20 April 2021

Vincent Van Gogh, empathy in parts and in the whole

These bits of detail were taken in the National Gallery in London a few years back on an old i-phone so unfortunately they are not well defined but the colour is OK.

This is an early portrait probably a study for the Potato eaters. I have always loved these early things because they reveal so much struggle in his desire to get his drawing 'right', and all this inner strife is what gives the picture such expressive power. 

I can almost imagine him reworking the background on the whole right side of the face. Perhaps the background had been of a light value like on the left?  Maybe he saw that it didn't work so he came back in and re-painted it out and thereby creating a strange but decisive outline of the cheek which appears to give the illusion of a head coming out of a mud bath! This quixotic observation seems more credible when seeing the isolated photo on top.

But as with all of Van Gogh, there is a sense of the unity of the picture as a whole. I cannot think of one which does not possess this crucial aspect of Painting. And where Vincent received this divination is one of the great mysteries and miracles in the history of Art. 

I believe he was born with it, but then developed it by studying really Great Paintings, and really hard. It seems that he was always at study, as we understand from his letters. 

He was a modern workaholic, and also maybe an obsessional compulsive too, but of course, I say that as an amateur doctor only (tut tut!)

My teacher, Léo Marchutz once talked about this mystery regarding Van Gogh in the following manner:

Though he (Léo) was raised as a secular Jew in Nuremberg, I never heard him speak of things either religious or spiritual, and others have confirmed this to me also. Nevertheless, much of his work was centred around the New Testament curiously enough. Léo was speaking about how Vincent, during the last 3 months of his life, had painted a size 30F (92 X 73cm) picture every day, adding, "if that is not some proof that a spirit, or God, whatever one wants to call it, took hold of this poor man and wrung 90 paintings out of him in this time, one picture a day (at least) before his death, then I don't know what to call it." 

These photos have been sitting on my desktop for a long time, disjointedly staring back at me. What I wanted to say is that even in these details, these parts all separately possess a unity in themselves. 

Somehow, oddly enough, it makes me think of an acorn from an Oak tree. The acorn when dropped off and separated from the tree, will, if lucky enough, become another tree. Maybe a bird will pick it, travel away then poop it out on fertile ground, or maybe a squirrel will do the same, without flying, of course. But in that acorn, is everything necessary for it to become another tree, new, but the same. There is an organic process at work which allows for this to happen, as for all things in Nature and in the animal world. There is unity and chaos in Nature but also in Art too when it is really really good. 

And just as something in the acorn understands that it will become a tree one day, so too did something deep inside Vincent also understand that he was destined to become a painter. 

So, in each part there is already a whole. And this is the beauty of Van Gogh among many other things because I haven't even mentioned the human element of expressive empathy in it. And empathy was certainly one of Vincent's strongest emotional components. Not only in his portraits but like other great artists, he was able to express this empathy in all his landscapes as well. Yet curiously with exception of a few cows and birds in the air, he never really painted animals. Is this because he didn't live with a dog or a cat? Though its been a long while since I last read his letters I cannot remember him speaking about domestic animals. More to be revealed. 

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