On December 23, 1888, Van Gogh cropped his famous ear. Eleven days later, on January 3, Nietzsche flung himself, weeping, across the neck of a horse being flogged. I am uncertain what, if anything, to make of the fact that the most advanced painter and the most advanced philosopher in Europe should have gone spectacularly into madness at so nearly the same moment. But the parallels are worth considering. Both men were northerners, drawn south to “the orange-gold land where the lemons flower” by the promise of a healing warmth and light. Both were medical cranks, watchers over their wasting bodies, complainers of surprisingly congruent symptoms. Passages in their letters could be translations of each other in their litany of physical pain and malfunction–eyes, brain, stomach, bowels. Each sought a kind of domestic love so consistently denied him that one must infer a deep sexual unattractiveness. So both resorted to prostitutes–the grues et grenouilles (“cranes and frogs”) that figure as rebuses in one of Vincent’s uncharacteristic visual puns–to whom one supposes the fateful pathogens of their breakdowns were due. In both cases, insanity climaxed a decade of intense, transformative activity, during which neither was appreciated outside a circle of negligible diameter.
When recognition came at last, both seemed instantly accessible to audiences which knew little of philosophy or art. Nietzsche remains the philosopher of those who do not read philosophy, while the Van Gogh reproduction has been the standard decorative touch in middle-class living rooms throughout our culture. And finally, the biographical realities were so vivid as to provide universal mythic paradigms of true genius–so vivid as to make it all but impossible to think of their work save in the context of the experience it came from, rather than in the wider historical framework of the discipline each revolutionized and made anew. But, in fact, this response is justified by the theories each stands for. Nietzsche taught that philosophy his own presumably included, is essentially confessional, the projection onto the screen of the world of the thinker’s own will and perspective. And though a degree of expressiveness is to be found throughout the history of art, one cannot overestimate how much our perception of its existence is due to Van Gogh, who knew that he was bending representational accuracy to expressive ends; each of his works must be understood as a response to a scene or a moment transfigured by his feelings. So there is a singular appropriateness in an exhibition that maps his work against the chronicle of his life.
Van Gogh in Alres (at the Metrpolitan Museum of Art until Demceber 30) is a curatorial triumph in saturated pictobiography, covering the climactic period in the artists’ truncated creative life: 444 days in the Provencal town, supposed to be “the land of the blue tones and gay colors.” It begins in a daze of almost ecstatic optimisms, as Van Gogh embarked upon what he hoped would be an adventure in artistic, personal, social and moral fulfillment, an exaltation of love and color. It ended, of course, with the violent clash with Gauguin and the legendary mutilation. Subtracting the stretches of ill health and the struggle to establish the fragile and finally futile routines of mere living, it was a time of total artistic productivity: 200 paintings, many of them large; about the same number of letters, in effect esthetic reflections as well as analyses of the paintings he copied for his correspondents; and a hundred or so watercolors and drawings.
It is clear that he cannot have spent any great time on single works, and indeed he often did several in a single day–one of the two versions of L’Arlesienne was painted up in less than an hour. The parallel with Nietzsche’s rhythms is exact, at least if we construe the relevant literary unit not as the book (though he published a book a year in the decade of his power) but as the aphrorism or the short essay, which he composed with the same intensity and urgency as Van Gogh did pictures, striding about much the same meridional landscape some kilometers to the east. The severely abbreviated duree of these works has to connect with the temperament the two figures shared, and the artistic and philosophical agenda each evolved to justify a style of creativity neither could especially help.
The first room of the exhibition shows a number of the fourteen orchards Van Gogh painted in March and April 1888, in joyous response to an aspect of nature made intoxicating by the harsh cold that had greeted him when, instead of the bath of colored brilliance he had anticipated, he stepped off the train from Paris into a foot of snow. Part of the joyousness must be explained with reference to the congruence between the subject–trees in blossom–and one of the standard motifs of Japanese art, for it was one of his hopes, confided to his brother, Theo, “that looking at nature under a bright sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing.” Japanism was a constant spiritual possiblity for him: one of the self-portraits deliberately presents his shaved and bony head as that of “a simple bonze worshipping the Eternal Buddha,” and many of the late landscapes show the unmistakable angles and proportions of depictions by Hokusai or Hiroshige of bridges or roadways or rivers. The late colors of absinthe, sunflower orange, glassy blue, the red of blood and popies, have not yet appeared: these canvases have the pale tonalities of the North and the lightly touched surfaces of Impressionism rather than the gouged, plowed viscosities of the late, heavily pigmented works.
