Friday, July 4, 2014

An Overview of Van Gogh's Relationships

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) painted people with remarkable sympathy but failed to get along with people in real life. He was deemed a failure by most of his family, had no lifelong friends and never married. In his entire short life, he had just one trusted confidant - his younger brother Theo. Theo was so attached to Vincent that he died a mere six months after his older brother.

Van Gogh's Family

Vincent was the oldest son of five children. He was born about one year after his mother gave birth to a still born son named Vincent. His father was a pastor, but more importantly his Uncle Vincent worked as a successful art dealer for the French firm Goupil & Cie. Vincent originally was going to follow his uncle's footsteps and sell art as opposed to creating it. He even worked in Guopil & Cie.'s London branch for two years.

Vincent did not receive any support from his large family with the sole exception of his brother Theo. Most of Vincent's letters to Theo survived and have been published. Vincent was considered bizarre and a misfit by his other family members. Vincent tried to woo his widowed cousin but she refused him. This caused a huge rift in the family that already was pushing Vincent away.

Van Gogh's Lovers

Although the legend claims that Vincent cut his ear off as a present for his favorite whore, this legend has been debunked. But Vincent did go to prostitutes. No "decent" woman would have anything to do with him. Modern doctors state that Vincent's bizarre behavior may have been the result of a combination of mental illness and a chronic ailment such as epilepsy or migraines.

Vincent moved to The Hague in 1881. In 1882, he met a pregnant prostitute, Clasina Maria Hoornik, and fell in love with her. They lived together, which caused a major scandal. The relationship was doomed from the start, but Vincent's tenderness towards his lover shows in his drawings of her, including the much loved Sorrow.

Van Gogh's Contemporaries

Most other artists would not have anything to do with Vincent, since his poverty made him have poor grooming habits and his ailments made his behavior unpredictable. He did briefly study under Anton Mauve, then a famous Dutch realistic painter. But Mauve soon tired of his scandalous student and soon would have nothing to do with him.

The only artist to attempt to collaborate with Vincent was yet another social misfit, Paul Gauguin. They briefly shared lodgings at Arles, France but often fought. Both were alcoholics and both were impoverished. Some biographers claim it was Gauguin who cut off part of Vincent's ear.

Additional References

Van Gogh.Rene Huyghe. Crown Publishers; 1967.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Irving Stone & Jean Stone, editors. Plume; 1995.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Van Gogh's Ear Regrown: WTF?

I was first hoping that this was an Internet joke, but apparently it's not: some modern German artist has claimed to have re-grown the infamous ear of Vincent Van Gogh. The Van Gogh DNA is supposedly from the back of an envelope Van Gogh was thought to have licked and from the saliva of a direct descendent of Theo Van Gogh, Lieuwe Van Gogh. It was then put into a computer program for three years and ABRACADABRA a 3-D printed image of Van Gogh's unmutilated ear was born.

Okay, I'm sure the actual process was a wee bit more complicated, but STILL, that's about what happened.

The 3-D ear was then placed in a spiffy box so that viewers can whisper their secrets into Vincent's ear -- which looks more like a creepy Jell-o mold than an ear. The piece is still not finished. It's still growing in a funky bubbly solution while it is on display in ZKM Karlsruhe Museum. In 2015, the piece is to be displayed somewhere in New York (where it may get an interesting headline in the New York Post but then be ignored.)

Anyway, the piece is called Sugarbabe (why not something that can be easily remembered, like Van Gogh's Ear? Trying to be ironic? Or just being a pain in the arse?) CNN gave this "news" the best treatment with this title "Apparently This Matters: Vincent Van Gogh's 3-D printed ear."

The artist, who's name I don't feel like mentioning, told the press that ear is alive: "Absolutely it’s alive!” she says. “What we did is create a machine to mimic the body. The whole system in which the ear lives you could say is the skin. The nutrition comes from the plasma. We have a pump, which is the heart, and an oxygen exchange like a lung.”

Wait -- WHAT? Did I miss something? Since when have ears been given personhood status?

I think even Vincent would have been fatally embarrassed by this one.

"Leaving Van Gogh"; By Carol Wallace: A Review

If you liked Lust for Life (1934) by Irving Stone, then you are going to be really disappointed with Carol Wallace's Leaving Van Gogh (2011.) Stone did the historical novel thing so much better and with far more intensity and focus than Wallace's rather sloppy word-portrait of both Vincent Van Gogh and his last therapist, Dr. Paul Gachet (yes -- the same Dr.Gachet of the infamous portraits.)

A far more interesting book would have been speculation on whatever happened to the painting Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), which disappeared in 1990 after being bought by a really rich Japanese guy.

The novel is told from Dr. Gachet's point of view. Granted, Dr. Gachet is one of the more mysterious characters on the fringe of art history. He was not only a bad amateur artist and spectacular art collector, he also treated Impressionists like Renoir. He clearly made a big impression on Van Gogh, which is why he did the portrait in the way he did.

