Vincent Van Gogh: Painted with Words: The Letters to Emile Bernard
by Leo Jansen
Reviewed by John Updike
New York Review of Books
Renzo Piano's chaste blond addition to the Morgan Library holds for the remainder of the year, in the Morgan Stanley Gallery East, a small but intense exhibition centered on the twenty-two letters written in 1887–1889 by Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard. Bernard, who was only nineteen at the outset of this epistolary outpouring from the thirty-four-year-old Van Gogh, is just a footnote in art history now, but as a painter and critic he enjoyed the acquaintance of a number of important Postimpressionists. The Morgan displays an elegant, thinly painted portrait of Bernard at a mere seventeen by Toulouse-Lautrec -- the boy looks wispy, intelligent, polite -- and Bernard claimed to have invented the "cloissoniste" style used by Gauguin to good effect; he elicited, in another correspondence, Cézanne's famous wish to render nature "by means of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone."
The exhibition includes a number of Bernard's paintings and sketches, and the catalog a good many more, and it is hard to see much talent in them. Of those on view, the portrait of Bernard's grandmother (1887) shows a certain caricatural spark, and Brothel Scene (1888) illustrates the lumpy cloisonniste style with its heavy outlines and nonreceding backgrounds; Breton Women in the Meadow (1888), which Van Gogh said he liked, isolates various outlined costumed figures on a field of blank green -- only two stray dogs and a little girl forlornly sucking her finger seem to have caught the painter's full attention. His paintings at times seem to be etiolated Van Goghs. His sketches, even when of nude prostitutes, are sketchy to a fault. An attempt at a masterwork, Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour (1888), unpersuasively stretches a full-length, fully clothed female daydreamer along the bottom of a large canvas rendering, in edgy parallel brushstrokes resembling Cézanne's, a vacuously tidy woods.
Bernard was a Symbolist, that is, a member of the artistic movement that lasted from roughly 1885 to 1910 and favored the symbolic representation of ideas over the depiction of common reality. Tinged with religious mysticism and a sickly eroticism, Symbolism sanctioned Bernard's fascination with both brothels and religious scenes taken from the New Testament. Van Gogh, himself a Christian believer of a radical sort, deplored modern (as of the 1880s) attempts to revive the manner and subject matter of early Renaissance masters like Giotto. Almost all of his letters to Émile Bernard express resistance to abstract thought and advocate realism, as exemplified by Rembrandt, Hals, and other Dutch masters, including the recently rediscovered Vermeer.
Van Gogh and Bernard met in Paris, and Van Gogh wrote the first letter, using the intimate tu, while both still were there. He paternally advises the young Frenchman that "you'll realize that in the studios not only does one not learn very much as far as painting goes, but not much that's good in terms of savoir vivre, either." Don't be a "narrow sectarian," the older painter says -- "the equivalent of those who think nothing of others and believe themselves to be the only righteous ones." Bernard evidently showed tendencies that way; fifty years later, in 1937, the art critic Douglas Cooper, when translating these letters, wrote that Bernard, then all of seventy, was "a very greedy and difficult person who is only interested in capitalizing all he can with regard to his now famous friends." Yet something about the callow youth engaged Van Gogh, and elicited from him, after the expatriate Dutchman moved, in February 1888, to the Provençal town of Arles, letters fuller and franker, in regard to his philosophy and art, than even those he mailed, in his southern isolation, to his brother Theo.
The letters, a selection of which are displayed at the Morgan in a considerate dim light, have, with their interjected sketches, a holy fragility. The cheap stationery, varying in size and quality, has yellowed, and the once-black ink, where based on iron salts rather than carbon, has faded to brown, at places a faint tan. The handwriting varies in size and consistency, often as small and neat as mechanical print, at others enlarged by haste or for emphasis, but nowhere indicating an unbalanced temperament.
