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For a glimpse of Van Gogh's life and aspirations, see his letters published in English under the title, "Letters of a Post-Impressionist," written mostly to his brother — simple, pathetic documents, showing the eager, earnest striving of a man who finally went insane and shot himself. Critics and opponents of his work have seized upon his madness as proof of lack of sanity in what he painted — perhaps, but then is dullness the only proof positive of sanity?
Van Gogh's work was all done when living in obscurity in a French town, far from the excitement of studios and exhibitions. His letters, edited by Anthony Ludovici (whose introduction is one of the most probing contributions to the artist's criticism), are among the very few revelations of an artist's soul that the world possesses. These three artists were impressionists who had given up their faith. From their new point of view it followed that nearly all that lmpressionism had painfully garnered was valueless, and was only a lure to entice art from its strait path.
Our debt to the French impressionists is that they gave an impression of the world infinitely more vivid and real than existed before; but had their success remained unchallenged, their worship of the illusion of reality as an art in itself would have become an intolerable tyranny, which would have forced painting to have exercised only one side of her powers and atrophied completely the side on which she claims kinship with a pure and abstract art like music. So, swiftly on the heels of the lmpressionists, the Post-lmpressionists were bound to come and bring redress. Their maddest things may be taken as inarticulate outcries that something was wrong. The lenders, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, not only reproduced a furious indictment of the whole aim of contemporary art, but discovered strange enlarging avenues for a new advance into the Unseen: And so bring the invisible full into play:
Let the visible go to the dogs—what matter?
As a glimpse of the spirit animating these men this excerpt from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh is illuminating. Van Gogh imagined himself painting an artist friend—"an artist who dreams and works as the nightingale sings songs." He writes:
"Let us imagine him a fair man. All the love I feel for him i should like to reveal in my painting of the picture. To begin with, then, I paint him just as he is, as faithfully as possible—still, this is only the beginning; the picture is by no means finished at this stage. Now I begin to apply the color arbitrarily. I exaggerate the tone of his fair hair; I take orange, chrome, and dull lemon-yellow. Behind his head, instead of the trivial wall of the room, I paint infinity. I make a simple background out of the richest of blues, as strong as my palette will allow. And thus, owing to this simple combination, this fair and luminous head has the mysterious effect upon the rich blue background of a star suspended in dark ether."
In another letter he said:
"It is my most fervent desire to know how to achieve such diversions from reality, such inaccuracies and such transfigurations that come about by chance. Well yes, if you like, they are lies; but they are more valuable than real values." Transfiguration is the desire that underlies the best work of the school. Its members do not look back to Titian or to Rembrandt, or to Leonardo, in whom the perfect balance between a noble mould of design and realism of representation was struck — the equipoise of the subjective and objective — but throw the balance on the side of design. Their followers in France have, in the main, thrown all their weight on that side and, as it were, have brought the scale down heavily on the subjective foundation. So, in the hands of Picasso and his followers painting is fast passing into an abstract state, purged of any associations, and becoming something more analogous to the free art of music."
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