Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What I've Learned about Writing from Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait
I recently gave myself a day off of work - and my daughter a day off of school. We motored  up the I-10 to Phoenix to see the Van Gogh Alive exhibit. If this exhibit comes to a museum or gallery near you, I highly recommend that you check it out (and you can see it at the Phoenix Science Center through June 17, 2012). The exhibit combines music with images and words projected all around you on multiple wall surfaces. It's like being immersed in a Van Gogh painting.

I became a fan of Van Gogh's paintings when I studied art history in college. Monet's paintings are beautiful and Picasso's are amzing. But no painter captured my interest like Vincent.

I fell in love with the magical, swirling stars of The Starry Night.

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
My nine-year-old daughter said, of The Starry Night, that his trees look like Tim Burton's trees. I had to explain to her that since Van Gogh came first, perhaps Burton's trees look like Van Gogh's. But I thought her comment was quite astute. Both artists combine magic, fantasy and whimsy with the dark and haunting.

The Van Gogh Alive exhibit displays not only Vincent's paintings, but also quotes from his letters and writings. As I sat with my daughter and took in the words and artistry of Vincent, I found my writer self deeply moved and inspired. Vincent understood at his very core what it is to be an artist.

"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream."

Artists get blocked from time to time. Fear prevents us from moving forward. The blank canvas - the white page - stares back at us. It taunts us. "Go ahead, try if you dare."

"Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again."

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

Actors, painters, writers. Creation, in whatever form, is the search for the truth buried in the soul. It is excavation.

"Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter's soul."

The excavation can be frightening. What horrors may be buried there? But the artist has no choice. She must grab the pick and chip away.

"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together."

If the artist submits her art to the public for view, whether in a gallery or on Amazon, she subjects herself to opinion. The artist has survived the fiery depths of her own soul only to find herself running the gauntlet of public opinion. Oh, how high the favorable reviews take her! But oh, how her flesh is flayed by the negative talk. "Hey, that's my soul you are criticizing," she wants to say.

But Vincent soothes the artist with his words:

"Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion."


Van Gogh knew about perserverance. Though he painted for only ten short years, he produced over 900 paintings. That is about two paintings a week! His prodigious output speaks volumes about his work ethic - about getting up and dusting yourself off and going at it again, and again, and again.

"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing."

For Van Gogh's tortured soul, nature soothed. In nature, he found inspiration and oh, what a legacy of beautiful creations Vincent left.

"For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream."

What is art? Perhaps the most creative thing we can create is love.

"I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."

Unfortunately for the world, Vincent was plagued by mental illness. He cut his own life short with a bullet to his gut. Did he deprive the world of seeing the rest that his soul had to offer? Or was his soul's work finished - his artistry spent?

"I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process."
Wheat Field with Crows, 1890
"I wish they would only take me as I am."

Vincent's brush strokes and words speak to me across the chasm of time and space. And he accomplished what he set out to do.

"I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say 'he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.'"

paintings of Blossoming Almond Tree by
Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890


  1. Ahhh, Van Gogh. Je lui adore!

    Excellent idea to take your daughter for a day of art; this lesson lasts far longer than any stale lecture.

    Van Gogh has always been a draw for me. The Northern Baroques and French Rococo are my fave periods, but Vincent stands alone. I've been fortunate enough to view his work at The Getty, The Chrysler, The Norton Simon, The Rijksmuseum and the Louvre, amongst other, smaller exhibits. Your daughter is correct about the Tim Burton vibe; perhaps that's why I've always been drawn to both men.

    Apropos, my father is a clinical psychologist and I've had the privilege of visiting countless museums with him and Mom. I recall distinctly viewing Van Gogh's Mulberry Tree at the Norton Simon. He said the branches and the violent brush strokes were so wild and emotional, that one could tell this was painted in his tortuous last year, whilst in hospital.

    Happily, I believe I've escaped the tortured artist model. Can art come out of dorky, Disney happiness? I'll say!

    Wocka, wocka, wocka!!

    1. I have yet to see an original Van Gogh, but I'll be in France next summer and I'm on a mission to spend some time with Vincent en Provence!

      To me, the "mad" brushstrokes are outweighed by the vibrant colors so that when I see Vincent's art, I feel happy, not melancholy.

      Yes, I think art can come out of dorky, Disney happiness! One must, above all else, be true to self. How wonderful that we live in an age of the greatest artistic freedom (at least in some places), that has ever existed. The "academy" model is dying. True artistic freedom is in sight.

      So I say if you are called to create, then you must. You must create and express the truth within, whether it comes out dark and stormy, hot and steamy, or slap stick funny.

  2. Thanks for the reminder...I live in Phoenix but had completely forgotten about the Science Center exhibit.

    Over time, Van Gogh has become one of my favorite painters. I read "Van Gogh: The Life" recently and learning more about him really brought his work even more to life!!


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