Understanding the Fanatic Heart of Vincent Van Gogh – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White SmithFebruary 13, 2012
A teaser prologue from the brilliant best seller that will change the way you look at Van Gogh who in turn will change the way you look at everything.
Theo imagined the worst. the message said only that Vincent had “wounded himself.” As Theo rushed to the station to catch the next train to Auvers, his mind raced both backward and forward. The last time he received a dire message like this one, it was a telegram from Paul Gauguin informing him that Vincent was “gravely ill.” Theo had arrived in the southern city of Arles to find his brother in the fever ward of a hospital, his head swathed in bandages and his mind completely unmoored.
What would he find at the end of this train ride?
At times like these — and there had been many of them — Theo’s mind wandered to the Vincent he had known once: an older brother of passion and restlessness, but also of boisterous jokes, infinite sympathy, and indefatigable wonder. On their childhood hikes in the fields and woods around the Dutch town Zundert, where they were born, Vincent had introduced him to the beauties and mysteries of nature. In the winter, Vincent tutored him in skating and sledding.
In summer, he showed him how to build castles in the sandy paths. In Church on Sundays and at home by the parlor piano, he sang with a clear, confident voice. In the attic room that they shared, he talked until late at night, inspiring in his younger brother a bond that their siblings teasingly called “worship,” but Theo proudly acknowledged, even decades later, as “adoration.”
This was the Vincent that Theo had grown up with: adventurous guide, inspiration and scold, encyclopedic enthusiast, droll critic, playful companion, transfixing eye. How could this Vincent, his Vincent, have turned into such a tormented soul?
Theo thought he knew the answer: Vincent was the victim of his own fanatic heart “There’s something in the way he talks that makes people either love him or hate him,” he tried to explain. “He spares nothing and no one.” Long after others had put away the breathless manias of youth. Vincent still lived by their unsparing rules. Titanic, unappeasable passions swept through his life. “I am a fanatic!” Vincent declared in 1881. “I feel a power within me … a fire that I may not quench, but must keep ablaze.” Whether catching beetles on the Gundert creek bank, collecting and cataloguing prints, preaching the Christian gospel, consuming Shakespeare or Balzac in great fevers of reading, or mastering the interactions of color, he did everything with the urgent, blinding single-mindedness of a child. He even read the newspaper “in a fury.”
‘These storms of zeal had transformed a boy of inexplicable fierceness into a wayward, battered soul: a stranger in the world, an exile in his own family and an enemy to himself. No one knew better than Theo — who had followed his brother’s tortured path through almost a thousand letters — the unbending demands that. Vincent placed on himself, and others, and the unending problems he reaped as a consequence.
No one understood better the price Vincent paid in loneliness and disappointment for his self-defeating, take-no-prisoners assaults on life: and no one knew better the futility of warning him against himself. “I get very cross when people tell me that it is dangerous to put out to sea,” Vincent told Theo once when he tried to intervene. “There is safety in the very heart of it.”
How could anybody be surprised that such a fanatic heart produced such a fanatic art? Theo had heard the whispers and rumors about his brother. “C’est un fou.” they said. Even before the events in Arles eighteen months earlier, before the stints in hospitals and asylums, people dismissed Vincent’s art as the work of a madman. One critic described its distorted forms and shocking colors as the product of a sick mind.” Theo himself had spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to lance the excesses of his brother’s brush. If only he would use less paint — not lather it on so thickly. If only he would slow down — not slash out so many works so quickly. (“I have sometimes worked excessively fast,” Vincent countered defiantly. “Is it a fault? I can’t help it.”) Collectors wanted care and finish, Theo told him again and again, not endless, furious, convulsive studies — what Vincent called “pictures full of painting.”
With every lurch of the train that bore him to the scene of the latest catastrophe, Theo could hear the years of scorn and ridicule. For a long time, out of family pride or fraternal affection, Theo had resisted the accusations of madness. Vincent was merely “an exceptional person” — a Quixote-like tilter at windmills — a noble eccentric, perhaps — not a madman. But the events in Arles had changed all that. “Many painters have gone insane yet nevertheless started to produce true art,” Theo wrote afterward. “Genius roams along such mysterious truths.”
And no one had roamed a more mysterious path than Vincent: a brief, failed start as an art dealer, a misbegotten attempt to enter the clergy, a wandering evangelical mission, a foray into magazine illustration, and, finally, a blazingly short career as a painter. Nowhere did Vincent’s volcanic, defiant temperament show itself more spectacularly than in the sheer number of images that continued to pour forth from his ragged existence even as they piled up, hardly seen, in the closets , and spare rooms of family, friends, and creditors.
Only by tracing this temperament and the trail of tears it left, Theo believed, could anyone truly understand his brother’s stubbornly inner-driven art. This was his answer to all those who dismissed Vincent’s paintings — or his letters — as the rantings of the wretched, as most still did. Only by knowing Vincent “from the inside,” he insisted, could anyone hope to see his art as Vincent saw it, or feel it as Vincent felt it. Just a few months before his fateful train trip, Theo had sent a grateful note to the first critic who dared to praise his brother’s work: “You have read these pictures, and by doing so you very clearly saw the man.”
Like Theo, the art world of the late nineteenth century was preoccupied with the role of biography in art. Emile Zola had opened the gates with his call for an art “of flesh and blood,” in which painting and painter merged. “What I look for in a picture before anything else,” Zola wrote, “is the man.” No one believed in the importance of biography more fervently than Vincent van Gogh. “[Zola] says something beautiful about art,” he wrote in 1885: ” ‘In the picture (the work of art), I look for, I love the man — the artist.’ ” No one collected artists’ biographies more avidly than Vincent — everything from voluminous texts to “legends” and “chats” and scraps of rumor. Taking Zola at his word, he culled every painting for signs of “what kind of man stands behind the canvas.” At the dawn of his career as an artist, in 1881, he told a friend: “In general, and more especially with artists, I pay as much attention to the man who does the work as to the work itself.”
To Vincent, his art was a record of his life more true, more revealing (“how deep — how infinitely deep”) even than the storm of letters that always accompanied it. Every wave of “serenity and happiness,” as well as every shudder of pain and despair, he believed, found its way into paint; every heartbreak into heartbreaking imagery; every picture into self-portraiture. “I want to paint what I feel,” he said, “and feel what I paint.”
It was a conviction that guided him until his death — only hours after Theo arrived in Auvers. No one could truly see his paintings without knowing his story. `As my work is,” he declared, “so am I.”