Writing came easily to Van Gogh; he confided to his correspondent that he found it "restful and diverting" after a long day of struggling with the evasive nuances of portraiture. Writing French as a second language (in addition to his native Dutch he also commanded a serviceable English), he made some mistakes in grammar and spelling, and was careless with accents, but, the introduction to the catalog assures us, "He found the words to express the problems and ideals that concerned him as a human being and artist. The style is very direct," and, of his eight hundred surviving letters, those to Bernard are "quite simply the most spontaneous of them all." Charles Bukowski praised "his style, the purest of styles." Bernard carefully saved Van Gogh's letters to him, and saw to their publication soon after Van Gogh's death in 1890; his own letters have not survived, though their content can often be surmised.
The letters from Arles in 1888, plus the two written, after nearly a year's hiatus, to Bernard by Van Gogh from the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, form a single outpouring, with faithfully recurrent themes: his concern with Bernard's impending conscription into the army, which in the end never occurred; his belief that artists should collaborate and communicate, as they did in the Renaissance, without factional war or jealousy; the inspiring artistic examples set by the Japanese and the northern Europeans; the incompatibility of pursuing art and having much sex; his own health and the pleasures of the salubrious southern climate. "For myself," he wrote in June 1888,
I'm in better health here than in the north -- I even work in the wheat fields at midday, in the full heat of the sun, without any shade whatever, and there you are, I revel in it like a cicada. My God, if only I had known this country at twenty-five, instead of coming here at thirty-five -- In those days I was enthusiastic about gray, or rather, absence of color.
Moving to Arles plunged him into a world of color -- his two years in Paris had already lightened and emboldened his originally sullen palette -- and into a furious exploration of color's power on canvas. He became, in the time of writing these letters, the Van Gogh treasured by posterity. Again and again, as much for his own appreciation as for his reader's, he paints a new painting in words:
Large field with clods of plowed earth, mostly downright violet.
Field of ripe wheat in a yellow ocher tone with a little crimson.
The chrome yellow 1 sky almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed, very yellow, then.
The sower's smock is blue, and his trousers white. Square no. 25 canvas. There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the color.
The underlined veracity (vérité, in French) touches on the debate underlying the whole exchange, which led eventually to Van Gogh's brusque dismissal of Bernard's Symbolist version of Christianity and to the end of their correspondence, though the two men remained interested and respectful of each other's work.
The last letter is by far the longest of the series, a summing-up of all that Van Gogh had learned in the last two years. His objections to Bernard's recent religious pictures, of which he had seen photographs, are preliminary, though sharply put. Of an Adoration of the Shepherds (1889), imagined in a rural French setting, Van Gogh objects,
It's too great an impossibility to imagine a birth like that, on the very road, the mother who starts praying instead of giving suck, the fat ecclesiastic bigwigs, kneeling as if in an epileptic fit, God knows how or why they're there, but I myself don't find it healthy.
Another painting, of Christ carrying the Cross, is "atrocious...commonplace." He accuses Bernard of exchanging the beauty of "those Breton women walking in a meadow...the color so naively distinguished" for "something -- one must say the word -- something artificial -- something affected." These dismissals delivered, Van Gogh turns to his own struggle for health:
And if I haven't written for a long time, it's because, having to struggle against my illness and to calm my head, I hardly felt like having discussions, and found danger in these abstractions. And by working very calmly, beautiful subjects will come of their own accord; it's truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality again, with no plan made in advance, with no Parisian bias.
Parisian bias, abstract thinking -- these are irrelevant to his "fighting hand-to-hand with reality." Yet he admits that in executing his long-harbored intention to paint the starry sky (The Starry Night, 1889), he was guilty of "allowing myself to do stars too big, etc., new setback."
