Archive for the ‘Vincent van Gogh’ Category

(color wheel by Moses Harris–1766)

Did you know that if you stare at a yellow circle for a minute or two and then close your eyes, you will see a purple circle floating around on the back of your eyelids? And that if you stare at a blue circle and then close your eyes you’ll see an orange circle floating? As a matter of fact, if you stare at any color on the color wheel long enough and then close your eyes, you will experience the color directly opposite on the color wheel (it doesn’t work on the computer screen, possibly because of back lighting. You have to use paint or something non-opaque).

Goethe (the German philosopher, scientist and writer) said that when we see colors, something inside of us “reciprocally evokes” the colours diametrically opposed to [them] in this diagram.” (Goethe’s Theory of Colour) (ps. the “diagram” refers to the above color circle). When we see a color, its complementary color arises inside of us, and we unconsciously experience the whole of the chromatic scale at once.

In my last post I posed a question. If everything physical in the world can be continuously reduced and reduced until it is no more than nothing, does the physical world hold any meaning?

During a particularly depressing period in his life  (he had been helping a prostitute raise her children but it didn’t work out), Vincent van Gogh moved to a city called Nuenen to live with his parents. Nuenen was a city of weavers and van Gogh spent a lot of time during the year he lived there watching the weavers work. It was during this time that he decided that weaving was much like painting, and he began to develop his method of using paints as a weaver uses threads.

When the weavers weave that cloth…the peculiar Scottish plaids, then you know their aim is…for the multicolored checkered cloth to make the most vivid colors balance each other. But for the weaver, or rather the designer of the pattern or combination of colors, it is not always easy to determine his estimation of the number of threads and their direction, no more than it is easy to blend the strokes of the brush into a harmonious whole. (Vincent van Gogh quoted in Van Gogh and Gaugin: The Search for Sacred Art by Debora Silverman)

Van Gogh carried a little lacquered  Chinese tea box full of yarn with his painting supplies. While he was painting, van Gogh would take out different colors and twist them together to maximize the balance and luminosity that is experienced by the viewer. The colors, weaving together like so many threads, evoke the feeling of balanced contrast in the world.

On observation, all those swirling, seemingly disparate particles collapse like threads into a moment of balance, creating meaning in a formless world.


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A friend once said that only narcissists commit suicide. At the time I felt like that a fair enough assumption (we were talking at the time about a wealthy, good looking movie star who had made the attempt but failed), but after reading and doing a little writing on Vincent van Gogh, I think I’ve revised my view. Here was a man who failed at everything. He was wracked with religious guilt (his father and grandfather were ministers for the Dutch Reformed Church, based on the teaching of John Calvin). He was mentally ill, plagued by paranoia, insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares and despair. He was in pain much of the time due to loose teeth, stomach problems (both likely caused by malnutrition), epilepsy, and possibly syphilis.

I was discussing this with my partner and she said that life destroys some people. That they then take their lives is not narcissism, but blessed release. This reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me of that old saying that used to be on everybody’s bumper:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Coming down to the earth burns. And, I think, some people just aren’t capable of building up the same defenses as everybody else, and the world burns them up.

The second thing I’m reminded of is the Hindu story of Ganga, the maiden who sprang from the holy water Brahma used to wash the toes of Vishnu. Ganga was ordered to descend to the earth to wash over the ashes of a king’s ancestors, in order that they be able to be released from earth to ascend to heaven.

But Ganga was so powerful the gods were afraid that she would wash away the earth when she descended. Shiva agreed to take her into his wild mane of hair and to let her out little bits at a time. Ganga is the Ganges River, worshipped as sacred to the Hindu people.

I had a teacher once who showed us a drawing exercise in which you take a pencil and circle it above piece of paper, bringing it closer and closer to the paper, until you are actually drawing the circle. The moment the pencil touches the paper and the circle is drawn, a miracle has occurred. Something that was once an idea (non-physical)  now exists in the physical world. We bring it down and give it form.

You are a porthole. Ideas (inspirations) come into you, products (physical things) come out of you (in the form of artwork, or automobiles, or washed dishes–whatever it is that you do in the world).

