17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
If you are thinking of buying this book (which I strongly suggest you do), then you should know a few things in advance. The basic text is 868 pages plus appendices. It took me (a fast reader) over two months to complete and despite some very intelligent writing about the pictures, this is not an art historical analysis but a biography. Yet these observations not withstanding, this is still a magnificent piece of work. It succeeds for many reasons. Firstly, it uses, and sticks to the primary sources about the artist so one always feels the narrative is grounded in fact. Given that the most extensive resource is the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo, there is a sense in which the book becomes the story of the relationship between two brothers, but it is none the worse for that except that it means periods like Van Gogh's 2 years living with Theo in Paris are given rather short shrift as obviously they were not writing to each other. The authors are clearly convinced that it is impossible to separate the life and art of the artist and very convincingly relate many works to particular people and moments in Van Gogh's life-the views of Nuenen church to his dead father for example or the idealized views of the Yellow House in Arles which they rightly portray not simply as an invitation to Gauguin, but the very evocation of a "New Art of the South". However, do not come away with the impression that this book is anyway dry or academic, its rigorous research and learning are lightly worn with intriguing insights and telling detail on nearly every page. The Vincent who emerges from this account is a demythologized one far removed for the self indulgence of Hollywood's Lust for Life portrayal. Here is the man unadorned-awkward, selfish, illogical, inconsistent and with little idea of where his life or art is going for most of his life and yet it is these very weaknesses which ultimately make the story and the man to say nothing of the art, so compelling for by the time you finish this volume, you feel as if you have traveled the lonely and agonizing path which Van Gogh trod to create Starry Night or The Cafe at Arles. Here the sublime paintings are seen through the prism of a life full of false starts, failed relationships, misconceived ideas and towards the end, distressing mental illness. Much has been made of the authors new interpretation Van Gogh's death or murder, but this is simply another example of where they have gone back to the facts rather than the legend. The illustrations are perfectly acceptable, but sometimes important works are not reproduced and readers may want a book with more reproductions to hand to truly appreciate all the points made in the text. I have read many art biographies over the years, but can confidently assert that none has afforded so many new perspectives or food for thought as this. It will undoubtedly redefine your understanding of the artist and his work and will not only appeal to those interested in art, but also to lovers of fine biography.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
This vast biography is a gripping and often heartbreaking account of a tortured genius, probably suffering from what would now be diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, which both fed his strikingly original work but also hindered his recognition as a great artist in his lifetime.
The joint authors paint a generally unflattering portrait of Van Gogh, although he was clearly well-intentioned, and showed occasional flashes of self-knowledge and touching, excessive humility or regret over past errors. Argumentative and excitable, he upset virtually everyone he met and drove away potential friends and lovers by being too intense, smothering and controlling. The only woman he ever managed to possess was the worn down prostitute Sien Hoornik, with whom he set up house, together with her baby, to his clergyman father's distress, only to abandon her for some new obsession with little evidence of any sense of guilt.
After a number of "false starts" as an art dealer who felt honesty-bound to tell customers the shortcomings of artworks for sale, a teacher, a theological student and a missionary in the grim coalmining area of the Borinage, he spent the last decade of his life as a self-taught and astonishingly prolific artist.
The book is strong on Van Gogh's development as an artist, and the various influences on his work, such as Delacroix's startling use of colour. We see his progression from detailed ink drawings, produced with the use of a grid, through a period of dark paintings, exemplified by his sludge-coloured representation of a group of peasants eating potatoes, to the great explosion of works in colour which began in Paris, expanded under the brilliant blue skies and arid landscapes of Provence, and ended in a final burst of activity in the picturesque riverside town of Auvers near Paris, where he died mysteriously from a gunshot wound.
His complex relationship with his brother Theo is covered in depth, as he cajoled, wheedled and bullied the young art dealer (who had taken over his job) into sending up to half his income each month to pay for the extravagant follies Vincent thought necessary for his work - studios, models for the portraits, and vast quantities of canvas and paint.
The chaotic days in the "yellow house" at Arles leading to the famous incident in which Vincent cut off his own ear are also brought to life, with a detailed comparison of the "chalk and cheese" differences between Vincent and Paul Gauguin who had been persuaded to visit him, as part of Van Gogh's self-deluding dream of setting up a community of artists. The painful contrast is made clear between the nervous Vincent, painting real scenes in the open air with spontaneity and lashings of paint, yet to find a single real buyer for his work, and the confident, manipulative Gauguin, who had just begun to enjoy a market for the pictures carefully planned and produced from memory in the studio, with the focus on symbolism and minimal use of paint.
The book lapses too often into a wordy, overblown, repetitious style from which suitable editing would have shaved off, say, at least 200 pages. This would have left more space to ensure that each reference to a key painting or description of a Van Gogh work is accompanied by a colour plate at a suitable point in the text. Failing this, you can in fact track down on Google imagesmost of the paintings mentioned.
