In Arles, a pretty town on the Rhone deep in the South of France, there stands a magnificent oval arena built by the Romans for the entertainment of the soldiers and veterans who colonized the town two thousand one hundred and fifty years ago. Itâ€™s still in excellent condition after so much time, and itâ€™s easy to imagine gladiatorial combats, bloody contests between men and wild animals, and spectacular theatrical displays taking place on its central floor, echoing with the voices of thousands of spectators cheering and jeering their favorites. Even now the ancient space sees blood spilled when traditional â€œcorridaâ€ bullfights are carried out in very much the same way that the Roman contests took place on the sand of the arena.
Arles is also famous for a very different kind of blood-letting incident: the severing of Van Goghâ€™s ear. Vincent lived here for a year and three months, doubtless walking past the old stones of the arena as he worked on the three hundred or so paintings that he made while a resident (a little less than one a day). His brother Theo sent him money for the large quantity of paint that he got through and helped him with the rent, for which Vincent felt suitably guilty. Theo thought his brother was a serious force in the history of painting, but Vincentâ€™s neighbors thought he was completely nuts and signed a petition to have him committed, presumably gathering signatures pretty quickly after the famous incident when Vincent is said to have cut off his own left ear and handed it to his favorite prostitute after a fight with his fellow artist friend Paul Gaugin. Fairly sensibly she turned his grisly gift over to the police and Vincent was sent to the lunatic asylum not far down the road in Saint-Remy, where he quickly started painting again, whipping out dozens more canvases and storing them in the second of his two private rooms in the peaceful buildings of a former cloister set among extensive walled gardens and olive groves.
Vincent has become an iconic character, epitomizing the stereotype of the starving artist. Heâ€™s wildly popular, and his tragic story makes criticizing him feel a bit like kicking a puppy, so Iâ€™m interested in why we focus so much on this painter as a major artist, with the evidence of a completely disastrous track record of commercial failure in his lifetime and the lack of any significant movement of painters following him after his death. He’s a terrible role model for young artists!
Vincentâ€™s rock star personality is what leads us into his body of work, which in itself is not terribly important in the history of art; again – he left no school behind him; he had no atelier workshop full of industrious apprentices to perpetuate his legacy, left no model of financial success to encourage followers that his was a path worth taking.
A large part of Vincentâ€™s post-mortem success is because of the narrative of the truly deep and meaningful relationship he shared with his eternally patient brother via the French postal service. Their letters document a tragic but romantic tale, a true bromance, with enough emotional content to rival the pathos of Shakespeareâ€™s Romeo and Juliet. Like the Mona Lisa, which has become so iconic that itâ€™s almost impossible to â€œreadâ€ as a portrait of a renaissance lady, Van Goghâ€™s tragedy informs his paintings so powerfully that itâ€™s impossible to look at them without the background narrative murmering away in our subconscious mind. Heâ€™s a cult personality; his paintings are artefacts of his story. His most popular paintings are those brightly coloured images of the brasserie in Arles, the garden of the asylum, his postman friend, or his bedroom; images that allow us to place Vincentâ€™s character in the location and imagine his life within it.
This is a different kind of narrative to that which we find in paintings which draw us into their image by capturing one moment of an event, allowing us to feel like a spectator at the scene and wonder whatâ€™s going to happen, or what took place before this moment. In these works the art informs the story; this is a device used by countless artists to draw an audience into their work. Vincentâ€™s art works the other way around: his story informs his art, which is wildly popular because of it, although in terms of art history it is completely stagnant. Our empathy for him makes us participants in the narrative expressed in the pictures. Vincent didnâ€™t like painting dramatic monuments like the amphitheatre, or the Roman triumphal arch that stands literally down the lane from the asylum â€“ he didnâ€™t need to, because the story of his difficult struggle through life was as dramatic and pathos-drenched as the spectacle of the arena.
Vincentâ€™s paintings belong in their artistic backwater, but many of us delight in a good romance and fall in love with the tale of Vincent and Theo, and thatâ€™s why criticizing his paintings feels like kicking puppies.