Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it really a new Van Gogh?


If you read this blog you probably know that there's a new Van Gogh biography out just now, by authors Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. Not surprisingly for a book with the blunt, comprehensive title Van Gogh: The Life (not "a" life, but "the" life), the volume spans some 900 pages. (And I thought the previous draft of my novel was long!) If nothing else, the publication of yet another Van Gogh biography demonstrates the continuing cultural fascination with this man who during his life was so ignored, suspected, pitied, or detested. While of course one fears an overload of Van Gogh material on the market, I have to think this demonstration of interest in Van Gogh is a promising sign for the eventual appearance and success of my novel Days On Fire.

Smith and Naifeh's book is grabbing headlines for their contention that Van Gogh did not actually commit suicide but was accidentally shot by two gun-toting, playacting kids. This certainly is a provocative argument, although of course one has to wonder why, if true, these facts were not widely known before. Also, as one BBC reporter notes, by insisting on this interpretation of events, the two authors "pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent van Gogh - when he quite clearly said: 'Do not accuse anyone... it is I who wanted to kill myself.'" Truth be told, I did not carefully research Van Gogh's death when I consulted secondary sources for my novel, the reason being that I knew I did not want to take my novel all the way to Van Gogh's death. Instead I wanted to focus the ending of my book on Van Gogh's triumph over his own limitations and his subsequent artistic breakthrough in that crucial, singular summer in Arles. The only contrasting opinion I came across about Van Gogh's death was the opinion put forth by one author that while Van Gogh did shoot himself he did so not with suicide in mind but to punish himself for his failures as a man and a brother. Given Van Gogh's melancholic state of mind near the end, after he realized he would never truly be through with his illness, and given his acute awareness of how much he owed Theo, of how great the burden was he placed upon that man, I can almost accept that author's opinion. But, as I said, not one other source--until now--ever suggested his suicide was anything other than what it looked like.

Some of Smith and Naifeh's other claims interest me even more. For instance, that Vincent's family tried repeatedly to have him installed in an insane asylum before he went there voluntarily on his own in 1889. Also that some in his family suspected Vincent of killing his own father. While I am not familiar with the former claim, I suppose it could be credible, although by the time Vincent moved to Arles--really as soon as he moved to Antwerp from Nuenen (where his father, mother, and sister Wil were living at the time of his father's death)--he was well out of his family's hair, and clearly committed to a life as an artist. As I've repeated to many a soul, and a few times on this blog, Van Gogh's famous mental breakdown in Arles came several years after he had devoted himself to the life of the artist and only after he had created many if not most of his greatest pictures. Up until that point there was every reason for his family to continue their patient--or let's say resigned--acceptance of his eccentricities. I'm simply stunned, however, that anyone, much less a family member, could suspect that Vincent killed his father. Smith and Naifeh will truly have to prove this one to me. There is no doubt Vincent's relationship with his father was an emotinally fraught one, but it was also arguably the most important relationship of his life, even more significant than his relationship with Theo, at least until he formed an obsessive and dangerous friendship with Gauguin late in his life. Vincent's frustration with his father was the flip side of his love and respect for the man. After all, he had once wanted to follow his father's steps into the ministry. And in some crucial ways, albeit after severe doubts, his father--in his fashion--finally supported Vincent's call to painting. Of course, Smith and Naifeh don't say that Vincent actually did kill his father, only that some in the family suspected this. Who the "some" are is a key question. Even so, I have my doubts. Unlike the famous/infamous biopic Lust for Life (more on that movie in a later post)--in which Vincent's father appears in exactly one scene--Theodorus Van Gogh the father is one of the central and most interesting characters in my novel. How sad to think that a family member could not appreciate how intertwined Vincent's life was with his father's, even long after Vincent had rejected his father's profession and way of life. In my opinion, Vincent needed his father even more then--as a whipping boy, as a convex mirror, and as a measuring stick. If it's true that some members of his family could think him capable of ending Theodorus's life, or anyone's life besides his own, that only shows how badly they misunderstood their painterly relative.

And that's hardly news at all.