Impressionism made Van Gogh possible, since it employed a particularly direct imposition of paint and hence an immediacy of contact between artist and canvas: he could not have achieved the artistic personality we know by means of slow drying glazes or under the material constraints of fresco painting. But much as those first paintings of orchards in flower resemble, with their dabs and drags and iterated brush-marks, the signature of Impressionism, the artistic impulses are perfectly opposed. For Impressionism was finally concerned with representation, with getting the colors of the seen world right–hence the ideologized denunciation of black shadows–and so the movement led naturally to the kind of optical scientism we find in Seurat. But Van Gogh really was concerned with feeling, simply appropriating the inventions of Impressionism as his own vocabulary of expressio(–the dots of Pointillism, Monet’s bright, immediate daubs, the strokes of Cezanne. By August he writes that the Impressionists will find fault, “because instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibily.” So it was with drawing. Van Gogh could not have been Vincent through grisaille or silverpoint, or the textual crayoned geometries of Seurat: he reinvented the reed pen, and the lines refer as much to him as to forces in nature–they are realized energies rather than outlines, emotive rather than depictive. “Could I, in Paris, have done the drawing of the boats in an hour … just by letting my epn go?”
It is very moving that after the breakdown he wanted to return to the orchards of his Arlesian virginity, a desire frustated by his prolonged hospitalization. It is very moving as well that one of the final paintings is a view of Arles through blown trees, with a blasted trunk the color of an aged elephant as its main element, its broken, barren branches stuck hopelessly up into the surprisingly cheery sky. But the body of the show is the sequence of images, collectively as famous as any in the history of art, of the bedroom and of his chair, the night cafe, the Zouave, of the Arlesian woman, stacked hay and sheaved wheat suffused with what he ruefully peaks of as “the high yellow note that I attained last summer,” when he kept going, as he admits, by means of coffee, alcohol and no food to speak of at all.
The show’s terminal painting is the terrifying self-portrait with the bandaged ear, done early in January 1889. Since the lopeed ear is the one art-historical fact everyone in our culture may be expected to know, everyone is obliged to work throught he show with the foreknowledge of its occurrence: we stand toward the exhibition just as the audience to a tragedy does toward its enactment, knowing things the hero does not know, namely how it will inevitably end. What he was heading for is finally here, in the last room, on the last wall. Wearing a fur hat painted perhaps symbolically blue, the color of ice–the sojourn ended as it began in the gelid southern winter–Vincent stares into the pathetic mirror we saw in the study of his bedroom, his eyes slightly crossed, green as wine bottles. Wherever he is, he is cold, for he is wearing his heavy coat, and the yellow smoke from his emblematic pipe spirals upward, past the maroon band behind him, into the ocher space above, where it disappears in the strokes of lemon yellow which press down like a steady rain of paint.
There is a great temptation to see this painting as an exercise in color theory, with its pedagogic use of complementaries, a kind of lesson in chromatic necessity. It is also tempting to read it as an effort to demonstrate that he was in control again, “an unsentimental and composed self-appraisal,” as Ronald Pickvance writes in the superlative and indispensable catalogue. Indeed, at first glance it has the air of an advertisement for something that requires the image of a Dutchman at peace–tobacco, perhaps, or beer, or cheese. But then one has to think of how much fury, how much madness, was being kept at bay, of what moral energy it required to hold that bandaged slash at an esthetic distance–as so much white to contain the acute greens and yellows, just a curve to balance that of the black-blue edges of the hat. The title could have been Ceci n’est pas un fou. And it would have been false. The picture cannot be separated from the man, and the man was lost. It is a mute scream.
It is a relief to round that panel at last and enter the frantic sales place, where the visitor can turn in his tour guide and make his purchases from among the jigsaw puzzles and engagement calendars, the posters and reproductions and finaly the postcards where the images somehow belong and where they are safe. Reproductions with an undeniable decorativity, they are actually quite gay. The painted reality on the other hand is shattering, and it takes a particularly strong sould to think of walking through it twice. It makes one thing of the horrors of exact recurrence of which Nietzsche made so much.