The Vanished Van Gogh

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!

File:Vincent Willem van Gogh 102.jpg

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.


8 responses to “The Vanished Van Gogh

  1. You’re back, Danu!
    I’m glad! 😉
    I understand your disappointment perfectly well. Had I read the book, I’d perhaps feel the same way… or not! Who knows?!
    I always try to separate the artist from the man, the human being I’ve never known and I’ll never will.
    And when talking about geniuses, they seem in fact to have similar characteristics and are hard to live with. For several reasons. For being too perfectionist and whenever they do not reach the exact “perfection” point they get mad… For tending to be misunderstood and find refugees amongst drugs, alcohol, whatever… For having indeed mental diseases that give them a lot of pain but that allow them paradoxically to have those brilliant periods of productivity, of non-stopping creativity, of “absence”.
    At this point I must ask: Where lie the boundaries between geniality and madness? Between geniality and disease? Would people be the same without those diseases or is geniality itself that leads to them?
    If Van Gogh suffered from one of those terrible mental pains, usually not regarded as diseases but they are in fact, can we judge him?! It is almost the same as judging a schizophrenic and saying he’s mad and dangerous when what he needs is treatment and accomplishment.
    I may probably keep on having a romantic view on Vincent. He may have been impossible to live with, I don’t know. A lot about van Gogh is still to be speculated. But the suffering he went through, all that pain and sorrow was his and his alone. And surely very hard to bear. And his work was both his therapy and his survival.
    But I wonder… how the hell these two writers found out how living with Vincent was like?! And, excuse me, but I think both writers use the words /concepts “paranoid”, “maniac” with a very negative connotation (so it seems). Psychiatry explains them quite well and are part of human behaviours: Those are not things people want to be. As no one wishes a mental disease for himself.
    And it seems to me (I swear I’ll read this damn book!) Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith are forgetting something very important: a mental disease can knock at anyone’s door. It doesn’t choose name, age, address, gender, bank account, nothing. So… I’ll check out whether they have had these big intellectual “cojones” or not!


    • I”m glad too, Celeste. Even if, probably, I”ll be back (imagine Schwarzenneger’s accent in Terminator) only from time to time. I work 5 days per week, free on Wendays and Thursdays…
      For me, impossible to separate the man and the artist. Vincent is a special case in this respect since we have an unique opportunity to know them both, better than for the most artist: he wrote a lot, A LOT of letters and if well interpreted and corroborated with the other facts and the works, yes, the possibility we have to know better (not exhaustively, of course) the man & the artist is unique.

      You make some very good points, no doubt. t is a fascinant subject this one, Genius and Madman, madness as a form of genius (not always, in fact quite rarely; Antonin Artaud – who wrote Van Gogh le suicidé de la société (which I did not liked, found it confuse, sentimental and even corny sometimes) was himself a madman and so was Jackson Pollock (on which Naifeh & White Smith made their hand – the movie with Ed Harris – by ed harris is excellent!) and so many others… And Gauguin wasn’t himself a very pleasant person… Egotistical, querrelous, sometimes mean…and a pedophile… One rarely escape madness if genius enough, so to say. There are great artists, like Matisse or Pissarro or Chagall which have a happy nature in itself and are on the sunny side of life. But it’s rare.

      I love how you say it (and it’s true): his work was both his therapy and his survival…

      As for your question: they gathered for years and studied all written material ever written by or about Vincent, specially the letters (his, Joana Bonger”s, Theo’s, the Van gogh family letters, the contemporary opinions and impressions on Vincent…There is a very very abundant material about him…In the 20-30ties , after his paintings started to sell for more and more money, the interest for his work and life grew a lot… There are thousands of books about his life, sickness, etc. Even myself I collected a few dozens. The good one are quite rare, Jon Hulsker is one I still ahve to read and possess the book.

      Please do that. Read the book and you’ll see. They really have intellectual “cojones” (and to publish a book in fact quite controversial – even if discreet – could have endangered their academic reputation, eventually; even if, probably, the risk wasn’t that big…they well covered their back and I suppose they can prove almost every controversial affirmation… Vincent isn’t anymore so glamourous but maybe – certainly – he is more truthful. And I couldn’t find any judgment, any condamnation.They are pretty much excessively objectives…

  2. Reblogged this on nós and commented:
    I need to read this damn book!

    • Dearest:

      My book is about to arrive…. I’ve booked it and I’ll get it in three or four days. I bought the edition in English. (I don’t really know if there’s a Portuguese translation already -I don’t think so- Anyway, I prefer to read it in English.
      There’s also an e-book edition, but I’m not that fond of e-books. I need paper, pages, touching, a pencil or a pen to underline important info. or to take notes or to write comments.
      I can’t wait!
      However I won’t read it as fast as I wish to, ’cause I’m moving to another apartment and all that demands a lot of work.

      I’ll keep in touch

      A huge kiss


      • I’m glad for you, Celeste! I’m very curious what you’ll think about it, for me it changed a lot my perception of Vincent. and even now, I did not finish it…
        Sometimes, taking your time (je prends mon temps, comme disait Henri Salvador dans un des ses merveilleux chansons) is a supplementary pleasure. Hope your moving will be easy enough…I’ve moved so much in the last 20 years than I rather prefer NOT to move…but even that can change. it depends… My days are formed now from small telephone calls, most of them ok and some even pleasant (because I can help solving some people’s problems). Very rare, there are some nasty people who ruin (if you let them) you day…But I still hope ne day I will be able to paint and write again…Best wishes, take care, Dn

  3. Definitely going to have to pick this book up. Love your statement about how perhaps Vincent was the way he was so that he could have that edge to create those masterpieces.

    • It really is one of the best, if not THE BEST, biography of Vincent. I hated what they discovered, of course, but I couldn’t find even the slightest failure in their logic or documentation. It is also very well written. A reference book, no doubt. And thanks, I really think that all his misery (mostly psychological, psychic misery and self inflicted) was redeemed by his works, the one that are masterpieces.

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