Van Gogh's Letters: Writing in Color

By Underhill, William | Newsweek International, February 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Van Gogh's Letters: Writing in Color


Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Byline: William Underhill

The brush strokes are bold, the paint is applied in heavy swirls, and the colors have a dramatic intensity rarely found in nature. Painted in 1889, a year before his death, Mountains at Saint-Remy could only be the work of Vincent van Gogh, then a patient in a French asylum for the mentally ill. Given all we know about van Gogh, it's easy enough to see the masterpiece as one more product of a notoriously disordered mind.

Easy, but not necessarily right. In a letter to his younger brother, Theo, from the asylum, van Gogh articulately describes his deliberate approach to the work. "These are exaggerations from the point of view of the arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of the ancient woodcuts," he writes. He even flicks at the criticism he anticipates: "People will tell me the mountains aren't like that." And with a literary flourish, he describes the effect he's after: "I've tried to express the time of day when one sees the green beetles and the cicadas flying in the heat."

For all his troubles, van Gogh possessed a powerful intellect and self-awareness that he revealed as much in his writing as in his art. A prolific correspondent, his letters were collected last year into a new six-volume edition that rounds out his personality. Now a selection of those letters is on display alongside some of his finest paintings in the London Royal Academy's illuminating exhibition The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters. (A bank of computers in one gallery offers instant online access to the entire correspondence.) They present a painter's lucid, blow-by-blow report on his own progress up to the end of his life.

There is no doubt that van Gogh was driven. He could work at a pace that suggests manic intensity as well as spontaneity. In the last 70 days of his life, he produced more than 70 paintings. But what the letters frequently reveal is careful preparation; he painted with a speed derived from forethought rather than wild-eyed frenzy. His correspondence with Theo is scattered with sketches of proposed pictures, sometimes with color notations to give a better impression of the final work.

The broad outlines of his later years suggest the artist's struggles with mental illness: bouts of heavy drinking and brothel-going, poverty and isolation, his explosive reaction to light and color in Provence, his quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, self-mutilation--he presented his severed ear to a favorite prostitute--and finally his suicide at the age of 37. It all feeds the conventional picture of the artist as wayward genius. …

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