Vincent Van Gogh
by H.D. (as Sylvania Penn)

Copyright © 1997 by Perdita Schaffner; used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, agents. This review was first published in Life and Letters Today 17.10 (Winter 1937), p.138-41.
Vincent Van Gogh
(Review of Dear Theo, An Autobiography from His Letters, ed. Irving Stone)

The book is very interesting, pick it up anywhere; "I have also just now a little pear-tree-the ground violet. . .", "in an orchard--lilac ploughland, a reed fence. . .", "it is oranges. . .", "the white orchard is dead white, the rose-coloured orchard is a rather warm creamy white." These fragments, torn bodily from the section headed Arles, read rather like specimens of the early soi-disant Imagist poets. London, Amsterdam, the Hague, come up in their element, a bridge, a windmill, a peasant trudging by a canal, subdued, cool, mist-swept, with less fervour, less fever, less dangerous cerebralism.

I am reminded in reading these letters of certain phrases from the writing of D. H. Lawrence; "a farm by the highroad among cornfields, and a meadow full of yellow buttercups, a ditch of irises, green leaves, and purple flowers," might have been done by either. The book is a fascinating ethical, as well as a valuable psychological study; as a human document, it may be read almost as a novel. My quarrel comes when I turn back to the preface and read this, "Vincent van Gogh was one of the world's loneliest souls."

A common mistake. This preface-writer-editor is however, sadly enough, one only of many who have taken that superficial, somewhat patronizing, wholly impertinent attitude to the artist. Dead, just dead, only just-dead not quite dead, I have watched this sort of paternal undertaker grab from the actual maw of the only just dead a sheaf of letters, a portfolio of unfinished sketches, an old passport, a pair of boots, a fountain pen, not yet dead of its ink. Carrion crows, vultures. I should be positively afraid to die if my unpublished papers were worth snatching. In fact, people would keep alive in order to do their own editing. A quarrel I have with the late aforementioned D.H. Lawrence. I am old enough, I presume, to feel that a come-back is perhaps more valorous than a black-out. Perhaps I was too much on top of poets who already, as they crossed the Channel, had a line of ghouls waiting this side, to snatch their immortal last fields-forever-England. This is no personal quarrel. Mr. Stone has done an excellent piece of work, and comparatively speaking his "Vincent van Gogh was one of the world's loneliest souls" is innocuous.

Just as a remark and the sort of thing to get the reading public, I repeat this "loneliest soul" touch is a commonplace, hardly vital enough to be noted. Yet the accumulation of these public-mind-forming sentences does, in time, heap up such a cotton-wool of false padding between the reality of creative impulse and the, so to speak, receiving station of the reader or, in the case of pictures, the spectator. The trouble was, I think, with Vincent, he was not lonely enough. A spot of loneliness might have kept him from splitting in the middle, going mad, as they called it, in the midst of his most vivid period of creative output. If he had been comfortably lonely, he might have gone on painting carefully until he was eighty. As it was, he painted madly, five pictures in one week now and again, breaking in to the world of reality, his reality, Mr. Stone's illusion. The dream.

The dreamer isn't lonely. Not when, like van Gogh, he has reached that level of spiritual perfection. The dreamer, the artist, the saint, the monk on the snow levels of Tibet, are frightfully and dynamically and electrically unlonely people. If these mix freely among their own kind or any kind, some of that intensity works itself off, or out. Van Gogh couldn't or didn't. His small room, like the monk's cell, was filled with over-layers of light. He must get that. Green, yellow, the whole gamut of his spiritual values, they are there, terribly near, a menace if you will, the kingdom of heaven so terribly within. Written above one of his pictures at the recent exhibition at the Paris Exposition is this: "Pas de bleu sans jaune et sans orange et si vous faites le bleu, faites donc le jaune, l orange aussi, n'est-ce pas?"

N'est-ce pas?

This man isn't lonely. He is simply drunk with colours, as lonely, yes exactly, as a bee or moth on the cup of whatever it happens to be, colour; trumpet flower, coral berry, wax-berry, gold-frilled petal of the evening primrose, green where a stem grows silver or where another green turns moss-green or under-apple-leaf green; these were things that for him had their exact counterpart on that miraculous palette. We have words merely, and he had words, too. But in addition, he had the exact material under his hand (I copy again), "aux couleurs simples--ocre, rouge, jaune, brun, cobalt et bleu de Prusse, jaune de Naples, terre de Sienne, noir et blanc et encore un peu de carmine, de sépia, de cinabre, d'outremer, de gomme-gutte. . ."