We are the spiritual being Ganga descending to the earth. We are Shiva receiving and transforming divinity. We are the earth itself  holding the ash for purification and release. As Vincent van Gogh can attest, finding form in the ocean of chaos is not easy.

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Vincent van Gogh was a man who was intent on saving his soul through his painting. He was perfectly awful at marketing himself, unlike Picasso who was beloved despite treating his friends and lovers horribly (he once fired a handgun into the air in group of fans) or Salvador Dali who was beloved despite the fact that he was eccentric beyond the pale (he once nearly killed himself after donning an air-tight deep sea scuba helmet for laughs and kept ocelots for pets. I’m not even really sure what an ocelot is).

Vincent van Gogh was beloved by nobody, except his brother Theodore. He was remembered by those who knew him as being dirty, disagreeable, intense, awkward, egotistical and, strangely enough, eager to please. He visited brothels, drank copious amounts of absinth, and treated his epilepsy with the poisonous plant digitalis. He had constant stomach pains from drinking too much black coffee and not eating properly. He wasn’t the picture of health. His neighbors called the authorities on him and he eventually checked himself into the Saint-Paul-de-Masoule asylum in France. There, he painted a picture every day. All in all, he painted and drew 1600 pieces during his 37 years on earth. You might say he painted like a madman.

I am risking my life for my work, and my reason is half gone.–van Gogh

I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day. Somebody was interviewing Steven Sondheim, the man who, among other things, wrote the lyrics to West Side Story. During the interview he said that  anyone who creates art–takes a photo, paints a picture, writes a song–is doing so to create form from chaos. The world is crazy, unpredictable. In order to find our place within the crazy, we make marks on paper, distill ideas into pages or onto a canvas, freeze time as best we can. Get it down, before destruction.

One of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs (Tamburitza Lingua) has a line that goes like this:

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…and kerplooey. You’re done. You’re done for. You’re done for good. So tell me did you? Did you do? Did you do all you could?

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A few weeks ago I became intrigued with Vincent van Gogh. I remembered a story that a teacher told me, about how van Gogh shot himself in the stomach (which is an excruciating place to be injured) and that it took two days for him to die. His last words were, “Who knew that life could be so sad?”  (The teacher wondered why he had chosen to shoot himself in the stomach. He conjectured a guess that perhaps that is where his pain was coming from. Solve et coagula.)

It has been said that Vincent van Gogh saw the world differently than others, which is reflected in his paintings.  It is certainly true that he related with others in a very different way than was socially acceptable (beyond cutting off his own earlobe, he held his hand in a lit lantern to convince a girl’s parents to let him see her, he threatened Gauguin with a razor blade after throwing a cup of absinthe at him [on a slightly different note, after being threatened by the blade, Gauguin apparently decided to try and stare van Gogh down which is not the course that I would have chosen in that situation. Alas, I wasn’t there. Had I been, history would have certainly been very different.], and he agreed to marry a woman ten years his senior, who he didn’t love, because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Or something like that.)

Vincent suffered in his life, that is assured. He failed at dealing art, quit his teaching job because he wasn’t being paid, was fired from a missionary gig, and failed the examinations for the ministry after fifteen months of study. At this point, he decided to become an artist, despite the fact that his mother thought his drawings were “ugly.”

After this, things got a little bit depressing. He was starving most of this time because he spent his money on art supplies, he had hallucinations and heard voices in his head, he poisoned himself by eating his own paint (probably accidentally), he couldn’t sell any paintings (the only one ever sold while he was alive is pictured above) and no women wanted him except the one he didn’t love. And yet, he continued to paint every day. In his words: “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Was it really necessary for him to make that choice? What about contentment? Where does that fit in? It is my goal to be happy by not holding grudges, by not talking negatively about people, by being compassionate.  My counselor once asked me if I wanted to become Jesus and I said yes. Why not?

But she (my counselor) felt like we need conflict in our lives in order to live authentically, to continue peeling back the layers of the onion. So here’s the question: If van Gogh could have been more content, would he have been able to paint the way he did?

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