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Friday, September 19, 2014

VINCENT THE OUTSIDER


vincent van gogh

Am a little over a hundred pages into a relatively new biography of Vincent van Gogh, 2012, by two researchers who write very well. It is a thousand pages, enough to put me under. It's a paperback so big I can't hold it while reading with one hand. I stepped into it a bit uneasily, wondering how far I'd get in it before putting it down the last time. I've read a history of Africa that thick and a history of China that thick, and Tolstoy's War and Peace. It's not that I'm inexperienced with long books, just that experience tells me there comes a time in a really long book that I need a break. Reading War and Peace, I took a month in the middle of it, because I didn't want to finish it any time soon. Closing in on the end of it, I did not want it to end. At the end, I was at a loss. Couldn't read anything else for a month. After a long time of living in Tolstoy's writing, all other was so piddling, it's hardly worth the bother to read. I wanted more Tolstoy biographies, memoirs, letters. I even keep a National Geographic magazine among my books because it has a colorized photograph of Leo in it. He was some kind of wild man. In his younger years, he was military academy, fought in wars an officer on horseback, very well off and had a gambling addiction that took much of his land and fortune. He wrote stories that made him a popular Russian writer from the beginning. When War and Peace struck, he became a Russian icon. He was so beloved by the Russian people, even the Czar had no control over him. Anything the Czar might do to admonish Tolstoy for his independent minded writing would bring the wrath of the Russian people down on the Czar. His power would end that moment, which he knew very well. Tolstoy knew it too. The Czar could censure Dostoevsky and other writers at will, but had to concede Leo Tolstoy carried the real power in Russia.

vincent van gogh

It wasn't because Tolstoy was a great guy. He was not a great guy. It was his writing. He can create a world in your mind's eye that sees everything going on. I remember a girl dancing a mazurka to her uncle playing the balalaika. And I remember a wolf hunt, riding a horse, on the horse's back, the mane flapping. He put me on the back of the horse running all-out after a wolf with the wolfhounds leading. He put me on the back of a horse in Anna Karenina, running in a race on a dirt track. I don't remember his description of it, but I remember the feeling well. This was half a century ago. When I read his writing, I feel like I'm experiencing the apex of the human ability to tell a story. His characters come to life, live throughout the story and later in memory. I'm recalling the appearance of Anna Karenina. The man telling the story, a Leo Tolstoy sort of character, a version of himself, was standing before a painting of Anna Karenina painted by the Russian portraitist of the day, moved by her beauty which became universal beauty. A door opens, and Anna, herself, enters the room. The portrait was as nothing in relation to the living Anna Karenina. Tolstoy's long short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, had a moment that has stayed with me like a part of myself. When Ivan's spirit was leaving the body, he felt like he was sitting in a train at the station waiting for it to start rolling. He thought he was facing forward, and when the train started moving, he was going backwards. I pick up a book by Tolstoy, and that's it. Finish one, start another. I think I have just about everything he wrote, including letters, on my shelves. He was a major positive influence in my life. I think I picked up Tolstoy the first time inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King's non-violent protest movement referred back to Gandhi and Thoreau, who were in line with Leo Tolstoy, the first non-violent activist.  

vincent van gogh

I've jumped into a thousand page biography of an artist who has spoken to me over my time visually close to how Tolstoy spoke to me mentally. In some ways, for the same reason, in most ways not. I find "the same" in them that they both are making pictures of life itself. For me, van Gogh's images have the breath of life in them. I feel his painting as I feel Tolstoy's writing. I feel like van Gogh painting flowers was a search for how to show their living energy with paint on canvas. His faces have living, conscious energy. It is the spirit of life I feel like he is attempting to paint on each canvas. I'd been curious about van Gogh for most of my adult life. Irving Stone's writing did not hold my interest. I never paid van Gogh much mind other than appreciation of his painting. I never took an interest in reading the letters with Theo. Didn't even want to see the movie with Kirk Douglas from 1957. I must have missed it when it was new. That was the year of the move from Kansas City to Wichita, during which I missed a lot. It seems like a time outside time. Foremost memory of that time was two weeks before the move, Kansas City tv evening news told about a nineteen year old guy killed in Wichita by a motorcycle gang and left in a ditch. The Fifties was a time of switch-blades, rumbles, motorcycle chains, white gangs and black leather jackets. The Fonze was not even a caricature of that time. Time went by and I decided to see the Kirk Douglas vision of van Gogh, Lust For Life. Did not expect the movie to be anything other than something to get information from, a brief pop culture rendering. Big surprise. It was quite a good film, directed by Vincente Minnelli. By the time it was over, I realized I probably did not see it then because it was an "art film" not shown in mainstream theaters, the only kind I had access to. Or maybe I did see it and forgot it like I forgot hundreds of movies seen in the 1950s.

vincent van gogh

The film made from van Gogh's letters gave such a good depiction of his life, it felt to me that Kirk Douglas brought him to life. It was one of those art of acting jobs where it is Kirk Douglas standing in for van Gogh at the beginning, and by the end it is only van Gogh. Kirk Douglas became him early in the film. Douglas and Minnelli, together, made a living portrait of an artist who painted life itself. I remember arguments from high school years about whether he really saw what he painted. Like, did he really see the sky swirling in air turbulence patterns? Yes, and no. It was how he brought the air to life. He gave the stars the glow we see in them the best it could be rendered two-dimensionally with opaque pigments. So far, in his story, I'm in his early twenties. I've always heard he was insane or something. Though, looking at it from afar, it seemed like in the movie he fell into the place Nijinsky wrote his diary from. I'm curious to see. So far, he's no weirder than a nerd. He liked to take long walks in the country when he was a kid, a loner. AP Carter of the Carter Family took long walks in his boyhood, quit school because he was tired of being bullied as a nerd. Leo Tolstoy comes to mind reading this biography for the clarity of the writing and how the two authors bring characters to life in the telling. Every time I pick up the book, I fall right into it. This doesn't happen very often. It's almost like seeing it as a movie in my mind's eye. By age twenty or so I felt like I knew him, the person, felt like I understood what he was going through. He came from people who did their duty by church and by society, locked themselves into rigid roles. Little boy comes along, whose soul came from a very different experience, whose mind can't reconcile what school and church teach with how he was expected to act within very strict confines. He was born an independent thinker. Nineteenth Century Europe had no more regard for the independent thinker than USA today. He didn't get it, couldn't get it, couldn't fake it, couldn't lock on those chains. His story is that of an outsider. All he needed was understanding. As far as I can see, he never got it. William Blake was the same. He found his understanding in Kate. Van Gogh never found a Kate. 

vincent van gogh himself


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