Simple colours?

Squinting sometimes through his eyelashes, as he describes it, he sees the breaking up of the contour of ordinary dimension. This is the most dynamically unlonely pastime that can be imagined. It is the gift of the saint, the seer, the drug addict if you will. Patmos once witnessed one such, in the throes of breaking through, out of time, into eternity. But the eternity of John of Patmos is, as someone has described it, a goldsmith's paradise. The seer of Patmos described peacock feathered animals with octopus inlay gem-eyes. The much later seer of the Hague and Arles finds the same dimensional, demented values in a bowl of brown potatoes. A Francis or Thérèse discovers cloud emblems, fiery wounds, and roses in the prison cell of the cenobite. Vincent was not unhappy when forced into an insane asylum, but writes logically to his brother, "my illness makes me paint, if I could only paint, I would be well, yes, lock me up if it is necessary, but O, it would mean so much to me to get out into the orchards." Curiously, there is little or no cry of the martyr in this. His fields-forever are in his own soul; that, he carries with him. That soul has become so subtly one with a porcelain bowl, with one head of late summer sunflower, with remembered dune and lake and sand-bank and twisted cypress, that relatively, even in solitary confinement, he is not lonely enough. He lacked some stabilizing quality of loneliness that carries with it steel ropes. He was roped in by nothing. Like the Chinese philosophers of the tao doctrine, he had left his shell already behind, "house-builder thou art seen." His own soul that had worked, like the shellfish outward, to perfect its housing, broke through too soon. He saw in simplicity. What he saw remains for us, a field in rain, a static cypress whirling within, like a dervish, a cloud of stars that are miraculously as human as dandelions. He reversed the process of Patmos. To John of Patmos, the dandelion, the sun-flower would have been whorls of a zodiac lion-mane, hieratically inset with proper, figurative precious stone or beaten metal. Vincent complains, or explains rather, how thorns actually have scratched his canvas, sand blows on it, flies settle. Painting out of doors, hungry, wet, each canvas has its root in the reality that to him was only one whit less innately god-like than the thing he painted. The thing he painted became humanized, in much the same way as the Master of the Revelator sanctified a common coin, a candlestick, a net full of fresh lake-fish, the net itself or any field flower. Vincent draws heaven down to earth, but with no affectation. It is simply there within him.

He cheated, yes. Hunger is one road toward those realities. Hunger, then a drain of some Arlésien brew sent him spinning. To read these letters, to look at these pictures, is to be fed. He speaks of "the colour of a good dusty potato, unpeeled," colour again of "ripe corn," a good woman, presumed to be a witch, who does nothing, as far as Vincent can make out, but dig her potato pit. Witchcraft, the Delphic seer he mentions, the magic of the tripod, are in these things.

Let the artist, writes Vincent simply to his brother, "proceed from the primary colours, red, blue, yellow, and not from grey." Again, "I do not pretend to say that one can or must paint light without white, any more than I should ever pretend wine must be dry." He says, "I don't ask comfort. . .I do ask colours." One sees with his eyes the blanc sur blanc, he uses in describing someone else's picture of a bride. But, for Vincent, the true blanc sur blanc is to be found in an orchard; his marriage, like that of the holy hermit, is consummated in his own mind. So, confined to the asylum cell, he complains to his alter ego, this Theo of the letters, of only one thing. The food is not bad; true, he would like to be allowed to smoke as some of the inmates do, he would like a book, yes, he could do with some Shakespeare. He is not, he adds, badly off, there is a garden. But he has no canvas, these good people cannot realize that this is the high flaming moment when he could reach the heighth of ecstasy, create, be healed. The sun-god at Delphi, was, by no trivial logic, a physician in his own right. So the artist carries the germ of his own healing. Vincent wants chiefly the orchard that he remembers from last spring, his blanc sur blanc, the veils of fragrant beauty. He loves, would draw to him, re-create through him, this world of visible beauty. But unlike the Oriental to whose prints and flower-paintings he constantly states indebtedness, a Christ-like fever causes him to cry out for the true presentation of the poor, the outcast, this good woman who was a witch, but whose whole sorcery consists in digging her potato pit. His preoccupation with the ritual of colour is surpassed only by his love for his fellow creatures and in particular for artists to come, "unknown artists," as he calls them.

His last thought is for them, children of his dangerous, dynamic cerebralism with that cool, immaculate bride, blanc sur blanc, the apple orchards of the south in sun or mist, under stars or in the rain. For these he prays, may they fend with "a will, a feeling, a passion, and love."

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