A series of small things: in celebration of Van Gogh’s birthday

self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh

Prisoners Exercising. Maybe the most striking instance of the timeworn melancholy that we refuse to sever from the late Dutchman’s legacy.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was an intricate genius. Over 800 letters addressed to his loving benefactor, Theo, demonstrate a troubled and hungry philosopher, one whose artistic blossoming saluted the company of sharp mental deterioration. A good writer too. One not immune to occasionally losing his composure, but cogent and lyrical.


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The tragedy of Van Gogh warns us of the consequences of aimlessness. His early life is defined by raw enthusiasm-seeking reigns. Delusions of a career as a revolutionary minister rebuked his desires savagely and for all to see. A promising start as an art dealer ended in excommunication and ignominy. A yearning for domestication only furthered his alienation.

By the time the self-described “non-entity” stumbled into his purpose, he had already been severely wounded. Decades composed of reminders of his repulsive reputation cowed him into yielding to it.

Medical professionals are absolutely obsessed with determining the psychological factors that energized such peculiar behavior but there’s nothing categorical to be said on the matter.  We know that he subscribed to a wildly unhealthily diet. We know that he rarely slept. We know that he succumbed to violent manic episodes with some frequency, and we know that he was, in some form or another, the author of his own demise.

Tobacco, coffee, and absinthe rattled around the belly of a productive and lonely madman; at once resolved to his failures and determined to repudiate them.

Fruits of a non-entity

I think it’s a mistake to exclusively characterize the life of the post-impressionist as a cautionary tale. I for one am bored of the vapid narrative that he’s espoused to. While it’s true that Van Gogh’s death came well before his universal monetary appreciation, I think most experts would agree that the “Christ of the coal mines” wasn’t really vitalized by that sort of thing.

I don’t doubt that the degree of financial interest that has since been garnered by his work would bring a tear or two to his eyes, but not for the reason you might think. To the man that once forfeited his last few coins so that a stray dog might have a bit to eat that night, the true numerical value of acclaim isn’t measured via currency but emotional impact.

His misguided-ecclesiastical pursuit to provide comfort for the sick and despaired, carried over in his actions and art. Inspiring every medium, from Don McClean’s somber ballad to Dorota Kobiela’s and Hugh Welchman’s innovative motion picture. I don’t mean to belittle his influence by relegating it simply to his paintings and sketches. His personal life illuminates how fiercely candles roar when they’re besieged by shadows.

Take his time with Sein for instance, his lover from The Hague or to phrase it less mildly: the middle-aged, prostitute that would go on to infect him with gonorrhea and possibly syphilis. However you depict her, their brief courtship proved to be one of Vincent’s happier ventures.

“I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that she loves me. I believe without question, or have the certain knowledge, that I love her.” – Van Gogh

We owe our knowledge of the extent Van Gogh provided for the sick woman and her young daughter to the numerous letters he sent to his brother, the bulk of which are scribed by a mind drunk off infatuation.

Their love gave way to Sorrow, (one of his most popular pencil sketches) in addition to one of the most persistent regrets of his life. Capitulating to disapproval from his family and continued cognitive malady, Vincent ultimately abandoned the woman and her child though he never stopped keeping company with “unsavory characters.”  The central motif of his work might be best defined as loser-dom.

The proletariat, the quotidian; the mundane beauty of plain, unmistakable darkness. So many of his masterpieces were born out of such. chiefly within the anxious jaws of Saint-Remy, the cold psychosis prison that amputated so much of Vincent’s spirit.

The east-facing window of his asylum room fathered an image that is forever grafted in all of our minds. We know it as Starry Night, chaotic and symmetrical. The painting presents an uneasiness we’re all familiar with. To me, it more specifically motions the charismatic beckon of non-existence-the pageantry of sad and mysterious things.

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.” – Van Gogh

Nutrients for an unsteady mind. Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s mettle could not outpace his masochism. He’d often beat himself with branches when the sun fell as penance for his inadequacies.

Self-loathing is an impossible menace. But his enmity rarely set its crosshair on any other prey. Vincent’s’ fierce loyalty often made him susceptible to deception. An unrequited devotion to humans nourished the stigma that preceded him and he sadly did not live long enough to see his ardent fidelity to ideals come to fruition.

On the other hand, the very same fits of delusion that fostered his many fraught relationships also provided the imaginative optimism that kept his eventual self-slaughter at bay. He adored the whimsy of Hans Christian Anderson, the serene strangeness of Keisai Eisen, and the vibrant stillness of nature.

The irony of his posthumous fame, a fame that sees art dealers all over the world scrambling to authenticate pieces painted by a sordid pariah, is not really enough to quiet what we know of his inner torment. It does provide a healthy dose of perspective though.

Phantoms, either imagined or external, don’t really have the power to wholly silence us. Vincent was said to be a little clumsy in his speech, with loose teeth and a penchant for rambling. But what could you learn from Vincent’s words that you couldn’t already observe from The Red Vineyard? Or The Potato Eaters? Or Café Terrace at Night? Words could only be a let down by comparison. Vincent speaks loudly. About solitude, compassion and the splendor of pedestrian life.

A hurried tenure on Earth that posits the profound temptation of suicide and then admonishes it, in no uncertain terms.

“Dat is het (That is it).” – Van Gogh

Van Gogh often remarked upon the simple pleasures that made life more palatable, day by day. He occasions a little girl that revels in a puddle, a tiny piece of joy that survives on the fury of rain. The elegance of sunflowers, the intoxicating vagary of nightfall.

To put It more succinctly, the eccentric Dutchman once said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”


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