Thursday, February 21, 2013

If Van Gogh Was So Great, Why Didn't He Sell More in His Lifetime?

This is a loaded question that Van Gogh fans often hear.  The insinuation, of course, is that the art world only likes its artists dead.  Another insinuation is that people buy art only if it has been declared "great" by a certain amount of critics.

Now, if you really do not like the art of Vincent Van Gogh, there is nothing anyone can write that is going to change your mind.  Van Gogh's art is polarizing; you either love it or hate it. 

Van Gogh was getting some critical praise in 1890, the year he would commit suicide.  He had paintings in two major exhibitions in 1889 and 1890 and a large positive write-up in the French magazine Mecure de France by respected art critic Albert Aurier.  A translated version of the article, "The Isolated Ones" is up on the Vincent van Gogh Gallery website.  It seemed that Van Gogh was poised for stardom -- or, at least, poised to earn enough money for paints and smokes. 

The main problem with why Van Gogh didn't sell during his lifetime was due to Van Gogh's abrasive personality.  He went out of his way to offend people -- including the very people he needed to ask favors from, such as restaurant owners (which often displayed art) and art dealers.  He argued so much with all of his art teachers that they kicked him out of their studios after a few weeks.

Van Gogh's early work (1885 in particular) was very dark, with depressing subjects and people painted in a grotesque fashion, such as the portrait above.  His art dealer brother, Theo, would constantly beg Vincent to stop doing black and white drawings and concentrate on bright paintings like those of the leading Impressionists of the day, Monet and Degas.

Although Vincent eventually took his brother's advice, he spent most of his time drawing or painting exactly what others advised him NOT to paint or draw.  Not surprisingly, these works did not sell until after Van Gogh died.  Even now, his later works from 1887 to 1890 are best known than his darker early works.

The point is that had Van Gogh lived longer -- even to the end of 1890, he would have sold a lot more paintings in his lifetime.  Tastes not only had changed to admire Van Gogh's wildly vivid work, but Van Gogh had changed his art in part to accommodate current tastes.

Why he chose to shoot himself when on the verge of attaining his dream of supporting himself with his art is cause for much debate.  It could be that Vincent's mental illness had progressed so far that he thought that only death was appropriate.  It could also be that Vincent enjoyed the climb up rather than the view from the top.

Image: "Head of a Peasent Woman with a White Cap" (1885)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Painting Focus: Autumn Landscape (1885)

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) is best known for paintings full of his feverishly swirling layers of color. But Van Gogh was capable of surprising realism when it came to plants, still lifes and landscapes. One of his most realistic paintings is sadly one of his least known. “Autumn Landscape” is a large oil on canvass completed just five years before the painter’s legendary death.

In this painting, two long rows of trees descend in a sharp line away from the viewer. Four birds, possibly crows, fly above the trees and against the cloudy light blue sky. The trees seem to line a path but we cannot see where that path leads to. Van Gogh did a series of tree-based landscape paintings during this time but this painting looks slightly different from the others.

Beginning Style

In 1885, Van Gogh was still trying to find his unique style through the expensive medium of paint. 1885 was the year of his first major work, The Potato Eaters (1885.)Van Gogh had only been drawing for a few years. He was far behind his fellow artists, who, for the most part, had begun training when they were children. He was often criticized for his painting by his contemporaries.

However, because he started painting so late in his life, he was able to develop a unique style. In Autumn Landscape, he seems to try imitating the smoothness of contemporary Dutch painters. In the tree trunks and long dried grasses, especially, the viewer can see the thick swaths of paint laid down by Van Gogh. Van Gogh's style is starting to emerge, but he is still trying to control it to meet current tastes in art.

The Path Without A Destination

Van Gogh's failure as a minister to an impoverished mining community left him wanting to be an artist. He lived with this father at this time at the village of Nuenen. Van Gogh's father was the village minister. There is now a museum in Nuenen, including an "outdoor museum" marking the spots where Van Gogh is thought to have parked his easel while producing paintings like Autumn Landscape.

Van Gogh seems unsure of where his life will lead, as the path through the trees suggests. The path is clearly seen but the destination is unknown. Although an autumn painting, green is still seen in the leaves, intermingling with yellows and oranges. Life is still visible among the pretty dead leaves.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life"; By Nancy Mowll Mattews: A Review

No other artist impacted Vincent Van Gogh than Paul Gauguin -- literally.  Gauguin is thought to have been responsible for cutting off part of Vincent's ear.  Vincent, not wanting to lose a man he so admired, told others he cut it off himself. 

Gauguin was magnetic, intelligent and an utter bastard.  He wanted to be seen as living the erotic life that was the envy of all other men, which is why Professor Nancy Mowll Matthews titled her extensive biography Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life (Yale University Press; 2001.)