If pressed for time, you may prefer to read Martin Gayford's much shorter, "The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles". Van Gogh's letters are also revealing, and may give a more balanced view through greater focus on his detailed reflections on life and art.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is not an easy book to read. When I started it, I wasn't sure I would get though 900 pages: from childhood, VVG was horribly maladjusted and unhappy, starting a pattern of wild mood swings, feverish and doomed efforts to succeed in the eyes of his family, and breakdowns in all his relationships and undertakings. Perhaps worst, I had always romanticized him as a hyper-sensitive victim, someone like the Don McClean ballad of a heroic lonely genius. But, according to this (utterly convincing) interpretation, VVG was an extremely unpleasant, vicious, selfish loser, who alternately saw himself as a Christ-like figure or as a total failure whose only option to avoid shame was death. Nonetheless, after struggling to get my mind into this narrative (some 200 pp.) and with the somewhat florid prose of the book, I found myself completely trusting the authors, whose research in the details of VVG's life and times is nothing short of magnificent. From that point, it became a dazzling exploration of one of the most seminal periods in history, when a new art was born to embody the changes underway with the industrial revolution and the birth of the science of psychology.
VVG was born into a rigid and narrow-minded family, with strictly enforced rules and oppressive expectations. His father was a country preacher and his mother a fearfully aspiring bourgeoise, both self-righteous and unquestioning of their beliefs. Each child was assigned a role to follow, and unfortunately for VVG, he fell into the role of black sheep, forever unable to satisfy their demands in the way that they wanted. This created a profound alienation that he never grew beyond. At the time, with mass urbanization underway and the traditional foundation of a religion-bound way of life on the way out, his father Dorus Van Gogh struggled to maintain a congregation in a bitter contest with modernity.
Dropping out of an expensive school, VVG entered his uncle's business of art sales. Here the pattern of all his subsequent undertakings emerged: rustic and unkempt, he made implacable enemies all around himself, particularly those in power, leading inevitably to ostracism and ruinous financial dependence on his family, all of whom were mortified with shame, rarely encouraging, and always condemning. In this way, he attempted and failed to enter a seminary to become a preacher like his father, exiled himself to the countryside to become a kind of vagabond evangelical, and finally found art. In each of these undertakings, he threw himself into them with a prodigious, obsessive energy that inevitably led to periodic nervous breakdown. All the while, he corresponded with members of his family in copious letters, first in recrimination and accusation from his side, then in pleading for forgiveness and money. To put it mildly, it is an agonizing spectacle, a downward spiral that only got worse with time.
Once he discovers art, which he undertook in his late 20s, the book becomes utterly fascinating. It completely succeeds at evoking the times. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, the demand for art soared, becoming a mass phenomenon for possession in normal households rather than only in palaces; with the advent of photography and the decline of religious sentimentality, movements in art emerged to meet new criteria: to display psychological subjects, visual experimentation to add something beyond realism, and new kinds of symbolism, to mention a few. It was the birth of modernism and VVG was smack in the middle of it.
VVG spent a long period working isolated in the countryside on drawing, refusing to get into color. This was when he more or less mastered form, the proverbial 10,000 hours that it takes to enter a craft. In his personal life, he took in a prostitute and her extended family - all at Theo's expense - and announced he would marry her, to the horror of his family. It was one of many disastrous and embarrassing episodes where he sought to construct his imagined ideal of a family life, always ending in disillusion, rage, and breakdowns. He left Holland with syphilis, which could not have helped his psychological pathologies.
Once in Paris, VVG experimented with virtually all of the new movements and got to know the cutting-edge avantgarde artists of his time. This is great fun, not only for their personalities when they were starting out, but for the descriptions of what they were attempting to do. It is a dense introduction to the most amazing artistic invention. VVG was a voracious reader and up on all the intellectual currents as they related to art, from Balzac and Zola to the philosophers, new critics, and historians, e.g. Michelet, all of which are densely summarized. Though he seemed to have found a role for himself in his brother's milieu - Theo had taken VVG's place in his uncle business and ran the most prestigious experimental art gallery in Paris - VVG abruptly leaves and heads to Arles, inaugurating the phenomenally productive period with his experiments in color and the maturing of his style, though he met with no commercial success and remained dependent on his brother, financially and far more demandingly, psychologically. The authors offer a brilliant explanation of the many stages of his art, which added immeasurably to my understanding of it.
In terms of his career, though he worked for the most part in obscurity and ever worsening mental deterioration, VVG was lucky to synchronize with the new awareness of psychology. The authors offer a fascinating interpretation that combines mythic pretension - the genius that expresses his art as a direct conduit to raw agony, emotion, and soul - with the practicality of how to build a career at the time. In other words, a critic finds an artist and explains his corpus of work, earning money from their own publications and also allying himself with a gallery to help sell it. One such critic, Albert Aurier, found VVG near the end of his life and began to extoll his work, bringing him a modest fame (though few sales and to the embarrassment of his family at the exposure of his mental illness). VVG was aghast at the way he was portrayed and felt not enjoyment or even vindication, but oppressed by yet another role that was imposed on him. After his death, this was the kernal that led to his later fame as a tortured artist whose life was as important as his art.
In such a long book, the authors also tried to introduce something new, an interpretation of VVG's death not as a suicide, but possibly as an accident. This may be the case, but we will never know, and I found this section a bit contrived. That being said, while the authors offer ample evidence to interpret the nature of VVG's mental illness, they never get mired in psychological jargon, beyond the contention that VVG was psychotic. It is up to the reader to decide whether he was bipolar, syphilitic, or damaged from his childhood treatment. I suspect it is a combination of all this. What is undeniable is the depth of their coverage, which is absolutely first rate. Though often critical and unflinching, their ideas never take away from the man and his wonderful achievements, but add new depth. This is a remarkable accomplishment for biography, particularly one that is so long and detailed.
Highest recommendation. I was inspired by this book and will seek out VVG's work (and those of his influences and milieu) in the museums I explored as a child, with a fresh eye. There is no greater tribute to a book's success!