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Vincent van Gogh

Epilogue: Van Gogh's Legacy

"La tristesse..." (May 1890–July 1890)

Study & Essay

In the context of post-Impressionism, Vincent Van Gogh provides a tender counterpoint to the duo of the solitary, difficult Cezanne and the hostile, cynical Gauguin. His legendary–and considerable–medical problems should not overshadow the incredible spirituality and intense humanitarianism documented in his hundreds of articulate, intelligent, sensitive letters to his art dealer brother Theo. It is easy, but ultimately misguided, to view and interpret van Gogh's painting in light of his psychological condition–the strong evidence of his letters indicates that he worked during lucid periods as well. He was able to discuss his work on a high intellectual and rational analytical level with his brother and his friends.

More accurate than the notion that his art was produced by his psychological crises is the understanding of his art as the catalyst for his psychological collapse. Vincent himself wrote to his brother regarding his obsessive artistic output: "The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more I am an artist.... [A] kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that one could have created life at less cost than creating art" (L 514, July 1888). In other words, we should not overestimate the effect van Gogh's breakdowns had on his art, but instead untangle the myths in order to recognize and concentrate on a profound talent tempered by a prodigious, exhausting, and ultimately, debilitating creative effort. Van Gogh was equally talented as a portraitist, a landscapist, and a painter of still lives and interiors in the Dutch tradition of Rembrandt. Self-portraits like Self-Portrait, 1888, and Self- Portrait, 1889, have an emotive force and intensity unparalleled in his time, due in large part to their swirling, sculptural, corrosive green backgrounds. These dynamic backgrounds, which give his work a atmospheric solidity and distinctive corporeality, lend his portraits, in the artist's own words, "something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to give by the actual radiance and vibration of our colorings" (Arnason eighty-five). Other notable portraits include L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux), 1888, and Dr. Gachet, 1890. The vivid and masterful The Starry Night and Cornfield with Cypress Tree, 1889, rank among his most evocative landscapes, rhythmic interpretations of the nervous energy and kineticism of nature that give the impression of a transcribed preternatural environment rather than a fanciful invention. The Starry Night was painted at the asylum in Saint-Remy after the artist's second nervous breakdown. The passionate and concentrated gestural quality of Van Gogh's eloquent brushstroke permeates his paintings of interiors as well, as in Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles, 1889.

Van Gogh worked feverishly and competently until his suicide in 1890 despite his seizures and fits of crippling depression, spending the final two months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise. Here his work became more muted in color and his line became slightly more anguished, anxious, and tense, although no less expressive, as in his late landscapes The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise and Wheat Field with Crows, executed in 1890, in the final days of his life. That Van Gogh was able to complete so many masterpieces in his short career to become one of the most important painters and draughtsmen of his day is a tribute to his extraordinary drive, focus, and faculty.

A brilliant colorist who took Gauguin's subjective color choices a step further, Van Gogh's tremendous influence on the development of Expressionism is due to his unique skill as a draughtsman and his immediately recognizable heavy, sculptural line. He wrote to his brother, "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly...to exaggerate the essential and to leave the obvious vague" (Arnason 85). For instance, in his nightmarish masterpiece The Night Cafe, 1888, he sought "to express in red and green the terrible passions of human beings" (Schapiro 26).

Van Gogh's revolutionary approach to painting had a strong influence on the next generation of artists, beginning with Matisse and the French Expressionists, also known as the Fauves. He offered these early modernists a powerful alternative to the avant-garde centrality of delicate Parisian Impressionism and post-Impressionism. His innovative and radical use of unnatural color, his angular, heavy line, his compression of three- dimensional space into two-dimensional discreet pictorial elements (like brushstroke and pattern), and particularly, his stylized distortion and exaggeration of reality, often to grotesque ends, all appealed to the Expressionist artists.

The German Expressionists, especially the Die Brucke group, considered themselves the heirs to van Gogh, whom they esteemed the premier genius of modern art. Van Gogh's penetrating and revealing portraits were of special interest to the young Germans' and Austrians' high regard for the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. Even Picasso was not immune to van Gogh's formidable influence–his pre-Cubist work demonstrates his knowledge of van Gogh's painting, and Vincent's spontaneity and forceful immediacy affected even Picasso's transitional Cubist work in the era of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Joan Miro admitted that his early work was indebted to van Gogh. His influence reappeared after WWII with Abstract Expressionism, particularly the work of fellow Dutchman Willem de Kooning, and the respectful van Gogh studies and tribute paintings of the British neo-Expressionist painter Francis Bacon. Even today, van Gogh's stylistic syntax is evident in neo- Expressionist painting in Europe and the United States.

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