Portrait of an artist

18 Sep 2016


Van Gogh, self-portrait.
Van Gogh, self-portrait.

He may not have gained fame and fortune during his lifetime, but Vincent van Gogh has since been recognised as one of the most important artists of all time. During his short life, the Dutch painter created hundreds of pieces of art, and even though he famously only sold one painting — ‘The Red Vineyard’ (1888) — while he was alive, his canvases now rank among the world’s most expensive art works. Several of his paintings have gained widespread popularity since his death, while accounts of his troubled life have made him the subject of public fascination. The acclaimed post-impressionist and his work are the focus of Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, a volume that is part of Taschen’s Bibliotheca Universalis series and has been written by art historians Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger.

The very comprehensive tome chronicles the life of the artist and reproduces the approximately 870 (mostly oil) paintings that he made from the early 1880s till his suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. Biographical and historical details add context to the works of art, as do the excerpts from his letters — most of which were addressed to his brother and lifelong supporter, art dealer Theo van Gogh — that provide a running commentary on his paintings as well as shedding light on the thoughts and circumstances that led to their creation.

Divided into six sequential sections, the pages capture a snapshot of the painter’s life while charting his evolution as an artist. Born to a Dutch pastor and ominously named after his parents’ stillborn first son, van Gogh arrived into a family that had ties to the art community. Three of his uncles were art dealers, one of whom — his godfather, Vincent van Gogh or “Uncle Cent” — found him work at a dealership where the younger Vincent would “make his own first contacts with paintings and drawings”. He eventually took up painting after deciding to become an artist in 1880, then developed his skill over the next decade.

A talented life cut short by mental illness, Vincent van Gogh’s magic endures through the precious works he left behind

The volume of art van Gogh produced is beyond impressive and shows his dedication to his chosen craft, even when it wasn’t paying the kind of dividends the artist would have hoped for. The book explains how the painter tried to express his own views of the world in his symbolic pictures. Whether he was creating portraits of peasants or searching for the anthropomorphic side of nature in rural landscapes, the canvas served as a means for delivering his concept of artistic truth. The authors analyse how van Gogh’s work was shaped by his Christian upbringing, romantic intensity, socialist hopes, deficient training as an artist, his mental issues, and how his style changed with each relocation, ultimately reaching its zenith towards the end of his life when he created “a stupendous series of masterpieces arguably unequalled in any other artist’s oeuvre”.

Van Gogh as a subject is downright riveting. He may not have fit society’s standards of “correctness and ability” as an artist or a man, but that is precisely what makes him so interesting both as a painter and a person. The telling details that contextualise the art works highlight the striking presence that even the most ordinary objects have in van Gogh’s work; it is astounding how much he can express in a painting of something as common as grass, and how a motif as simple as chairs can be laden with so much significance.

The authors’ depth of knowledge is very impressive and clearly on display throughout the book. Walther and Metzger create a very detailed portrait of van Gogh. Also, in comparing him to the painters and movements of his time, they bring the whole era to life. The book is an education in the world of art and tries to make its topic accessible to both the public and scholars. You would, of course, have to be significantly interested in the Dutch artist to purchase this book; those who aren’t intrigued by the topic probably won’t want to read a discussion this detailed.

The main draw of the book, as is obvious from its subtitle, is that it offers a collection of “the complete paintings” by van Gogh. This isn’t a compendium of his complete works — there are a few drawings peppered here and there, but the focus remains on his paintings. These paintings — which are more or less in chronological order — are each identified with a title, along with information about the place and month of creation and their current location. Most of the pictures are in colour. Some, however, are black and white, primarily the ones that were destroyed, have gone missing, or have landed in “anonymous private hands” and colour reproduction was not permitted. Not all images, however, can be seen in a very significant level of detail. The hardback book is over 700 pages long, but the size of its pages is smaller than your average hard cover. Some of the more prominent canvases — like The Night Café in Arles (1888), Starry Night (1889), Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) (1890), and Portrait of Doctor Gachet (1890) — have been given one or even two pages to themselves; others share the page with text, while the remaining have been crammed into the margins. The size of many of the images, therefore, is quite small, which makes it difficult to see the intricacies of his art.

Also, it takes a while for the text to catch up with the illustrations. Initially the words and photos are out of sync, with the authors discussing pictures that were depicted nearly a hundred pages ago. The writers acknowledge this fact, saying that “the text and illustrations may be far apart because of the sheer number of illustrations”. The font size, too, is very small, and likely to cause eyestrain. If you don’t have perfect eyesight or want to see detailed images of the paintings, then it might be a better idea to seek out a different volume that is bigger in size.

On the whole, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings is an interesting, well-researched look at a compelling figure. The text helps the reader decode the meaning behind the artist’s pictures by grasping the background of his efforts and analysing the significance he saw in them. The book will also leave you with an appreciation of van Gogh as a letter writer, and its discussion of everything from his bond with his brother, dream of an artists’ community, and the circumstances that led to his tragic demise will give you a better understanding of the painter.

While this edition might not be ideal for those who want large, clear pictures of the artist’s paintings (or want a complete collection of all his drawings and other artworks), it is still a terrific compilation for everyone who wants to see the painter’s work as well as understand what it symbolises.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings
By Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger
Taschen Books, Germany
ISBN: 978-3822812150

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 18th, 2016