Sunday, 14 October 2018

Van Gogh – a life in six pictures

If there’s an artist whose existence has penetrated almost every consciousness, it must be Van Gogh. And the one fact most widely known is that he cut off all or part of his ear in a nocturnal frenzy brought on by chronic depressive illness, packaged it up and presented it to a sex worker of his acquaintance. The details of his short career and dramatic life have been minutely investigated and recorded by legions of scholars. It was a life endlessly romanticised in popular culture and subject to intense psychoanalytic scrutiny, to the point that a distinct effort is required to see past all the accumulated mythology when considering the paintings he left behind. Every one of his major works has been submerged in an ocean of critical over-interpretation which the viewer has to set aside in order to respond on a personal level. So it’s quite refreshing to see all this turbulence condensed into just six images.

This set of Liebig collector cards was issued in 1959 a few years after Vincente Minelli directed the film Lust for Life in 1956, itself based on Irving Stone’s biography of the same name that kick-started the mythologising of Van Gogh in 1934. The first card shows the young Vincent driven by a life long religiosity, addressing a not especially attentive audience of miners and their families on the path to salvation. In the second we see our hero taking a drink and smoking a pipe in a working class Antwerp bar. The Parisian premises of Goupil & Cie are the scene of the third card – the manager, Theo Van Gogh is greeting his troublesome brother, Vincent. Card number four shows the Gendarmerie of Arles visiting Van Gogh in the Yellow House in the aftermath of the ear severing episode in December 1888. By May of 1889 Van Gogh was a patient in an asylum at Saint-Rémy where the fifth card shows him painting at his easel while a nun brings him some refreshment. Van Gogh’s funeral at Auvers is the final card – the inconsolable mourner collapsed at the table is presumably Theo. For another view of the artist, see Van Gogh the Salesman, posted in 2012.

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