I recently had the sheer delight of indulging in Denver’s “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibition which lingered in the Mile High City for three months. While forever a fan of the “eccentric” artist, there was much about him I had not assimilated until experiencing yet another, but this time, deeper contemplation of the man and his work. In fact, like most artistic geniuses, Vincent devoted his life to something very simple yet the most profound pursuit of all: really looking and really seeing.
As I allowed myself to do just that while being riveted by Van Gogh’s work, the entire experience became, for me, a meditation on the theme of seeing, naming, and depicting what is.
Vincent grew up in a religious family in the Netherlands and following in his father’s footsteps, felt drawn to a career as an evangelist to the poor. His work took him into constant interaction with miners and other working class men and women. Beyond any “help” he may have been able to offer them, he obviously had an uncanny capacity for genuinely, deeply seeing them—as evidenced by his early work in which such individuals are the subjects of his extraordinary chalk drawings and painting. Throughout his career as an artist, he declared that he preferred not to draw or paint the well-scrubbed wealthy, posing in finery and radiant light, but rather, the common person, warts and all, laboring in the streets or beneath them in the shadows of sweaty, manual or domestic labor. As a result, Vincent became, ironically, a different kind of “evangelist”—one who “proselytized” his audiences not with religion, but with stunning realism.
Despite a lack of confidence, the restless Vincent felt compelled to leave behind something momentous for future generations, and with support and encouragement from his brother Theo, he became an artist. Clearly, without that support, he probably would not have created the body of work which has influenced the world in ways he could not have imagined.
While belief in oneself is a requirement for creative accomplishment, so also is the belief of at least one other human being in our lives, as well as the resources with which to execute one’s intention. Theo provided both for Vincent, yet throughout his life, Vincent struggled with self-confidence. Thus he was able to reassure others facing the same challenge by declaring, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
Van Gogh was a resilient artist and on many occasions, a resilient human being. In his late twenties he moved to Paris and realized that the style and colors he had been using were outdated and less appealing than those of more modern artists, and he began incorporating more vibrant colors and daring brush strokes. His personal relationships were turbulent, but that did not deter his energy or commitment to create. Despite epilepsy and psychotic breaks, his work only deepened and exuded ever-more brilliance and beauty.
Not only does the human psyche contain both wounding and creativity, but the two reside together in close proximity. How vividly Vincent’s art attests to this reality. On the one hand, many of his heavy, harsh brush strokes suggest cuts to the soul, yet without them, his art would lack passion, vitality, and beauty. “Though I am often in the depths of misery,” he wrote, “there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.” Vincent came to appreciate the value of wounding and of the errors of our ways. He understood that the scars we carry and the foolish “wrong turns” of our lives also deepen the soul and constitute the richness of who we ultimately become. Thus wisely, he asserts, “Your life would be very empty if you had nothing to regret.”
Whether we choose to name it as such, mindfully viewing an exhibition of art or attending a symphony or poetry recitation is a sacred act. In an art museum, one experiences a hushed silence where viewers slow down, speak softly—if at all, and drift attentively from one display to another in a state of contemplation. The mood is not unlike that of a temple where one enters sacred space and feels a unique presence contained therein. The mood is enhanced, of course, by audio tools that not only explain a particular work of art but facilitate the viewer in feeling and sensing both its mystery and its clear logic.
As I stood in deep contemplation of dark, heavy charcoal Van Gogh drawings, as I allowed myself to be transported by billowing clouds and “starry, starry nights,” and as the cobalt blue in the eyes of a Vincent self-portrait, mirroring the cobalt blue in “The Sower,” pierced my heart, I was once again dumbfounded by the power of allowing myself to see, I mean really see what is so.
Was Vincent “eccentric”? Is any of us eccentric when we allow ourselves to look and to see what is occurring on our planet? What happens to us when we do so? Certainly, we are called “troubled” or “mad” by some. But isn’t madness actually quite the opposite? Are we not “mad” or “troubled” if we do not allow ourselves to see? Does seeing really make us mad, or does it do something else?
Vincent, and many other creative geniuses, would tell us that “it is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.” My body experienced this in every cell as I lost myself in many of Van Gogh’s paintings this past week. The suffering and the beauty, all there in one brush stroke. The horror and the opportunity swirling and distilling all at once despite the logical mind’s insistence that we must choose one or the other. I must look at things that I don’t want to look at—for a long time. It ripens me and gives me, as well as what I’m witnessing, a deeper meaning.
The evangelist has evangelized me—not with biblical quotes or pious platitudes. Rather, he now has me seeing what he sees through the play of colors, light, shadow, brush strokes, perspective, and of course, illusion. He playfully asks, “There is something inside me. What can it be?” while showing, not just telling me that he can do very well without God in his suffering, but he cannot do without that “something greater” inside him that compels him to create.
Becoming Van Gogh? Every one of us already is. The post-impressionist artist asks us to look, to see, to create, and to become post-industrial “evangelists” of wonder.
But for all this, did Vincent take his own life? The most recent research reveals that he did not. It appears that he was shot by a couple of kids playing cowboys. Can we afford to miss the irony here? A creative genius snuffed out in his prime at the age of 37 by rowdy children. I cannot resist the parallel with our own time. In a world where so many violent human beings are “playing cowboys”, we are all frighteningly vulnerable—no matter how well we arm ourselves. The body can be eliminated in seconds, but “something greater” cannot—nor can anything that we have created with the gifts we came here to give.
View a short, beautiful video of quotes and art from Van Gogh