If you ask a group of people to give the one name that best resembles the tortured artist, you would hear a particular response more than any others: Vincent Van Gogh. In truth, maybe no other man suffered for his art than any other. The notion of a suffering artist raises questions, like, “Why would any person chose to live such a miserable life just to create art?”
To say he, or any artist for that matter, agonized as he did because he wanted to paint doesn’t quite say it. Van Gogh must paint. Which brings up another question: Why must he paint?
Van Gogh’s Life
Vincent Van Gogh grew up in Holland. His father was a preacher in a small town in southern Netherlands. As a young adult he was hired by his uncle, an art dealer, and sent to London. In the mind of this uncle, who seems to have been nothing like his brother the preacher, he “rescued” Vincent from religion by sending him away from his parents.
Van Gogh went to work in London as one who buys and sells paintings. But if you asked Vincent, his real work in London was to save souls. He spent more time away from the shiny art galleries with their rich and noble patrons and instead devoted himself to the wretched of the earth on the wrong side of the river.
In time, Vincent left the art world, although we know it was only for a time. He went to coal pits of southern Belgium, the poorest of the poor in Europe in his day. After a few years the mission society that funded him cut him off because of his excessive zeal. That’s when he took up a new means of preaching sermons: painting.
Van Gogh’s Art
Painting as preaching, what an idea. But what did Vincent know of art? He was an art dealer for a while, but his heart was never in it. He felt painting was in the marrow of his bones and he really didn’t need any training. And to be honest, who now would say he should have gone to art school? That might have ruined him.
All of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings share one thing in common: he wanted to show Heaven to others. More to the point, that our life is a slow journey on the path to another life in another world. Whether it was the dingy brown painting he did in Belgium or the colorful works he later produced in France, each canvas was a sermon.
Van Gogh wanted to open the eyes of man, particularly the poor, to the greatness of life apart from the mundaneness of mere existence. He did not try to make things beautiful, but real, and that’s what makes it beautiful.
Van Gogh’s Example
Some easily dismiss Van Gogh as a person, and thus as an artist. After all, he was crazy, wasn’t he? He cut off his earlobe to impress a girl, a prostitute, none the less. And he did spend some time near the end of his life in an asylum. And lest we forget, he did kill himself. Crazy, right? How can I respect the art of a crazy man? The man ate his paint, for goodness sake!
No one will say he was all there at all times. He did have bouts of mania. The infamous ear bit is true, as is the suicide. He voluntarily checked himself into an asylum, but he also went out in the middle of the day while a patient and painted.
I challenge anyone to show me a work of Van Gogh’s that even hints at insanity. His is not the work of a madman, but of a genius. Here is a man who never had an art class who went on to become the greatest painter ever. There is pain in every painting. Yet, Van Gogh transformed the wretchedness of his life into something beautiful, and he did it for us.
Van Gogh’s Legacy
Pain is easy to portray in any work of art. He used his misery and his passion to convey the exuberance of the human condition and the joy that can still be found in this life. You don’t just see his paintings, you feel them. You hear the clear and definite sermon he is trying to say on each canvas: there yet remains comfort for our mortality through the splendor of life. Van Gogh’s industry is a mindscape, not just a landscape. Each portrait is a self-portrait, and each self-portrait is an image of each one of us.
So here’s the secret: every work of art is a painting, every work of art is a novel, every work of art is a symphony. And as this is so, every work of art is a self-portrait, every work of art is a memoir, every work of art is a leitmotif of its composer’s being.
Literature not only tells the story of human existence, but how that author sees human existence. You as a Creative Writer are an artist, which means you are not jut a story teller, but a preacher, a prophet, a philosopher. If you deny this aspect of your writing, then you really aren’t an artist and you had better just stick to shiny vampire stories.
I’m not saying that authors should be preachy. The first thing any writer needs to do is tell a good story. Would we even listen to Van Gogh’s sermons if he painted poorly? But we as Creative Writers need to keep in mind that everything we write, every work of art we produce, is an invitation to the world to enter our into mind.
This is a serious matter. Just as you would clean your house before inviting guests, just like you would prepare a sermon before preaching it, you had better make sure that the story that you tell about how you see the human story is fit for hearing.