Van Gogh's Van Goghs
Naves, Mario, New Criterion
The short and tragic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) forms the basis of one of the most pervasive myths in the history of art. The story of the impoverished artist who lives in obscurity is an archetypal one. What magnifies its power--and poignancy --is that the artist's genius is "discovered" by society only after his untimely death. That this was the actual tale of Vincent van Gogh should not stop us from being leery of the haze such a story can generate. And in the case of van Gogh, the haze is dense. He was, after all, a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and gifted, but psychologically troubled. Add to this mix self-mutilation, illness, suicide, and a revolutionary artistic moment and one has the makings of a saga that not only Hollywood can appreciate, but the rest of us as well.
One irresistible facet of the van Gogh myth concerns the painting Wheatfield with Crows (1890). It has long been rumored to be the last canvas he painted before he shot himself in July 1890. Scholars have their doubts about the veracity of this story, but attempts to make the point otherwise are futile. The "deeply entrenched tradition" (as Richard Kendall has it) of the final painting is too compelling to remedy. Its stark and simple composition, wherein twisting pathways lead to nowhere and crows hover over a strangely welcoming sky, has the makings of an omen. What it also has are the makings of a masterpiece. In Wheatfield with Crows van Gogh achieved a pictorial ferocity that is staggering. The blue of the sky, in particular, is so vivid that one is likely to think it caused by a trick of museum lighting. It isn't. That blue is van Gogh's and it is electrifying. …
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Publication information: Article title: Van Gogh's Van Goghs. Contributors: Naves, Mario - Author. Magazine title: New Criterion. Volume: 17. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 1998. Page number: 54. © 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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