Tortured Souls

By Plagens, Peter | Newsweek, October 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

Tortured Souls


Plagens, Peter, Newsweek


Do artists have to suffer greatly to make great art? Check out the big Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock exhibitions.

At the moments of their deaths, both Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock were failures. Van Gogh (1853-1890) lived his brief life in misery and poverty, committing suicide less than two years after he sliced off part of his left ear with a razor and gave it to a prostitute for safekeeping. He sold only two pictures in his lifetime. Pollock fared better, selling two pictures to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1949, he was the subject of a Life magazine spread headlined, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" But by the summer of 1956, his life was a mess. An alcoholic, he'd fallen off the wagon once more. His wife, painter Lee Krasner, had fled to Europe to let him resolve his affair with an art student, Ruth Kligman. And for a year and a half he'd painted hardly anything. On the night of Aug. 11, 1956, he crashed his car while drunk, killing himself and a woman passenger and badly injuring Kligman.

Today, van Gogh is one of the most famous artists of all time. And Pollock is generally considered to be the most important American painter of the 20th century. Two new exhibitions--"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (on view through Jan. 3), and "Jackson Pollock: A Retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opening Nov. 1--celebrate their accomplishments. But the shows also raise the question of whether great artists are always tortured, self-destructive souls. During the Renaissance they were self-assured professionals, employed by princes and popes. But with Goethe's 1774 novel "The Sufferings of Young Werther," a romantic idea of the artist as a hypersensitive outsider was born, and it reached a fevered peak with the tragedy of van Gogh.

Washed out as a preacher to impoverished coal miners, van Gogh decided at 27 to become an artist. His only natural qualification: the lack of a psychological shield to protect him from the pain of feeling everything--everything--right down to the quick. At first, van Gogh went back to the miners to paint such pictures as "The Potato Eaters" (1885). It looks like lentil soup briskly stirred and isn't all that good. Van Gogh knew it, and was torn by the apparent incompatibility of social compassion and artistic ambition. In 1886 he went to Paris to immerse himself in the vanguard styles of the day. Hurriedly, he traded in his morose Dutch palette for impressionism's choppy brush strokes of pastel color. By 1888, however, van Gogh was disillusioned by what he saw as a vain stylistic rat race and exhausted by the Parisian scene. He fled south to Arles. Intoxicated by the countryside, he painted with thicker impasto, in blazing yellows, piercing reds and icy greens, with compositions influenced by the Japanese prints in vogue at the time. It hardly made him happy. In fact, he was frequently in despair. Of his 1888 painting of "The Night Cafe" (a place under his rented rooms), he wrote his brother, Theo: "I have tried to express with red and green the terrible passions of human nature to give expression to the power of darkness that is in the cafe." He dreamed of founding an artists' commune in Provence. He hoped the first member would be his new friend, Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh decorated a spare bedroom for him, as if preparing a honeymoon suite. Gauguin came, saw, but was conquered by neither the sun nor the simple life. The two artists argued, precipitating van Gogh's self-mutilation. He then checked into an asylum. In May 1890 he ended up in Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris, in the care of one Dr. Gachet, who encouraged him to keep painting. Van Gogh flew into a creative frenzy, completing 70 canvases in 70 days. But on July 27, while painting in a wheat field, he became suddenly, intolerably despondent, and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later. …

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