Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

"If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well." ~Alexander Smith

A book that has garnered a fair share of buzz this year is the six volume Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen and Nienke Bakker. It is a work into which a team of scholars invested fifteen years of their lives to produce.

This is not the first attempt to translate the world's most famous impressionist's letters. An earlier English translation appeared in 1952. This one, however, includes the accompanying drawings which appear on many of the sheafs. And to the delight of art lovers, the results are accessible online.

David Ng of the L.A. Times introduces his readers to this find in a Nov. 3 story: "File this under impossibly cool art websites. In what is perhaps the first project of its kind, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has put English-language translations of 902 of Vincent van Gogh's personal letters on line."

I myself got turned on to this site via an article in the current Economist.

THE story of Vincent van Gogh’s life is more heartbreaking, and heart-lifting, than the romantic myth that has enshrouded him for decades. It is told, in his own words and works, in the six-volume “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters”. His 819 surviving letters (and the 83 addressed to him) form the core.

The site itself enables you to dig with a variety of tools. For example, you can go chronological and read the letters by periods of his life, from the Hague to London to Paris etc. Or you can read the letters by whom he corresponded with, from brother Theo to Emile Bernard to Betsy Tersteeg to Paul Gaugin. If preferred, read the letters by place... and finally, see the letters themselves with sketches.

The site has keyword search capabilities as well, so you can look for themes. But it is not a perfect search tool yet. For example, I typed in the word "pain" and within seconds I was delivered links to 88 letters where he mentions pain, which is more than 10% of his correspondence. But when I examined the first letter, it had highlighted the first four letters of the word paint or painter. In other words, 10% of his letters mention painting. No surprise there. These were not about pain.

Not to let go of it, I did a search for the word suffering. And this time there are 94 letters found, even more than in the search for pain. When you hold your cursor over the link, a little box opens and extracts the sentence in which the word that you have searched for appears. A quick review of ten of these showed that he was often conveying to brother or friend or relative the sufferings of others. Examples, from letters to brother Theo:

...him as a worker with signs of sorrow and suffering and fatigue on his face, without form or glory...

...finally be an end to that long and terrible suffering. Goodbye Theo, write soon, old boy, if you...

Oh, how much sadness and sorrow and suffering there is in the world, both in the open...

...and what shall I say? It was a long and terrible suffering that was his lot.

...and sensitivity in her; one can see that suffering and going through hard times have refined her...

But sometimes it is of himself he speaks:

...it’s the shortest hours in which one dies of suffering...I’m broken, I can’t go on; it doesn’t...

...feel cowardly in the face of anguish and suffering – more cowardly than is justified, and it’s...
...I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t...
...I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great...

The website -- vangoghletters.org -- is a treasure... and it's free.

If reading letters is not your thing, but you still want a portrait of the artist, he did many, possibly more than thirty, and every one is wonderfully evocative. You can find a very nice collection of Van Gogh self portraits here on Wikipedia. Each one is worth further study and every picture tells a story.

Portrait of Van Gogh at top is from the Whitney collection.

1 comment:

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