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The Man and the Art,
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This review is from: Van Gogh (Hardcover)
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.