Like a former drunk boasting of his present sobriety, he announces, "Here's a description of a canvas that I have in front of me at the moment," and describes, with exhaustive specifics of color and shape, the rather gloomy evening scene before him at the asylum, dominated by a great tree that lost a limb to lightning. In his next paragraph he turns from being all eye, in the Impressionist fashion, to being an Expressionist:
This dark giant -- like a proud man brought low -- contrasts, when seen as the character of a living being, with the pale smile of the last rose on the bush, which is fading in front of him. Under the trees, empty stone benches, dark box. The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun -- the last glimmer -- exalts the dark ocher to orange -- small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks. You understand that this combination of red ocher, of green saddened with gray, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called "seeing red." And what's more, the motif of the great tree struck by lightning, the sickly green and pink smile of the last flower of autumn, confirms this idea.
The phrase "voir rouge" ("seeing red"), though clearly enough written, has been always misread as "noir-rouge," and the "black-red" reading made enough sense, given the emotional weight assigned to color itself. The point, as far as the education of Émile Bernard is concerned, is that
in order to give an impression of anxiety, you can try to do it without heading straight for the his-torical garden of Gethsemane.... Ah -- it is -- no doubt -- wise, right, to be moved by the Bible, but modern reality has such a hold over us that even when trying abstractly to reconstruct ancient times in our thoughts...our own adventures throw us forcibly into personal sensations.
He goes on to cite failures in con-temporary biblical scenes, excepting only Delacroix, no doubt thinking of his Christ Asleep During the Tempest (circa 1853), which he had extolled in an earlier letter.
Van Gogh's achievement was to sublimate his own mysticism in the representation of reality, rather than inventing symbolic images. He made things themselves -- worn shoes, a rush-seat chair, sunflowers -- symbols, bristling with wordless meaning. Two late paintings bring the Morgan exhibition to a climax: Enclosed Field with Young Wheat and Rising Sun (1889) and A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawn-Off Tree (1889). The latter is the very painting described as a picture of anxiety in his last letter to Bernard -- circular swirls and flame-shaped arabesques move like a wind through the branches of the olive trees, against a yellow and blue sunset, while small human figures slowly become visible on the asylum grounds. In the former, the undulating field, blue and golden and green, rushes toward the viewer, and the blue mountains beyond seem a roiling river, under a bright yellow sky where the white sun is pinned like a medal. His impasto has become terrific -- ridged ribbons of color as in a heavy brocade. A visionary effect has been achieved through stubborn labor: "What I'm making is harsh, dry, but it's because I'm trying to reinvigorate myself by means of rather arduous work, and would fear that abstractions would make me soft."
The debate between abstraction and representation continues to this day. The international triumph of Abstract Expressionism sixty years ago was great but brief; it left echoes but no heirs as signal as Pollock, Kline, and Rothko; abstraction tapered into minimalism and the pencil lines of Agnes Martin. But its triumph, its bold foray into pure paint and form, left representation, as it crept back by default, with a guilty conscience, which it seeks to dispel with a shambling comedy of irony and unabashed eclecticism. Van Gogh, out in the hot fields, with his easel anchored with iron pegs against the winds of the mistral, resolved the debate with acts of submission: "I do what I do with an abandonment to reality, without thinking about this or that." He tried never to work from memory, he told Bernard, but always from the facts before him. After rebuking Bernard's stylized and impossible adoration of the shepherds, he professed, "I adore the true, the possible."
But no man's truth is another's, and Van Gogh's individuality, extending to his limitations as a draftsman and a painter, provided all the abstraction needed. His furious productivity in the year in Arles, which extended sporadically into his stay at the Saint-Rémy asylum, is that of a man possessed by a fresh sense of his vocation in the world; there is an evangelical urgency in the culminating work of this failed evangelist. Personality and praxis, rather than theory, generate style and veracity. Van Gogh's letters to Bernard form a blazing witness to this process, and a true testament -- a testament beautifully presented, it should be said, in the catalog, a model volume of scholarship and of book design and manufacture.
John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania. In 1954 he began to publish in the New Yorker, where he continues to contribute short stories, poems, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. His most most recent books are Still Looking: Essays on American Art and his novel Terrorist.