It takes no doubt some very big intellectual “cojones” to reveal a Vincent Van Gogh like the one Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith just did, relative recently, by publishing ” Van Gogh:The Life”. This book goes a long way against the tide, against the legend and conventional myth of Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, the myth admits Vincent was a “mad” genius (and essentially, he was, but the accent is on GENIUS not on mad…) but the way the 2 authors extend the madness to, practically,his whole life is, to say the least, unusual, singular.
A weirdo from the beginning to the end, a maniac, a paranoid, quarrelsome, sometimes generous, sometimes blatantly ungrateful human being, the Naifeh & Smith’s Vincent is quite an unpleasant person to deal with. Failure after failure are minutiously described, with an almost scientific accuracy. And these 2 authors are very convincing. Not that they are lirically passionate (like so many of the authors that made a sentimental, often edulcorate myth of the “mad genius” Van Gogh…) They are more like the enthomologist looking with a “manic” (a word they use quite a lot!) attention at an interesting bug through a microscope… Of course, they already exercised this kind of “focus” on Jackson Pollock, another genius with mental problems…
For me, a fan of Vincent Van Gogh for more than 40 years, it is kind of paradoxically funny, to sing the praises and pay and hommage to them, the 2 guys who ruined “my” Van Gogh for me. For I cannot close my eyes and see “MY” hero Vincent anymore. Vanished.
As I am about to finish my reading of their brick of a book (which I start to read from the end – the fishy “suicide”, Naifeh & Smith variant – and now I will finish in the middle…) “my” Vincent is there no more, lost and vanished. I suppose, even our personal myths grow old, wither and die…
What is still here? Well, it is “their” Vincent, a troubled, bizarre, too passionate (with a short fuse and a short – if intense – flame), paranoid, impossible to live with, mad (truly and ugly mad, from the beginning, and not conveniently romantically mad like in the Hollywood movies…) human being. I’m not a psychiatrist but, if I were, probably I would have diagnosed his sickness as Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness which was not in the books back in the 1890 ties… (May the Lord forgive me the sin of adding yet another dilettante diagnosis of Vincent’s sickness! I just couldn’t help myself, for very personal reasons…)
Eventually, their Vincent proves to be quite an unglamourous figure. A sad, unhappy, difficult being. Difficult to deal with. And if there was, no doubt, a lot of suffering involved, the most of it was self inflicted, the result of his mental sickness.
Van Gogh, for me, is NOT a hero and a model anymore. At least not as a person. Oh, boy!
Of course, his body of work is still there, his letters, his drawings, his paintings. Not all of them are masterpieces (even if treated as such by the Auction Houses; but then, did you looked at that little horror of a Scream by Munch they sold for 120 millions or such?!) but the inevitably few who are…well, those sunny, colorful, a la prima, perfect paintings and drawings they do for sure tip the balance in his favor. Maybe it was God’s scope to make him the way he was and give him so much unhappiness and pain. So that he can draw and paint those awesomely happy, luminous and colorful images that are now a part of our everyday life. Those masterpieces – the pure essence of a life so full of failure and self – inflicted sufferings – are redeeming. More than enough to tip the balance from Vincent, the madman, to simply “Vincent”. “Vincent”, the way he signed his paintings. Vincent, the genius.