Monday, January 11, 2010

The Real Van Gogh, Part One

I'm trying to accomplish several things with my Van Gogh novel. First, I'm hoping to conquer the challenging, painstaking genre of literary historical fiction. This is my first foray into the historical novel, and I want to create something of which I can be proud. Second, I'm simply trying to make a good read. The cardinal rule of all writing, a grad school teacher once told me, is Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. (While he was a terrible teacher in nearly every aspect, I agreed, and still do agree, with him on that point.) I'm hoping readers are drawn into the world of my novel and do not want to be pulled out of it. Third, and just as important, I'm trying to create what I think is a more true Vincent Van Gogh.

While there may not be a better known painter in the last two hundred years than Van Gogh, there is also no painter who has been more mythologized in the popular imagination. The only painter who might rival him in this regard is Jackson Pollock, and even Pollack comes up short. It's no doubt true that in the case of both Van Gogh and Pollock the work they created is central to our interest; their radical breaking through to new ground and new techniques, their battles against the conventions of painting in their times. (Click here to watch a short documentary made in 1951 in which Pollock discusses his technique.) But we all know that is not the only reason for our interest in these painters. That cannot be the only reason why we write poems and pop songs about them, why we make documentaries about them, why we plaster their pictures on neckties and baby bowls and t-shirts, why we name brands of liqueurs after them and travel to visit their hometowns like worshippers on religious pilgrimages. In Van Gogh's case, our mythologizing stems from an obvious source: our fascination with madness. Everyone seems to know and love the image of the Mad Artist. To some, usually people who have done no artistic work in their lives, it's an axiom that artists must be deranged or alcoholics or sexual perverts, or all of the above. So that Van Gogh "went crazy" and cut off his own ear is simply accepted as a natural byproduct of his artistic greatness. And it makes us love him all the more. And finally it explains our unrelenting interest in him.

But it's also a myth. As with many alluring stories, it's simply wrong. Or at best half a truth. Yes, Van Gogh did indeed experiences attacks in which his normal sense of self disappeared; and during the first of these he famously cut off his left ear. But he was never simply "crazy." The attacks were the physical result of a physical ailment. (Today's current best estimate is that he suffered from a rare form of epilepsy.) More to the point, in between attacks he was as lucid as the next man. In fact, if you consider his whole life he was more lucid than the next man. His extraordinary letters bear this out. Even more to the point, the attacks didn't even begin until after he had passed his artistic highpoint. It's a commonly held idea--I've actually heard people say this--that Van Gogh couldn't have created the great paintings he did if he were not crazy. Well, my answer is that not only was he never "crazy," but his physical ailment actually diluated his well of creativity and brought an end to the period of his life when he could work with sustained brilliance. In short, my novel is not the life story of a crazy man, but the story of a unique and extremely driven man, one who milked every once of talent in his bones to make the paintings he did. I'm hoping to debunk the myth of the madman--cut off its ear, if you will--and put in its place the picture of a canny, empathetic, and even prophetic person who at the same time could be short-sighted, quick to anger, and fantastically self-centered. Do these qualities make Van Gogh crazy? No! But they make him richly complicated as a fictional character, and much more real to me--way more real than poor Vincent, the Suffering Insane Genius.


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