Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

VanGogh2

It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.