Van Gogh’s Enduring Legacy
William J. Havlicek
Vincent’s work marks a permanent spiritual landmark in Western art. He captures the spiritual yearnings that criss- cross the pages of humankind’s spotted and tormented history. But while it is Vincent’s vision that is examined in this present work, what makes his vision so potent is that it is a vision saturated not only with a timeless spirituality but also with the specific cultural spirit of his time, and in a real sense our time as well. His work is timeless—he gave expression to the public world at large even as he gave utterance to his personal and private place in that world. His work is a fusion of the private realms that make up every person’s cultural identity. We can learn a great deal about ourselves as we study Vincent’s writings, and we can learn to see how human existence is given meaning by devotion to a higher purpose.
Vincent might be called a contemporary man, and his 19th century existence feels oddly familiar to anyone with an eye to read between the lines. This is not hard to do because the late 19th century was a world undergoing massive seismic shifts and rumblings much like our own troubled times. Many of the same questions and doubts that haunted the 19th century still trouble us today. We sense the probing and throbbing questioning and convulsive churning of minds and hearts looking for answers. We can understand why throughout his life Vincent sought consolation in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and the novels of Charles Dickens. We seek it in religion, inspirational poems, music, and sacred works of art. Vincent’s work is both heartbreaking and moving because it was spawned from a heart that had repeatedly been broken. Vincent has been positioned, along with Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, as one of the three key innovators of the Post-Impressionist Movement: Vincent representing the expressionist branch of the move- ment; Gauguin marking the symbolist branch; and Cezanne providing the conceptual innovations that led to Cubism. Picasso was directly influenced by all three of these artists but especially by the expressive aspects of Vincent, so much so that he referred to Vincent as his artistic father. Similarly, in the same way that Picasso borrowed from Vincent, Vincent borrowed from his own artist mentors: Rembrandt, Millet, Daumier, and many others. This is the way art evolves.
Vincent was less reactive and cutting edge than it may seem. He reached back into the past for aesthetic and moral direction as much as he leaned forward. I believe Vincent would have said that his work was a bridge linking the present to the past. In considering the moral concerns that link our cultural present to the 19th century, we discover hidden insights into ourselves as we traverse Vincent’s bridge.
The first time I was to cross that bridge was in 1967 when as a twenty year old American art student living in Holland I saw the Van Gogh collection for the first time. One drawing in particular, “Peasant Mowing”, staggered me. It was a heavily-worked, charcoal drawing where gritty marks gave massive form to a grimly focused reaper. Black pools of shadow flooded the folds of his garments as he lurched forward, swinging a sickle. This brooding worker was the literal and graphic embodiment of all the unknown miners smeared with coal dust that Vincent had seen as a missionary in the bleak mining community of the Borinage in 1879. Yet the sum of it was much more than an experience of illusion and movement. It was also evidence of an intense effort on Vincent’s part to tangibly reveal humankind’s endless cycles of toil . The powerful drawing made an anonymous man and his private exertion visible. Many consider this drawing, a significant part of the Van Gogh Collection in Amsterdam, to be one of the most convincing depictions of labor in the history of art.
I have long been interested in what motivated an artist like Van Gogh. Writing a book on Vincent was one way to find out. Being a painter myself was another way. It was through both of these ways that I found answers to my question about artistic motivation. It was a journey that took me into the heart of human motivation and the wells of spiritual, cultural and natural power that feed artistic life.
My personal involvement in visual art began very early with an uncle (whose birthday I shared) who gave me my first set of oil paints, along with deeply craved encouragement. It was also about the same time that one of my brother’s friends gave me a book on how to draw. Those seeds of encouragement were planted in eager soil, and by high school my drawing skill was well developed. It was also in high school that a passion for reading, writing and painting were kindled by inspired teachers.
My family added a cultural foundation to all of this as my father was a Czech immigrant who brought with him rich European traditions along with my Babi’s (grandmother) cooking and peasant stories. Among the family ancestry was the well known writer and moral activist Karel Havlicek Borovsky, to whom I am told I bear an uncanny resem- blance, and from whom some of my idealism and passion for writing may emanate.
I was told by my maternal grandmother, who was the family’s archivist, of a rich gallery of ancestors including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Andrew Jackson, and (rather ominously) two of her own brothers who served life sentences for murder for their part in the Great Train Robbery! As a child I felt that I had inherited two complementary worlds staged in the United States and Europe. My maternal grandmother had been a homesteader and nurse in the Wild West in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Coincidentally, I too would later live in Colorado and obtain military medical training as a psychiatric orderly at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital, in Denver.
I also recall a particularly well-shaped reading chair that ended up in my boyhood bedroom and which became my transportation vehicle in late night reading expeditions during freezing Iowa winters and rain-drenched spring weekends. Iowa, with its dramatic and colorful seasonal changes, would also play a central part of my love for land- scape painting and was another of the things that linked my personal aesthetic with that of Vincent. This landscape absorption would be amplified when I lived in Holland as a Junior Year Abroad Student in art school.
