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Van Gogh: A Power Seething (Icons) by Julian…

Van Gogh: A Power Seething (Icons)

by Julian Bell

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In this book Julian Bell tells the tragic story of the short life of Vincent Van Gogh. A widely read and intelligent young man, Vincent was never able to formulate a plan and follow through for the time necessary to achieve success. The son of a rural minister, Vincent early on felt called to the ministry. That was followed by a series of efforts to pursue occupations of a religious and quasi religious emphasis. The trajectory was increasingly downward to the point that Van Gogh was essentially a destitute, homeless tramp living in whatever shelter he could find. Although his earliest trials seem like the tribulations of a chronically undecided young man, it soon becomes clear that Vincent is suffering from some form of mental illness.

The author does a good job of following Vincent's efforts to establish himself as an artist, first at various locations in his native Netherlands, then in Paris, the south of France, and eventually north of Paris. This book is best read seated in front of a computer monitor as the author cites countless works in the context of Van Gogh's development as an artist. The book includes eight pages showing 16 of Van Gogh's works and three photographs, but it would be impossible for such a slim (148 page) work to provide copies of the large number of works cited. Yet access to the works cited is critical to fully understanding the development of Van Gogh as an artist and his departure from established convention.

The book reads like a tragedy, as must any work that follows the struggles of a mentally ill individual trying desperately to survive in and contribute to society. I found myself wishing he could have benefitted from modern approaches to psychotherapy.

As a brief aside, Bell ascribes the source of Van Gogh's mental illness to genetic factors inherited from his mother. He certainly builds a strong prima facie case as the list of seriously ill individuals in her extended family is quite lengthy.

Although not a central focus of the book, Vincent's brother Theo is depicted as a noble individual; we should all be so lucky as to have a sibling like Theo. He supported Vincent financially for most of his adult life, encouraged his development as an artist, and did his best to help Vincent gain stature in the art world. It is sad that recognition of Van Gogh's brilliance was just beginning to emerge at the time of his suicide. Theo died only a few weeks after Vincent's death and Bell credits his wife, as the manager of Theo's estate, with securing his place among the most influential and outstanding artists of all time. She held together the mass of materials Van Gogh had produced during his life that eventually found a home in Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum. She also recognized Van Gogh's copious correspondence with his brother as a literary masterpiece and was responsible for the complete translation of them into English. ( )
  Tatoosh | Jul 27, 2015 |
As someone who knows quite a lot about the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh, I found this an interesting summary of the man, but I’m not sure it would especially woo someone who knew nothing about him to read more. There are flashes and flaws. And of course the quotes of Vincent’s letters will always engage, but quotes from letters and journals can be selective to tell only the parts of the story that the author wants to tell.

I did want to benefit more from the fact that the writer is himself an artist (also the great-nephew of Virginia Woolf), but I didn’t feel there was enough of that. My constrained enthusiasm may be because last year I read the wonderful volume [Van Gogh at Work] by Marije Vellekoop and the Van Gogh Museum which I would recommend to anyone who wants to get near to Vincent, as I would recommend his letters.

My other contention with Bell’s volume is he states as fact that Vincent killed himself. The answer is we really do not know. Suicide is certainly one possibility, accident another. I am less convinced by the premise of Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith that he was hit by a bullet from farm boys playing with a gun nearby.

Vincent is in the art and words he left behind, he was as much a fine writer as a great artist. Looking and looking and looking at what he put on canvas and paper, and where you can, contextualised within the era he was working, is the best way to understand the gift he left us. We need to thank Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, wife of Vincent’s brother Theo (who died only months after his brother from latent syphilis), for that gift reaching our eyes. ( )
  Caroline_McElwee | Feb 4, 2015 |
“I use colour more arbitrarily to express myself more forcefully.”

It’s not as if no one has ever written about Vincent Van Gogh before. But this book is a compact, 150 page, easy read, referencing all the other sources. There are no new revelations, but you get the overall picture of Van Gogh’s life with all its downs (and very few ups). He was a difficult person, terribly undisciplined, a loner, and who took more than half his life to figure out he wanted to paint. He finally came into his own in the south of France, in an all too brief period where he actually had friends, developed his style, and produced vast quantities of art. His use of colour was his most dramatic difference, making colouration in his work in the warm light of Arles and Marseille a permanent feature of his oeuvre going forward. The contrast with the grim light of The Netherlands, Belgium and Northern France was a revelation to Van Gogh (who came to the realization at the end that he had never seen a mountain before), which clearly affected his mood, his approach and his life. Bell describes it without dwelling on it, but it was Van Gogh’s signature differentiator.

Unfortunately, his family had a history of mental illness. His own father tried to have him committed twice. Eventually, it overtook him, seizures, wildness, madness, followed by calm periods of hard work and recuperation.

One thing missing here is the circumstance of his all too early death. Since Bell wrote this in 2013, another theory has been published, denying Van Gogh shot himself. The angle of the gunshot indicated someone else made it. And according to the letters in his pocket, it was just another day and he had no plan for suicide. And as Bell explains, all his life, Van Gogh was about sympathy and consolation. He proposed to two women in his time, both of whom he pitied, and both of whom wisely fought him off. He was most comfortable living on the wrong side of the tracks, consoling those who suffered (as much as he did). The new theory of the shot is that he was protecting the shooter, one of the kids who stole the gun from the inn owner, not wanting to get him in any trouble over this accident. It was an altruistic coverup, and the bullet struck so far from the heart that Van Gogh did not think he would die. Even Bell says if there were a halfway competent surgeon around, the artist would have survived the shot. It’s a story true to the Van Gogh personality, and though it cannot be proven, it makes excellent sense, is consistent with the man, and is definitely worth mentioning.

Regardless, the loss was gigantic, and we will never know to what heights his skills, inspirations and madness would have taken him.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Sep 17, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0544343735, Hardcover)

A passionate account of the tortured life and tragic death of the greatest artist of the nineteenth century, by renowned critic and painter Julian Bell.
Van Gogh is a vivid portrait of the great Impressionist painter that traces his life from the Netherlands, where he was born into a family of art dealers, through his years in England, the Hague, and Paris, to his final home in Arles, where he discovered the luminous style of his late paintings before his suicide at the age of thirty-seven.
Van Gogh struggled to find his way as an artist: Well into his mid-twenties he had achieved virtually nothing except a few charcoal drawings of coal miners. Afflicted by mental illness and a mercurial temper, he was institutionalized several times toward the end of his life. Julian Bell conveys this tragic story with great compassion, depicting van Gogh in all his anguished vigor, a genius for whom the greatest challenge was to stay alive until he had completed his most fully realized and magnificent works.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:30 -0400)

"'I believe in the absolute necessity of a new art of colour, of drawing and--of the artistic life,' Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1888. 'And if we work in that faith, it seems to me that there's a chance that our hopes won't be in vain. 'His prediction would come true. In his brief and explosively creative life--he committed suicide a few years later at the age of thirty-seven--Van Gogh made us see the world in a new way. His shining landscapes of Provence and somber portraits of workers shattered the relationship between light and dark, and his hallucinatory visions were so bright they nearly blinded the world,"--Amazon.com.… (more)

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