Fred Sanders has written a reflection on van Gogh that will forever cause me to think differently about van Gogh’s painting, A Starry Night. Indeed, Sanders makes me want to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Today (July 29) is the day in 1890 when Vincent van Gogh died from a gunshot wound he had inflicted on himself two days earlier, leaving behind many questions.
That van Gogh was mentally tormented throughout his life is widely known. It is an unavoidable subject for biographers, but also an irresistible subject for anybody who has ever stood in front of a van Gogh painting and had one of those embarassingly strong physiological responses his art can induce: the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the bottom dropping out of the stomach, the head reeling, the giddiness, the speeding pulse. Or there is the most common of the strong responses to his work: a feeling of overwhelming joy and delirious well-being. The question is inevitable: How could a man capable of seeing so penetratingly into the joy of being, of capturing it on canvas, of stimulating a like response in others, have been so comfortless in life and so despairing in death?
These questions lurk in the back of the mind of anybody who has encountered van Gogh’s paintings. But even if you didn’t know the scraps of his biography that are common knowledge (he was a failed missionary, he cut off his own ear, he was committed to an asylum, he took his own life), and didn’t wonder about the contradiction between life and art, the art itself would pose intractable enough questions: How did van Gogh make paintings that can hit people in the gut so hard? Is it the way that, even in the smallest paintings, he constructed a phenomenological space, a space that is more like the way space feels than the way it looks? Is it the uncanny color choices, about which he theorized at such length in his letters? Is it the wildness of the brush-work, which lets us see exactly how the image was crafted in the studio?
A last set of questions: How did van Gogh’s Christian faith inform his work and shape his later life?
Read the rest here.