Most of us have some understanding or some knowledge of the work and the life of Vincent van Gogh. Its essence has been reduced to a kind of coffee-table-friendly caricature of the tragic but inevitable demise of a tortured artist. Whether we as individuals see in him beast or brilliant and radical thinker and actor upon urgent truths, he remains a force; perhaps because though he may have been fauve, he was magnificently the antithesis of faux. What Simon Schama has rather beautifully called his ability to paint “the fullness of our hearts” has set Vincent the wonderstruck loner apart. I have taken no significant poll of the population but feel none is necessary for the following cornball assertion – that he is loved more by more people than almost any artist that ever lived. And this does mean something.
Now, suddenly – or it feels sudden – there is another twist, perhaps, to the story. It seems possible that van Gogh’s predictably(?) messy suicide(?) may need relieving of some of its interrogation marks. Or more likely, that newer questions might be inserted into the parable. But forgive my cynicism if I am reluctant to move from the admittedly highly coloured current understanding; that Vincent may have either accidentally or deliberately shot himself, in either an acutely disturbed moment or a moment of sensationally crystalline tragedy, compounded by poor or inadequate treatment. I simply wonder how, at this distance, safe new truths can replace the existing.
Van Gogh: The Life is an understandably epic look at the life and death of the painter of sunflowers. Authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have allegedly spent ten years researching the book and have reportedly unearthed ‘thousands’ of previously untranslated letters. (Learning this, I did I confess ask myself how even given Van Gogh’s propensity to write almost daily letters, quite that many could lie undiscovered?) But perhaps there I am being cynical. May I balance that notion with the confession that I am one of those who is so drawn to the man’s fires that in my dreams I have swum and then crawled from West Wales to the Cincinnati Art Museum in order to kneel before “Undergrowth with Two Figures” and weep, cathartically. Suspicion and closed-heartedness are not, I promise my chief attributes.
However, the claim the author’s make that the art historian John Rewald, who after visiting Auvers in 1930 concluded that one of two youths is likely to have accidentally shot Vincent has some degree of plausibility. Vincent and the boys were drinking companions – or possibly adversaries. The boys had a dodgy gun; that kind of thing. But can we be sure? At all? Perhaps this theory is more appropriate than actually true; yet another level of curdling tragi-farce. There is the suggestion that Vincent may have willingly taken the rap (to his grave) rather than risk letting a comparative (or at least younger) innocent suffer any punishment. There is quite a lot, I think, of informed speculation.
Yet it may be that my own view of Vincent van Gogh is so full of the unprovable that these further contentions are veritable pillars of the narrative in comparison. I can’t prove that I was moved to tears at the sight of Cypress Trees in a chest-heavingly resonant moment aged about twenty. I can’t prove that there is something invincible in Wheatfield with Crows of 1890. My dreams of a pilgrimage to Cincinatti could be about… baseball. I just doubt it.
I am happy to acknowledge this extraordinary man in many ways – in the following way; by expressing my concern that our feelings are befuddled and interfered with unnecessarily in this matter. Vincent was at once rooted and true and radical to the point of volcanic. Better to stand before the work and be drawn in; by the greatest and most generous and – why not? – the most popular artist who ever graced the earth.