Preceding all of this was my introduction to religion as a student at a Catholic grade school and altar boy. There was a fusion of natural and supernatural thought that stimulated my childhood in ways that would later blossom into a lifelong interest in the Bible and sacred experience. These interests and motivations were also shared by Vincent and would be one of the strongest links that I would forge with him. The unity of the natural and spiritual aspects of Vincent’s art and life would become a central theme of his letters, and of this book.
The landscape is a living thing to those whose lives are dependent upon it, a lesson I would learn in the summers in Iowa when I worked as a hired hand to farmers willing to pay a high school kid a minimal wage. Later this rural connection too would deepen when I rented a farmhouse in Kalona, Iowa, while in graduate school at the University of Iowa. Isolated as I was in a century old wooden farmhouse surrounded by fields and cattle, my vision as an artist became permanently immersed in things of nature. That unity of nature and spiritual life was to take me appreciably closer to Vincent. The power, presence and intensity of the seasons were never stronger and more real to me as when I had to literally dig my station wagon out of snow drifts, herd cattle, mend fences and witness animal birth and death—all set under the unbending power of nature. I recall on an early spring day, as the snow was beginning to melt, seeing a white object at the bottom of a stream. It was the carcass of a ewe who had drowned trying to ford the stream in a blinding blizzard, and whose frozen wool had acted like a sponge, dragging her to the bottom.
I had another experience parallel to Vincent’s life while working as a psychiatric orderly in Hawaii during the Vietnam War, and witnessed first hand the shadowlands that Vincent had traversed of violence, exhaustion, delusion, mental breakdowns, and the brighter upsurge of hope and self-recovery.
All of this combined with a stimulating masters program at the University of Iowa’s art and art history department located a stone’s throw from the famed Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop helped me unify these experi- ences and embody these ideals into painting, writing, and exhibiting. Following graduation I moved to California and began to show my paintings and to receive a measure of success and much appreciated encouragement. I soon had affiliations with a number of well-respected Los Angeles galleries and museums, and received several large-scale private commissions. By 1990, I was exhibiting in Europe and on the east coast of the United States.
Vincent’s moral universe was always beckoning to me, and in 1996, I returned to my scholarly roots by reigniting a doctoral program in philosophy at the Claremont Graduate University, in California. My doctoral program was centered on Vincent’s personal letters, and my plan was to divide the letters into themes that would reveal the deep foundations of his world view, and that would become my doctoral thesis and the origin of this book. I had previously been a museum curator at the Riverside Art Center and Museum. Prior to that, I had been an assistant professor of studio and art history at Loma Linda University.
Vincent’s world view was rich and complex, made up of his early memories of life in rural Brabant in The Netherlands. Crucial to this was that he was both son and grandson of two of the most effective welfare activists in Europe—pastors and missionaries to the poor. His letters were to unveil an extraordinary vision borne from his innate powers of obser- vation and strong empathy with all humanity. The letters are ardent and hopeful, passionate and determined, spiritual, and at times, despairing. They are philosophical, poetic, lyrical, analytical—and nearly always beautiful. Vincent’s letters are in many ways like a Dickens novel, re- flections of the human condition as it tries to make sense of a world full of complexity and contradiction. The letters can rival the descriptive powers of any first-rate novelist. Judy Sund, in her important 1992 study True to Temperament: Vincent and French Naturalist Literature, makes the following comment regarding this literary dimension of Van Gogh:
“Vincent’s affinity for the written word is both undeniable and under-acknowl- edged. He was a prolific letter writer whose collected correspondence now fills multiple volumes, and a voracious reader who claimed ‘a more or less irresistible passion for books’. His letters are replete with references to and appraisals of books and authors; more than two hundred books are mentioned by title, and many others are alluded to in less obvious ways.”
— Sund, 1992
Vincent himself wrote,
“I just can’t believe that a painter should have no other task and no other duty than painting only. What I mean to say is, whereas many consider, for instance, reading books and such things what they call a waste of time, on the contrary, I am of the opinion that, far from causing one to work less or less well, rather it makes one work more and better to try to broaden one’s mind in a field that is so closely allied with this work—that at any rate it is a matter of impor- tance, which greatly influences one’s work, from whatever point of view one looks at things, and whatever conception one may have of life.”
It is these under-acknowledged aspects of Vincent that this book explores: his identification with the outsider, the marginalized, the afflicted; his support of other artists; his deeply held moral and ethical views; his use of literature as a catalyst for his art; his profound under- standing and strikingly near-parallel life with that of Charles Dickens. There is also the remarkable synthesis between his painting and his nursing of atrociously injured miners from firedamp explosions in coalmines, and long treks into the night under starry skies to the bedside of a dying friend.
I saw a neglected dimension of Vincent, the untold journey of an unknown, adventurous, deeply compassionate man whose essence seems to have been lost in the dramatic and often apocryphal stories surrounding his illness and early death. My effort is to resurrect an unknown aspect of Vincent—one that is even heroic and certainly praiseworthy, and profoundly religious in the best sense of the word.
~ William J. Havlicek, Ph.D.