Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec"; By Lawrence & Elizabeth Hanson: My Review

Why am I talking about a book on Henri Toulouse-Latrec on a Van Gogh blog?  Well, the two knew each other, albeit briefly.  I think Vincent's work was influenced by Toulouse-Latrec's work, although I'm not sure many art historians and critics would agree with me.  Reading  about Vincent's contemporaries helps not only flesh out the times that Vincent lived in, but also helps you appreciate what Vincent was comparing himself to.

Which brings us to The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec (Random House; 1956) by the husband and wife team of Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson.  The couple also wrote biographies of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.  I haven't read those and think I may skip them.  This book was enough.

This is not a particularly detailed biography and suffers from some of the biographers' criticism of his private life.  However, this is one of the shortest biographies out there.  If you do not have a lot of time and know elementary French, then this book will be okay.

Although Vincent was considered freakish by the French because of his intensity, his penchant for pissing people off and his problems speaking French, Toulouse-Latrec drew horrified stares or quickly averted eyes.  His parents were first cousins and boy, did it show in Toulouse-Latrec's dwarfish and incredibly fragile body.  He wasn't a dwarf in that he did not suffer from dwarfism, but his legs broke when he was a child and he basically stopped growing then.

Sadly, this book has very few illustrations -- all of  which are in black and white.  Read it and Google the works described. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Did Van Gogh Have Syphilis?

It's generally assumed that Vincent Van Gogh had syphilis because (quite frankly) 10% of all European men had it in the late 1800s.  He was diagnosed with another sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea, in 1882.  Both STDs have similar symptoms so Van Gogh could have been misdiagnosed.

Van Gogh is thought to have had syphilis for 2 reasons:

  1. He frequented brothels
  2. He was kinda loopy
According to Van Gogh:The Life (Random House; 2012) Van Gogh did have syphilis about 1885.  During this time he had terrible mouth sores and lost a lot of weight because he was unable to eat. (See p. 447)
Unlike gonorrhea, syphilis caused insanity (or seeming insanity) in it's last stages, called neurosyphilis.  In teriary syphilis, the face become deformed, as seen in the bust of such a patient (pictured.)

According to The Lobotomist John Wiley & Sons; 2005), one fifth of all patients in American psychiatric wards had syphilis in the 1920s and 1930s.  The book, a biography of lobotomist Walter Freeman, includes some really vivid passages describing neurosyphilis patients, such as this little gem from page 59:

Though largely forgotten today, neurosyphilis was a terrible disease, a near epidemic that left its targets -- mainly men thirty and over -- in a wasted, twisted condition, riddled with bedsores and unable to speak coherently...They frequently grew demented, demented, incontinent and unable to control their muscles.
The problem is that Van Gogh was not really old enough to begin showing symptoms of neurosyphilis.  Men usually begin showing them 10 to 20 years after they get infected. 

My theory (and I think I'm alone on this one) that Van Gogh thought he had syphilis.  Since he had spent time in asylums, he saw what happened to men suffering in the final stages of neurosyphilis.  Perhaps one of the deciding factors in his suicide was that he feared developing those horrible final symptoms.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

YouTube Documentary: "Vincent Van Gogh at the Borinage"

OK, this will be the weirdest Van Gogh documentary you will ever see, but if you get stoned on flu medication or have insomnia for a few days due to illness, then this is really trippy.  This film centers on Vincent's time as a missionary to impoverished minors at the Borinage in Belgium.  He was dismissed by his order for becoming as dirty and course as the local population.

As you will see, funding got cut off and production problems abounded, but the director was determined to finish the documentary.  That explains why Van Gogh is in period dress walking around modern London as cars go whizzing by.  This documentary did air on some European television channels.  I found it at (where else?) YouTube.  It's 53 minutes long and has a really good narrator.  Enjoy!

From the YouTube description:

Long lost documentary which I found back some days ago. I made this in 2000 and due to an argument with the production company it never made (reached) any festivals. It is about Van Gogh's time he spend in Belgium desperately longing to step in his father's footsteps to become a vicar, knowing he was born to be an artist.

The film was shown on Spanish, Italian, Maltese and Cypriotic television but has never been viewed in Belgium.

Director: klaus verscheure. Writer: Rene de Bok Editor: Jan Weynants Music: Frank Deruytter & Tony O'Malley

"Lust for Life"; By Iriving Stone: Fictional Van Gogh Autobiography Review

Lust for Life (1934) is Irving Stone's best-known novel. Early on in Stone's career, he decided that biographies of famous people should be just as gripping as dime-store novels. There are few people that have had a more interesting (if tragic) life than the highly influential Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890).

Although this is a biography, it's usually found under "fiction" in bookstores and libraries. This is because Stone had to take some poetic license in order to make a coherent and interesting novel. After the book ends, Stone has a section called "Notes", where he admits to the reader that a couple of the scenes (such as Van Gogh's meeting with Paul Cezanne) were clearly a product of his imagination.

Reading Recommendations for Van Gogh Fans

Van Gogh left a substantial body of personal papers behind him, kept by his loving younger brother Theo. But Van Gogh was not a person to let truth get in the way of a good story. Modern art historians (and psychiatrists) think that Van Gogh suffered not only from epilepsy, but several kinds of mental illness. Perhaps Van Gogh was not the best person to figure out what was going on around him.

Read Lust for Life with a large grain of salt and a book of Van Gogh's artworks within reach. This will help illustrate many of the great works of art described in the book. Although Stone does a good job describing them, words can't accurately portray Van Gogh's art. The very last paragraph is particularly haunting, describing Van Gogh's grave.