This is a large, heavy book with very small print and lots of endnotes.  I hate endnotes.  I realize that footnotes are essential for establishing and embellishing facts presented in the text, but this gets out of hand.  Some people may like flipping back and forth from the text to the notes, but in this case it got to be ridiculous.  Why not just add the endnote information in the damn text?  Because that's not the way biographies are properly done, apparently.

I have to admit, I do not like most of Gauguin's work.  Yes, I realize he was pushing boundaries, breaking new ground and championed working from imagination rather than just from life, but his stuff creeps me out more than H. R. Geiger's stuff (and he designed the Alien for Alien (1979.)

Despite the title, the book does not have much about Gauguin's sex life or imaginary sex life but does talk to great length about how much he hated women.  It also describes the cruelties Gauguin would casually inflict on anyone he encountered.  He also left his wife and five children high and dry while he went and lived the high life as one of the most famous artists of his day.

The book also hints that Gauguin was somehow responsible for Vincent's final breakdown which lead to his suicide but does not follow up on these hints.  I have to admit, I couldn't wait for Gauguin to die because he was such scum.  Yes, many of his works are considered masterpieces, but Now I know why most of his subjects have such evil expressions on their faces.

What is the Artistic Temperament?

Vincent Van Gogh has often been described as having an artistic personality, creative personality or artistic temperament.  Sometimes Van Gogh is described as the definition of the artistic temperament.  What is an artistic temperament?  Let's put it this way -- it's not exactly a compliment.

Books like Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (Gower Publishing; 2011) describes the double-edged sword of having an artistic temperament -- you may produce works later labelled as "genius" but you also have mental illness and may wind up so lonely and miserable that you will kill yourself. 

Although not all people with artistic temperaments are alike, some generalities can be made.  Most people blessed/cursed with an artistic temperament display these ten qualities:

  1. Pursues a creative avenue, sometimes described as "having artistic inclinations"
  2. Prefers to work alone
  3. Shows or professes a love of nature
  4. Mood swings at unpredictable times
  5. Relationships with people have a low priority behind their work, their art and their own problems
  6. Although intelligent, they often aren't very wise in the practical ways of the world
  7. Swings between periods of tremendous energy and long periods of rest
  8. Is both introverted and extroverted, which basically means that they don't get on well with others
  9. Tries to be androgynous or blends characteristics of both genders without necessarily being gay
  10. Tries to be humble but deep down inside is really proud of their artwork.
Van Gogh certainly fits these qualities.  Others complained often about his mood swings and his intensity but to Van Gogh he was completely justified for feeling the way he did.  He loved meeting people and yet was so easily offended that he lived a mostly solitary life.  He wanted to be accepted and admired by other artists but balked at any suggestions, instructions or advice.  He certainly was intelligent (he spoke four languages) but he could not stick to a budget and never could figure out how to sell his work.  If he had a less abrasive personality, he may have at least broke even with his artwork.  But then he wouldn't have been Van Gogh.

The portrait of Vincent here is by John Peter Russell when Van Gogh lived in Paris in 1886.  Van Gogh didn't like it, but this a great portrait of how the world saw Van Gogh -- as looking at them from the shadows with a sideways stare.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Did Van Gogh Give "Sorrow" an English Title?

Sorrow is one of Vincent Van Gogh's best drawings and also one of the best drawings of the human condition.  He drew it when he lived in The Hague in 1883.  At least two versions exist.  The one pictured here is a chalk drawing which now resides in London -- which is a tad ironic since that's exactly the city where Vincent intended it to go.  That it didn't go there until long after the artist's tragic death makes the drawing the title even more piognant.

Vincent didn't often write the titles of his works directly onto the work, but made a big exception here.   The model, his lover at the time, Clasina Maria Hoornik (nicknamed "Sien") is sitting on a seat  prominatly labelled "Sorrow."  Vincent chose the Engish word, even though he was Dutch and came into contact with French and German-speaking peoples more than English speakers.

Vincent had a very good command of English.  He could read it better than he could speak it.  He even worked in England for a while.  Vincent also knew French, German, a smattering of Latin and his native Dutch.  Why did he pick an English word for this drawing?

Vincent had been greatly moved and inspired by the illustrations in English periodicals such as The Illustrated London News.  He admired artists like Honore Daumier. In the late 1800s, adding photographs to magazines and newspapers were still too expensive, so periodicals used a stable of artists to bring the news to life.

Vincent had hoped that he could illustrate for those magazines and newspapers.  Sorrow was most likely drawn to showcase his talents to publishers.  However, Vincent never had a chance.  He was crushed when he discovered that such periodicals were reluctant to employ artists outside of their own officies.  His brother Theo would urge him to less drawing and do more painting, but Vincent kept on drawing for another two years before he dove into painting whole-heartedly.