My review of the new edition of van Gogh’s letters

I read these new volumes in December.  There are six large books, two columns to a page, large pages, the whole thing weighs about thirty pounds.  I can't recall taking on such a large reading project in such a short period of time, but I am very glad I spent a few weeks immersed in the world of Vincent van Gogh.  I was impressed by how smart van Gogh was, what an intellectual omnivore he was, and how well he could compose a letter and pour forth a lot of information very rapidly.  The illustrations and footnotes in the volumes are stunning.  You'll find the review here.  Excerpt:

The collected letters of great creative minds can often be read as lengthy case studies in the dissimulation and the control of one's personal image to others. This is the case with van Gogh, whose writing also shows how such interpretive attempts break down. Some of his letters are practical documents containing very little information, a series of bland platitudes to cajole, influence, and perhaps even mislead their readers. Tone and content contrast strikingly, from one recipient to the next. He himself stated–if only in passing–that there is a lot wrong or exaggerated in his letters, "without my always [sic] being aware of it" (December 23, 1881).

When van Gogh writes to his parents, he sounds like a normal son who is keen to reassure Mom and Dad that everything is OK; with his sister Willemien, he is loving, doting, and domestic, and it feels that he is trying not to remind her of his chaotic life, rather than trying to conceal it. He describes to her the prospect of sharing a room with Gauguin (July 31, 1888), calling him "a very spirited painter." "We'd live together for the sake of economy and for each other's company." A few months later (October 8 and 29), he writes to Theo that Gauguin needs to eat, walk in the countryside with him (Vincent), and "have a screw once in a while": "He and I plan to go to the brothels a lot, but only to study them." The entire Gauguin story is a highlight of the volumes, and in those letters to Gauguin, not to mention to other artists, van Gogh is prickly, difficult, and condescending, playing the role of rival to the hilt.

As for his letters to Theo, these are so full of life that it's easy for the reader to assume that his brother is getting the "real Vincent." But is he? Through much of this period, Theo is supporting van Gogh, either by sending him money, by selling his art (or trying to), or both. Writing to Theo, the artist comes across as whining, manipulative, and in careful control of the flow of information. It's a kind of faux frankness, maybe not untrue but designed to portray a mind in creative ferment and to fit a certain stereotype. There is often first a thanks for money received, a blizzard of reports about what van Gogh is doing and painting, and then at the end a suggestion that even more painting, activity, and creative ferment might be possible if only Theo would do everything to support him. Time and again, the reader wonders just how much van Gogh and his brother trust each other. In the letter of August 14, 1879, for instance, he complains that Theo has advised him to give up his quest to be an artist. "And, joking apart, I honestly think it would be better if the relationship between us were more trusting on both sides," van Gogh suggests, before apologizing for the possibility that so much of the family sorrow and discord have been caused by him. These look and sound like letters to his brother, but in essence we are reading fund-raising proposals.

You have to register to read the whole review but it doesn't take long., by the way, is one of my all-time favorite web sites.


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