If you really want to read a more factual biography of Van Gogh that's still in print, try Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images (Lorenz Books; 2009) by Matthew Howard.

Contrasts with the Historical Van Gogh

The Van Gogh portrayed in Lust for Life is an interesting character the reader can sympathize with and root for. Lust for Life (and the 1956 film adaptation starring Kirk Douglas) helped to create and solidify the Van Gogh mystique. Here was a man who felt so passionately for his favorite prostitute that he cut off his own ear as a gift. The official Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam still claims that Van Gogh cut off his own ear in order to express his love.

However, modern art historians doubt that Van Gogh was merely a misunderstood and tortured genius. He was an alcoholic and probably beat up more than one woman in his life. The town of Arles, France, demanded that Van Gogh leave. Lust for Life claims it was because of the ear incident, but some art historians think it was because he was a dangerous drunk.

They also doubt that Van Gogh cut off his own ear. Many think that fellow artist Paul Gauguin cut it off while both artists were in a drunken rage. British art historian Martin Bailey claims that Van Gogh did cut it off in order to gain attention and sympathy from his brother Theo, who had just announced his engagement.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Did Van Gogh Like People?

Vincent Van Gogh is often hailed as an artist that truly captured the human experience.  He wanted to paint portraits because he (at one time, anyway) thought it was the hardest form of art.

But did Van Gogh actually like people?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he didn't.  However, he felt guilty about it.

He never got on well with anyone for long stretches of time. Even his saintly younger brother Theo couldn't stand living with him.  Paul Gauguin got so sick of Vincent that he cut off part of his ear with a sword (according to some art historians anyway.)

Vincent, always lonely, preferred to stay alone.  Even in childhood, he could not get along with people.  In a photo from his schoolboy days, he crosses his arms and legs tightly as if daring anyone to get close.  The photo shown here shows Vincent with the same expression.

Being Dutch, Vincent was drilled on duty to family and to other people since practically the womb.  His letters to brother Theo seemed full of hope to help others when he was sent to the Borinage as a minister.

But people always disappointed him.  In this I (and I think others) can readily identify.  He never got over being sent to boarding school when he was 11, writing into adulthood about watching his parents drive off in a carriage while he was on the school steps.  All his romances were failures.  Even God rejected him when he was kicked out of the Borinage ministry because he was too unkempt and too much like a Borinage native than a proper Dutch clergyman.

People in his paintings and drawings are often very far away.  This could be due in part to his inability to hire models (making a silhouette was cheaper than a model) but done so often that he must have thought it looked right.  He was far away from other people.  Some paintings show his point of view, such as being far back in a row of dinner tables in Interior of a Restaurant in  Arles (1888).  The tables closest to him are empty.  The tables go back and forth like prison bars.

So no, I don't think he liked people, unless they were abstract.  He had a much more successful relationship with Theo through letter writing than whenever they met in person.  By the end of his short life, he felt more comfortable in solitude than with others.  His last trip to Paris in July of 1890 included a dinner with Theo, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and 2 others who liked his work.  Before the last guest arrived, Vincent had slipped off, left the city and went back to Auvers.  He'd commit suicide three weeks later.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Did Van Gogh Have a Sense of Humor?

I was reading one of my local library's biographies of Henri Toulouse-Latrec called The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec (Random House; 1956) by the husband and wife team of Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson.  My eyes widened as I read that Vincent Van Gogh "was without a sense of humor" which made him an unlikely companion for the witty Toulouse-Latrec.

Really?  Without a sense of humor?  Granted, his letters to brother Theo that have survived do not offer a lot of yucks.  But we are still talking about a man who did this oil painting, "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" (or, in his native Dutch Kop van een skelet met brandende sigaret).  This was done in Antwerp in 1885 or 1886.  The latter was the year Vincent moved from Antwerp to Paris.

Vincent apparently read French and understood French being spoken to him much better than he spoke it.  This may have caused him to appear humorless and a bit stupid to the Parisians.  Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson state that Vincent stuttered when speaking French, but I haven't seen this mentioned in any other biography ... other than the one written by the Hansons, Passionate Pilgrim: The Life of Vincent Van Gogh (Random House; 1955.)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Van Gogh's First Drawings

Although Vincent Van Gogh didn't decide to become an artist until he was 27, he had drawn as a hobby.  Sometimes the legend of Van Gogh claims that he didn't draw anything until he was 27, but Van Gogh biographers (such as Michael Howard, author of Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images note that he drew often to amuse his brother Theo when the pair were children.  Some were done with a stick on dirt s the medium and some were pencil and paper.

Whatever the subject was of Vincent's very first drawing is unknown.  He probably did what many babies or toddlers do and drew a tightly bunched series of circles or other scribbles.  Most toddlers make their first scribbles when they are 18 months old, according to Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.  What age Vincent was when he first put a marking implement to a surface is unknown. 

Van Gogh got used to writing letters when he was very young.  Even in those letters, he'd fire off a sketch.  Decades after Vincent's death, these oldest of sketches and drawings were called the "Juvenilia" done when Vincent was still a youth.

It is unknown with 100% which drawing is Van Gogh's oldest surviving work.  The excellent website estimates that a drawing known simply as "The Goat Herd" (pictured above) earns this distinction.  It has been dated 9 August 1862, when Vincent was nine years old.  The drawing now resides in a private collection.

I'm assuming this drawing is a fragment of a larger drawing, because I am unaware that one goat constitutes a "herd."  Even at such a young age, Vincent's human figures are bent with the world's worries.