The plot is all over the place. Dr. Gachet goes into flashbacks into most inconvenient times, which really interrupts the narrative. The big revelation of the novel turns out to be no revelation at all. Dr. Gachet sees Van Gogh in rose-tinted spectacles, which really clashes with the historical portrait we have of him. YES, I know this is work of fiction, but HONESTLY!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

YouTube Video: "Simon Schama's The Power of Art: Vincent Van Gogh"

This 2006 documentary is one episode of an eight-part series where historian Simon Schama takes a look at famous painters and how they impacted art and society. There is also a book to accompany this series. This is beautifully shot with some gorgeous footage of where Van Gogh lived. I gets a bit Painted With Words at times, but is well worth the time. This is not a comprehensive documentary of his life (the whole ear thing is barely mentioned) but concentrates on how why he painted as he did.

Although I recommend this program, here are a couple of warnings:

  • There's swearing
  • Van Gogh is pronounced wrong
  • There is a disturbing scene of Vincent eating a tube of yellow paint
  • There's Simon Schama himself, who takes a little getting used to. He has a peculiar voice and a very drone-like way of speaking. However, he does have a droll sense of humor and has a great sense of why Van Gogh matters.
Vincent is played by British actor Andy Serkis (yes -- the same guy who did Gollum). I wonder what would happen if a Dutch actor was ever cast for a British documentary on Vincent. However, Serkis uses a lower class British accent, which certainly would have made a direct impact on the BBC audience. He uses a frantic energy and a steady determination which grows on you during the course of the show.

My Favorite Van Gogh Painting: Sunflowers

I've just realized that I've had this blog for over a year and have yet to write extensively about my favorite painting by Vincent Van Gogh. I will now rectify this immediately.

As this post's title suggests, my favorite Van Gogh painting is Sunflowers (Tournesols).  Ah, but which Sunflowers, you ask? Van Gogh did numerous paintings featuring these gaudy flowers in different shades, vases and sometimes with other flowers.  The one I like is the most famous version with a yellow-gold background, painted in 1888 and now hangs in the National Gallery  in London.

Why? Well, my Mom bought a cheap framed reproduction when I was a very small child.  It hung on the stairway next to the stacks of National Geographics that my family once collected (and are now long gone.) About 40 years later, after my parents' divorce, my two busted live-in relationships and God knows how many moves, it's about all that's left of my childhood.  It's still owned by my Mom.

When I was 29, I had a mental breakdown and ran away to live with a busker in England.  That didn't work out and I burned a lot of bridges back to America.  And then one day my make-shift shelter in the woods was burnt down.  The fire brigade suspected arson.  I knew someone was trying to kill me and my dog.  I never thought my Mom would take me in, but she did -- and took my dog in, too.

She set up a bedroom for me in the basement.  There, propped against a mirror, was the Sunflowers painting.  I had come home.

Below is a short news clip about two of the most famous versions from London and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam of Sunflowers being shown side by side.

What is your favorite Van Gogh painting?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Orangutan Being Called the Next Van Gogh

Let me clear. I have nothing against orangutans. I like orangutans. But I have a real hard time taking seriously anyone who compares an orangutan's paintings to a Van Gogh. That's what ABC News is saying on their website.

Rudi Valentino, the 36 year old male orangutan lives at the Houston Zoo. It must be kinda dull at the zoo, because 10 years ago, Rudi took up a new hobby -- painting. He paints on any surface he can get a hold of. Van Gogh's painting career only lasted ten years.

According to Rudi's keepers, his favorite color is pink and that he has "an artistic temperament."

Rudi's works are being auctioned off tomorrow, April 10, in order to benefit the zoo. Rudi's not the only animal artist in the auction. There are also works by an elephant, a clouded leopard and a pig. I have seen some of Rudi's work (pictured) and I have to say I'm not impressed. Sure, he still paints better than I do, but he's not quite in the Van Gogh department.

If Rudi is supposedly like Van Gogh, then his keepers need to keep him away from booze and whores is all I'm saying.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Scientists Use Van Gogh Paintings to Look at History of Climate

Vincent Van Gogh doesn't just matter to art lovers, but also to scientists. Some Greek and German scientists have looked at hundreds of paintings and photos from 1500, including Van Gogh's recently discovered Sunset at Montmajour (pictured) in order to see what the skies used to look like. Their article was published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Why bother looking at paintings? Well, they didn't have photographs (let alone color photographs) back in 1500. One subject painters seemed to love was how the sky looked like after a volcanic explosion. By comparing the paintings to color photographs of polluted skies and skies after volcanic explosions, scientists hope to get a better picture of our planet's climactic history.

This isn't the first time this group has used paintings to help figure out the history of the air. They previously published a large study in the same journal back in 2007. They also commissioned a contemporary artist to paint sunsets after a dust storm in 2010 on the island of Hydra. Paintings by JMW Turner were also used in the study.

According to the study's authors, "Because of the large number of paintings studied, we tentatively propose the conclusion that regardless of the school, red-to-green ratios from great masters can provide independent proxy AODs [Aerosol Optical Depth] that correlate with widely accepted proxies and with independent measurements."