem pledged at this period to a standard of pictorial construction. There is little sign, amid the many muddled or ill-articulated areas, that the painter was passionately committed to getting things right; his letters to Theo also disclose that he was not averse to sending on to Paris a painting of whose flaws he was wholly aware. What this suggests, of course, was that Van Gogh always remained something of an amateur, though only an amateur of genius could have painted the Portrait of Trabuc. It is the amateur, after all, who is obsessed with the “experience” of painting, who brings back a daub from the sunset saying, This is a part of me, this expresses my feelings. Unfortunately for such a hypothesis, though, there never was anything amateurish about the painting of Vincent van Gogh; one must search, then, for some better explanation for so much structural instability. Perhaps he feared that any bout of self-criticism would unleash a wave of morbid depression so violent that it might drag him under; perhaps something like this did actually happen in the end. The fact remains that some of these paintings don’t look fully puzzled out.

Again and again one is brought up short by Van Gogh’s difficulties in reconciling two very different conceptions of modernity. Édouard Manet before him had faced a similar problem: for Manet the truly modern technique had meant the registration of flat color values coming together, whereas the modern subject—put simply—was the passage of people in public places. The two could not be reconciled: the spectator may observe the resultant foundering in the background of some of the late pieces, where Manet was obliged to rely on memory for the entire setting, though no one alive could have remembered so manifold an array of tones. What happened to Van Gogh’s attempt to fuse his perception of spiritual energy with his notion of modernism as something akin to populism was somewhat analogous. His many copies of Millet’s The Sower propose the quandary: how can the essentially non-naturalistic flow of the brushstrokes adequately encompass the extremely material clods on which the sower—to be a sower—must stand? How can the color of the sky be intensified into a “halo” of emotion (Van Gogh’s terminology) without falsifying both the experience of leaden northern skies and the mood of grueling farm labor? Progressively in the late paintings the sense of feelable structure—of where things are in relation to one another—is lost in woolly confusion or forfeited in favor of fairly flat color planes. Of the latter it must be said that when they work they really work, as in the superb Olive Trees with the Alpilles or Mountains at Saint-Rémy; but often they do not work at all.

Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings never resemble those of a madman.

Nothing short of consistently brilliant seeing can marry heavy outlines to short, choppy brushstrokes. At Aries Van Gogh pulls off this feat, but at Saint-Rémy he wavers. His repetitive, heavy-handed impasto fails to make up for a certain lack of assurance in the design. Often there is some exoticism or lack of simplicity in his color; he nurses too many overheated ideas about things, he wants to paint their poetic nature instead of their placement in pictorial space. He loses the workman’s, the craftsman’s point of view—rather strangely, I think, for someone so ideologically attuned to the value of manual labor. In Village Street in Auvers he recaptures his brio, plays hide and seek with his contours, floats with consummate skill his delightful chaumières into their almost comically fluid and wobbly space; and all the while he deftly catches, in a color chord purloined from the Dutch flag, that popular, almost childlike note he has been wistfully seeking all along. It is like a shard of childhood recovered in a dream.

When, in Auvers, Van Gogh limited himself to line and a color or two, his drawing, always interesting and innovative, became . . . well, simply perfect. This is Van Gogh the spiritual authority, the man who drew spirit itself. The notion of Van Gogh the martyr of inwardness—the patron saint of the unrequited life—was given appropriately goofy expression some decades ago by Antonin Artaud in Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société; Artaud’s notion has, I think, much truth to it. Unfortunately, however, it has been confused with another notion, which is that of Van Gogh the hero of temperament, who was also the hero of the German Expressionists. Many of the worst excesses of this school of painting and its contemporary heirs are traceable to an occasional practice of Van Gogh’s that sets my teeth on edge: the exploitation of objects for their emotional associations rather than for their compositional or spatial value. This is the Vincent of the shimmying trees and glaring stars, the papery moons and gluey clouds-he of the dorm-room wall. But generally I try not to think of this truculent bore, and in fact I rarely do; for whenever I picture Vincent van Gogh, a seventy-year-old titan with a floating white beard rises up in my mind, and I strain to see all the wonderful pictures he is showing me—all the wonderful things he would have painted had he not made his Saint-Rémy and Auvers phase his last. 

  1.   “Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers” opened at the Metropolitan Museum on November 25 and is on view through March 22. It was organized by Ronald Pickvance, who also wrote the catalogue (published by the Metropolitan in association with Abrams, 325 pages, $18.95). “Van Gogh in Arks” was on view at the Metropolitan from October 18 to December 30, 1984.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 7, on page 53
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