Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

 

 

 

 

 

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

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by Laura Thompson

This family couldn’t be made up. No one would believe it. The family line went all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England, and every member had a diamond hard unshakeable confidence that whatever they decided to do was not only appropriate but did not need to be explained or excused to anyone.

The six sisters and one brother were born into upper class, country house privilege and were prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of 1930s London. Then each sister took a very different path, some of them a very dangerous path.

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Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

In summary:

Nancy –  became a famous novelist, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and spent many years in France after World War 2, following a divorce.

Diana – the most beautiful of the sisters, and adored by many men, married the heir to the Guinness fortune and had a life of immense wealth in Belgravia. She gave all that away as well as  her social standing to have an affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Later she married him. A Hitler sympathiser, she visited him and other Nazi officials in Germany many times in the 1930s.  Both she and Mosley were interned during the war and were social pariahs after it.

Pamela – probably the most ‘normal’ and also detached of the sisters, she became a solid country woman who bred poultry.

Unity – what a strange girl! She was part of Mosley’s Fascist party, and became totally obsessed by fascism and Hitler himself, basically stalking him until he took notice of her. He liked her and indulged her. It’s hard to understand what her thinking was, it’s tempting to think she was mad as nothing else seems to explain some of her behaviour. When war broke out, she was still in Germany and so upset by the thought of war that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, Hitler actually allowing her safe passage to neutral Switzerland. She made it back to England, but was never the same again, her health severely affected by a bullet in the brain that could not be removed.

Jessica – married a Communist, and became a fervent one herself, and went to live in America where she became a well regarded journalist and writer. She totally distanced herself from everything her family was and wrote a controversial memoir about them.

Deborah – the youngest, and apparently the most well adjusted, married and became well known as the Duchess of Devonshire for her efforts to save the ancestral home of her husband by opening it to visitors.

This was a very well written and researched book, which was gripping and engaging due to the incredible variety of the sisters’ lives and allegiances. As characters however, they were not likeable all, their arrogance was breathtaking, specially Diana, who insisted on praising Hitler even after the war. A comment she made in response to a critic perhaps sums up the whole family, “Shame is a bourgeois notion”.

A fascinating insight into another world and into a supremely dysfunctional family, not that they would have seen themselves that way.  4 ⭐️

 

 

 

Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford

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“ Eliot’s life was no neat progress towards literary canonisation, towards a form of sainthood or simply towards a Nobel Prize. It was much rawer than that, more jagged, frayed and damaged.”

This is a marvellous biography of Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all time favourite poets.

Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri into a loving and privileged family. Although affectionate, his parents were very morally strict and religious. This atmosphere, as well as his own reserved, shy manner and precocious intellect, served to isolate young Tom from his peers and from life really.

Born with a congenital hernia, Eliot wore a truss for many years well into his teens.  Sexually, he was totally inexperienced and even repelled by the idea of sex. His strait-laced upbringing didn’t help. Eliot’s father described syphilis as “God’s punishment for nastiness” and hoped a cure wouldn’t be found or “it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean”. Ouch!

Eliot discovered Paris and French Symbolist poetry, specially that of Jules Laforgue at the age of 19, and this passion unleashed in him a new way of writing poetry and a way to express his torments, if not to surmount them. It also helped to find a way of thinking and feeling aeons away from his parents’ straitened lives.  Eliot might have been timid in life, but not in his writing where everything was on the table.

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

opening lines to “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

For anyone not familiar with Eliot’s poetry I would recommend reading the Prufrock poem which can be googled. Written in 1910 when Eliot was only 22, it still astonishes in its use of language and its powerful imagery.

Eliot married at 28 and was still a virgin at his wedding. Both he and his wife Vivian were totally unsuited to each other and made each other’s life a misery. It was from the disaster of this marriage, which led to Eliot having a nervous breakdown, and his wife to descend into mental illness, that “The Waste Land” was born, one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century. The last and perhaps most powerful section of the poem “What the Thunder Said” was written in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Eliot had gone to recuperate.

It really is amazing that someone so emotionally awkward and sheltered from the many realities of life, should have produced such a powerful body of poetry. I think that his poetry became a substitute for life. Language and the power of its imagery and assonance, was for Eliot a means of understanding and escaping emotional distress .

This biography was written in 2015 to commemorate 50 years since Eliot’s death and it is the first one allowed to quote extensively from Eliot’s writing and letters, as well as describing various anecdotes from his childhood and youth.

The book has been superbly researched and written by Crawford, who is himself a poet as well as long time student of Eliot’s work, and Professor of Poetry at St Andrews University, Scotland.

I really enjoyed discovering so much new information about Eliot’s early years. It has certainly made me look at Eliot with new eyes, and to see the high price he and his first wife paid for their ill-fated marriage . This volume ends in 1922, when Eliot has just published The Waste Land. The second volume is being worked on currently.

Recommended for Eliot fans.  5 🌟