August 15, 2013


VINCENT'S FINAL DAYS (GREGORY CURTIS, June 28th, 2013, The Common)

When Vincent was in his late teens, his father had seriously considered having him committed and had explored various possibilities for doing so. Vincent discovered what his father was doing and was both enraged and deeply wounded. But in the following years, he had periodic attacks of tension and nervous despair that would leave him bedridden for days. In time, though, with rest and maybe a solid meal or two, he would, as he thought of it, gain the strength on his own to conquer his nerves and resume the life he was leading.

But after the attacks in Arles eighteen months ago that had forced him into the asylum, there was no longer any question of a fair struggle. The illness was far more powerful than he was. He saw visions, he heard voices, he would crawl on his stomach, he would eat filth, he would drink turpentine and squeeze paints into his mouth hoping to kill himself, and when the worst had passed, he would not remember anything, just as he had no memory of the night when he had sliced his ear. After these most intense waves had subsided, he would have brief moments of relative lucidity before becoming sad and anxious again. He would sit with his head in his hands for hours, for days, for weeks. If someone spoke to him, either he would not respond or he would appear pained, as if those words spoken to him were on the attack, and he would gesture to be left alone.

He was better, for the moment. That's why his doctor had allowed him to travel to Paris alone overnight on the train. But what was to prevent the illness from returning? Tension; an argument; an unexpected slight; the noise and confusion of the streets in Paris; a sudden, shocking loss; an irrevocable 
and unwanted change--such things, singly or in tandem, could make his nerves scream and contract, and he would be lost. Vincent lived each moment of each day with the fear that his darkness would rise and, unrelenting as 
the tide, sweep him away.

Vincent was thirty-seven now, an old thirty-seven. After his attacks during the last eighteen months, he had given up on many cherished dreams. In particular, he had given up on having the wife and children he had yearned for as a young man. Now he knew with certainty that he was too sick for marriage or for a regular domestic life. With that dream now just a memory, only 
a few things still mattered to him. He cared about his painting most of all and pursued it with a constant, unwavering, feverish intensity. He cared about the paintings of artists he admired, such as Gauguin and Bernard and, above all, Millet. He cared about literature and reading. He cared about Theo, and now he cared about the infant Vincent Willem. He cared to a degree about his sister Willemina and about his mother. He cared about a few friends, and he cared, in an abstract, sentimental way, about the mass of impoverished workers and miners and peasants. He cared about seduced and abandoned women 
and about prostitutes in the streets and their children. He thought that men who were not prepared to protect and rescue a woman were unworthy and should be ashamed. He could be charming and kind to small children, and he loved his pipe. He didn't drink much anymore or go to the brothels. His religious beliefs, which had obsessed him when he was young, had lost their fervor, if they hadn't evaporated entirely. An elderly couple out walking together or a pretty girl and her young companions in the countryside might produce longing reveries in him, but he knew those reveries were for a world beyond his embrace, except in his painting.

Later that Sunday morning, after Vincent had finished studying his paintings that were in Theo's apartment, he and Theo went to Père Tanguy's store where Theo bought the paints, brushes, and canvases he had sent to Vincent in Arles. Père Tanguy also stored paintings by Vincent. Here, too, Vincent saw paintings that he thought needed more work. Then the two brothers went to the Salon du Champ-de-Mars.

This was the first exhibition mounted by the Société National des Beaux-Arts. Since about 1850, beginning with the first Impressionists, young, radical artists working in new styles broke away from the official shows sponsored by the government. But by now, the politics of art in France had grown so complicated that it was the established artists who were breaking away 
to present their own shows. Instead of young radicals, this exhibit included such famous and successful artists as the sculptor Auguste Rodin, 
the history painter Ernest Meissonier, and the sixty-six-year-old Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who had been a force in organizing the show.

Puvis de Chavannes was twenty-eight years older than Vincent. He had come of age during the rise of the Impressionists. Although the Impressionists rebelled against the classical orthodoxy that had ruled the generations of painters before them, Puvis de Chavannes never did. Classical figures and poses dominated his work. Also, Puvis de Chavannes used a deliberately muted and pale palette that was the opposite of the vivid, pulsing colors that often marked Vincent's paintings.

Still, Vincent had always admired the older painter. At the Salon du Champs-de-Mars, he was drawn powerfully toward Puvis de Chavannes's Inter artes et naturam, which had become the biggest sensation in the show. In the painting, men and women stand or sit in classical poses, wearing clothes that seem to be both contemporary and classical at the same time. These personages are in a highly stylized garden of fruit trees by the banks of the Seine. Some of the men are excavating classical antiquities. One woman is painting pottery, while another pulls down a bough so her infant in arms can reach the fruit. Still other men and women are simply sitting or standing idly. The ground is dotted with little white and yellow flowers.

Vincent was transfixed. He thought the painting revealed all nature and all humanity, not as they are, but simplified to show how they could be. As he continued to study the painting, he began to feel that he was witnessing a strange and happy meeting of very distant antiquity and raw modernity-that is, modernity in a new and still unrefined version. Here before him was the inevitable, benevolent rebirth of things he had believed in and desired. Vincent found himself meditating gratefully on a painting he took to be as definitive as the Sermon on the Mount, one that caused old words such 
as "blessed are the poor in spirit" and "blessed are the pure in heart" to return with a new significance.

And Vincent saw even more. In his eyes, Puvis de Chavannes had painted the world and its inhabitants that Vincent had seen revealed beneath the blue skies and intense sun of the south of France. The previous November, while he was still in the asylum in Saint Rémy, Vincent had received a drawing of Paul Gauguin's Agony in the Garden and a photograph of Émile Bernard's Christ in the Garden of Olives. The two paintings horrified Vincent. He thought they were false, unconvincing, even repellant abominations. Christ in the garden on the Mount of Olives was a theme he himself had tried twice to paint from his imagination. He destroyed both attempts. His failures had convinced him that the subject was too important to try to paint from the imagination alone. Christ in the olive garden needed to be painted from life somehow.

And Vincent had an intimation about how that could be done.

Posted by at August 15, 2013 5:17 AM

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