November 23

Van Gogh: the Life by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith

A fantastic insight into a tragic life. This well researched biography is painful at times to read, because of the shrill cries of agony and the searing loneliness of Vincent; his suffering, poured into his letters with increasingly desperate pleas for help, and ever diminishing hope into the ears of his captive, sometimes reluctant and only friend, Theo. The letters, which richly illustrate the narrative and grant us an intimacy and an authenticity–show him as an intelligent, too kind, oversensitive obsessive, whose fanatic heart and manic mind tore him in opposing directions far from reason all of his life, made him impossible to abide for others, and eventually broke him into pieces.

Vincent lived his tortured life as much alone as it is possible to be, whilst depending financially on another. His company was eventually eschewed by the rest of his family, who were content to send him the odd letter and never see him again after his father’s death. Vincent would certainly have been homeless and destitute without the aid of the generous, long suffering Theo, who also avoided seeing him in person as much as he could. Vincent drove himself to an early death and arguably hastened the ends of his father and Theo, whilst evoking aversion and derision in all who came into casual contact with him.

For much of the book it is difficult to sympathise with Vincent’s insatiable and apparently unselfconscious demands for support with which he bombarded first his father, then Theo for most of his life, and which he largely squandered, seeking to pursue his endless desire for ‘models’ which seems to have partially been a cover for the pursuit of his frustrated sexual desires. If there was more money forthcoming, he would bribe crowds of people with food to pose for him in order to capture some company and the opportunity to paint his beloved figures. Once in France, he tried again and again to persuade other artists to live and work with him, even enlisting Theo’s financial support for Gauguin to be a paid friend, but even in Gauguin’s financial difficulties, he could not bring himself to stay long in Vincent’s company.

But it becomes even harder to bear the reality of Vincent’s life once his brother decides to marry and he can see his lifeline strained to breaking point. Unable to continue in all good conscience to demand much support, Vincent is forced to face the reality of the ‘worthlessness’ of his work and the futility of his life, and it leaves him devastated and broken, unable to stir up another wave of self belief or faith in a future in which he could support himself.

When fame began to pull the spotlight in on him, right near the end of his life, threatening to reanimate dead hopes, it came too late, and its harsh glare was too close for his trampled, battered ego to bear, like hugging one who is crying for love worsens the pain.

The bare bones of his story is the stuff of romance for an adoring public, but the reality, here portrayed so well, is only sad and devastating, leaving the reader bereft at the end, at the brilliance of his work and impossibility for him of finding rest until death.