Watching this Doctor Who clip about Vincent Van Gogh got me interested in the painter, so I read an extremely long biography of him. It was tedious at times (the thing where he obsesses about some woman and barrages her with romantic overtures wasn’t even cute the first time he did it, much less the third or fourth) but overall I found it fascinating.
The best thing about Van Gogh is that he painted for ten years, and it’s not clear that there was even a single person in the world, including his brother, who thought he had any talent. And when he finally did get his big break (in the same year he died), it was because some young art critic was searching for an example of naive art that he could elevate. He, and the French public, was captivated by the idea of this artist, a known madman, who’d been hanging around the Parisian art scene for years and years without getting anywhere. The critic needed his art to be great, so he said it was.
There’s so much subjectivity in visual art. It’s incredible how people looked at Van Gogh’s work, and they really saw nothing worthwhile in it. This was during the heyday of impressionism, and his terrible life-drawing skills shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow they confirmed to his audience that this person didn’t really know what he was doing, that he was just some tyro and poser. He didn’t have that effortless control that artists are supposed to have. Oftentimes he aspired to realism, but failed.
And I’m not better than the rest. I think his work’s beautiful when hung up in a museum, but if I passed one of his paintings on the street, I probably wouldn’t stop to pick it up. What I’ve noticed in several of the artist biographies I’ve read in the past few weeks is that these artists, even more than public adulation, wanted just one good and sympathetic viewer: someone who could stand in front of them and gain some sort of honest, unmediated emotion.
But the person who can do that, and who’s able to have trust in the strength of their own feelings, is extremely rare, and, so far as I can tell, Van Gogh lived and died without ever finding that person.