What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Julian Bell's "Van Gogh: A Power Seething"

Evidently, Julian Bell rejects Hans Kaufmann’s and Rita Wildegans’s revisionist version of how van Gogh got his ear cut off. He doesn’t mention it in his Van Gogh: A Power Seething (2015). Kaufmann and Wildegans argue that it was Gauguin who accidentally severed van Gogh’s ear while brandishing a rapier: see Adam Gopnik’s "Van Gogh's Ear" (The New Yorker, January 4, 2010). Gopnik attaches considerable significance to the “ear” incident. He calls it “the Nativity fable and the Passion story of modern art.” He says,

When, after van Gogh’s suicide, in 1890, his fame grew, and the story of the severed ear began to circulate, it became a talisman of modern painting. Before that moment, modernism in the popular imagination was a sophisticated recreation; afterward, it was a substitute religion, an inspiring story of sacrifices made and sainthood attained by artists willing to lose their sanity, and their ears, on its behalf.

In contrast, Bell adopts the orthodox version of the story (i.e., the ear-slicing was an act of self-mutilation) and spends little time on it. His “preferred focus,” he says, “is on a corpus of astonishing paintings and letters rather than on a lump of bloody gristle to which a social misfit is no longer attached.” He takes the same approach regarding van Gogh’s alleged insanity. He says, “Insofar as Van Gogh the painter communicates to us, with an oeuvre that viewers for over a century have found uniquely thrilling and sustaining, it is not our business to call him mad.”

I find Bell’s approach refreshing. Instead of treating van Gogh’s life as some sort of parable, as Gopnik does, he concentrates on van Gogh’s art. For example, he describes van Gogh’s Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes (1887) as “a single resounding chord of yellow played out on various vegetal instruments, almost entirely freed up from perspective and chiaroscuro.” He further notes that “rather than using stained-glass compartments to generate complexity within this unity, Vincent created an over-all crackle of visual electricity through the emphatic, polyrhythmic hatching that was his and his alone.”

Descriptions such as this expand my appreciation of the work. Here’s another one:

Yet perhaps we should rather picture the seething of his mind as a surge of curling and hooking movements, translated by his handiwork into visible analogues to its hyperconnectivity. The Starry Night pictures a mystical consummation, although Vincent with his choice of bold modern means declined to call it “religious,” and at the same time, that great swirl was a vortex deeply structured in his soul.

How fine that “the seething of his mind as a surge of curling and hooking movements”! Bell’s Van Gogh brims with such descriptions. It takes me inside the heart of van Gogh’s incomparable art.

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