Yesterday, I was working over a scene in which Vincent's brother Theo receives Potato Eaters from him. All you need to know for now is that Potato Eaters is considered one of the finest, if the not the finest, paintings Van Gogh completed during his Dutch Period. I can't know for sure what Theo thought about it, but I do know that he hung it in his living room, which says a lot. Even he must have realized what an accomplishment Potato Eaters was; he must have seen how far Vincent had come in his technique and in his vision. At least that is how I play the scene out. While this didn't happen in real life, I have Theo receiving the painting already in a frame, the point being to show Vincent cared about how exactly it would be seen. (Don't get me wrong. He always cared about how his pictures were seen. He just couldn't afford to frame them. So he mailed them to Theo and told him how they should be framed.)
I like the scene. In it Theo's nervousness is highlighted. He knows Vincent has invested a great deal of time and effort and pride into what might turn out to be a failure. And if so he won't know how to tell Vincent that. Before Theo opens the box and sees that the painting isn't a failure, I have him speculate as to what makes or doesn't make a great painting. It's a weird passage. It felt right to me as I wrote it, at least in terms of what Theo might think jus then, but looking it over I'm not sure I even agree with it. Theo's a sympathetic character, so this makes me a little nervous. Of course, every writer has to deal with characters who think or do something that the writer wouldn't in life approve of. But because we're talking about the nature of art, here, I'm a little more squeamish.
In short, Theo argues that the mark of near-great art is that it's dominated by ideas, by precosity. The artist is fixated on pursuing an intriguing Idea rather than beauty, whereas in front of a great work of art "he fe[els] as if his head ha[s] been shot open and his thoughts drained away with his blood. There c[an] be no thoughts in front of a great painting, only a disbelieving awe." I don't stop there. I also add: "The great painters Theo kn[ows] d[o] not struggle so much to master technique—that they had learned ages ago—but to rid themselves of ideas, to so clear their minds of precosity as to let the technique be automatic; guided less by strategy then by will." This seems like an awfully conservative, Romantic notion of creation, one that I actually try to fight in my own creative writing classrooms. I don't have Theo say that the painting "just comes to you" when you're inspired--that would truly be drivel. I don't have him discount technique. I even indicate that master painters have already learned technique, and learned it well. So well they can surpass it. But I'm not sure that latter point actually comes across. It's his Against-the-Idea credo that dominates the passage, a credo which seems to resist the fact that a lot of important 20th century art--art I love--is hinged on interesting, novel, radical ideas. Do I really believe what Theo thinks here? Does he? Is it only a moment's impulse, one he'll contradict two minutes later? (We all do that, don't we?) Maybe; maybe not. Bottom line: I did enjoy writing the passage, and I'll just have to squirm about it.