The Epistle of Vincent Van Gogh
Walking around the Morgan Library’s recent exhibit “Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Émile Bernard,” I had an epiphany. Van Gogh wrote and read in multiple languages. The letters were written in French, a foreign language for him. The reputed image of van Gogh as an uneducated vagabond, threatening his society with unbalanced, rash acts of violence, and the evidence flowing out of these letters seemed in conflict. Although he had series of bouts with depression, and suffered from a rare form of schizophrenia, these words attest to his clear, analytical thinking. Vincent studied Thomas á Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ in Latin every day and spoke five languages.1 And yet Vincent would have been considered only partially educated in his time. The Dutch Reformed Church rejected his request to be ordained as a minister, partly because he was not educated enough.2 Education standards have eroded to such an extent that we would be astonished by the typical language capacity of nineteenth-century “uneducated” artists.
The recent NEA study on reading in America, “To Read or Not To Read,” depicts a dramatic erosion of America’s reading habits. Not only does the report give us hard data on the steep decline of reading at all levels and age groups (except the pre-teen years—call it the “Harry Potter effect”), it also substantiates an alarming trend of communal disengagement. We are not only reading less, we are reading less well. We are losing our capacity to focus and pay attention to the world around us with empathy. Van Gogh communicated in a foreign tongue with acute sensitivity, to impress upon the reader what he felt was sacred. The key word is communicate. The NEA report points out the severe consequences if we continue to lose our capacity to communicate. We may, if we go down this road, no longer have the capacity to be moved by van Gogh or any other artist.
Take, for instance, the link that the study makes between civic engagement and reading: people who read are far more engaged in civic activities. They make better citizens. They are more likely to volunteer, to go to a sports event or to a museum to see Starry Night. “The data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities,” Dana Gioia, the Chair of NEA writes. He adds: “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” One of the new findings was that college students read more coming into college than when they graduate. If we are not producing deeply engaged readers, and empowered citizens, then what is the purpose of education? Businesses spend over 3.1 billion dollars annually retraining their entry workers to read, so they can process information given to them in business manuals. Learning to read translates into an immediate economic advantage, a fact that should make everyone pick up a book.
These van Gogh letters should compel us to ask deeper questions about the progress of modern culture and education. They point, along with “To Read or Not To Read,” to a deeper malaise that is more troubling than the bi-polar disorder from which Vincent was suffering. Some will argue that the mode of communication has shifted from the antiquated print culture to our current Internet society; now we have a “visual culture” and are taking in information differently. But taking in mere information does not mean we are deeply engaged with the content. We may be able to scan for multifarious sensory input and gather unreliable, but perhaps important, bits and pieces in our junkyard of amassed headlines. But the type of mental wrestling that reading a good book brings is irreplaceable. And walking about the Morgan Library, I began to unravel a kind of visual code in van Gogh’s letters that led me to consider a deeper connection between reading and the visual arts. I began to speculate that the loss of reading could result in fewer images (at least meaningful, lasting images) and not more.
As I perused the exquisite drawings and letters in brown ink, a deeper mystery began to unravel, an epistolary code that connected Vincent’s language capacities and imagery. This link between images and words could have led to Vincent’s interest in foreign cultures, especially the Japanese. And this code is intricately tied in with his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Vincent’s visual language flows out of this cross-cultural curiosity and capacity. He began to draw and paint to communicate to the miners he ministered to in Borinage. He saw drawing as another language, a visual language that connected heaven and earth. He writes to Bernard, a young artist he desired to mentor, of his intention to create parables of color and lines. He speaks of his visual strategy to translate what he saw into a symbolic language akin to Japanese paintings and woodcuts, a visual code with the same level of synthesis that the Japanese pictograms of the past exhibited. Significantly, he was writing and drawing these letters in reed pens, partly to imitate lines of Japanese woodcut prints. Vincent adored Japan, considering it to be synonymous with paradise. In the fog of psychological confusion he was finding in Arles, he even claimed he was in Japan.3 The Japanese used woodblock prints in the nineteenth century in the same way we use yesterday’s USA Today newspaper, as protective wrapping for shipments. Yet van Gogh, Monet, Matisse and countless other artists were influenced by woodblock prints. Vincent lived next to Samuel Bing’s gallery in Montmartre, Paris, which exhibited thousands of woodblock prints. Van Gogh owned a few Hiroshiges and even copied a Japanese print for one of his paintings. He was translating visual reality into a type of calligraphy that created an alternative spiritual language.
The development of this heavenly language reached its culmination in twin paintings, always meant to be shown side by side, a version of Olive Trees and the more famous Starry Night.4 The Olive Trees were Vincent’s symbol of Gethsemane, and Starry Night his version of the Resurrection. To understand the codex of color and forms that van Gogh desired to communicate, we need to understand that the gospel of Jesus was central to his creativity. Thomas á Kempis, who Vincent arduously studied, stated: “ ‘He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord. (John 8:12) By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort therefore be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”5
The epistle of van Gogh is a visual parable of what Vincent considered to be the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the Morgan Library exhibit revealed. The curators noted the importance of Letter number eight, which exemplifies Vincent’s attempt to communicate gospel reality to Bernard. He writes:
You do very well to read the Bible—I start there because I’ve always refrained from recommending it to you….Lived as serenely as an artist greater than all artists—disdaining marble and clay and paint—working in LIVING FLESH. i.e.—this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings or even books…he states it loud and clear…he made…LIVING men, immortals…this great artist—Christ—although he disdained writing books on ideas & feelings – was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word—THE PARABLE above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig-tree, etc.)6
To van Gogh, such a quest for the living parable was no longer possible via the church. Vincent grew up in a family of pastors and once desired to be ordained. His compassion for the poor and his desire to communicate the gospel via paint originated in his faith. But while the Dutch Reformed Church remained central in his life, he stood outside the tradition, alienated from her in experience and in theology.
Consider Starry Night, the famed landscape he painted in Arles. Notice that at the very center of the painting is a white Dutch Reformed church, unlike any in Arles. Vincent imported a church building of his childhood, pasting it into the landscape because he wanted to create a parable of his own life. If you are to take out the church (place a thumb over it) the whole painting falls apart visually. It is the only vertical form, aside from the dominant cypress tree on the left, which juts out to break the horizontal planes. The cypress tree and the church are two forms that connect heaven and earth. Without the church, the cypress tree takes over the swirl of movement, and there is no visual center to hold the painting in tension between heaven and earth. Notice, too, that homes surrounding the church are lit with warm light, but the church is dark. Van Gogh’s message: the Spirit has left the church (at least the building) but is alive in Nature. If you follow the visual flow of the painting, your eye will cycle upward, but still be anchored by the church building. The movement ends at the right upper hand corner, at a combination of the sun and the moon. Vincent wanted to show that the Spirit of God transcends even Nature herself, that in resurrection, in the New Earth and Heaven, a complete new order will shape things to come.
In a June 23, 1888, letter to Bernard, Vincent wrote: “But seeing that nothing opposes it—supposing that there are also lines and forms as well as colors on the other innumerable planets and suns—it would remain praiseworthy of us to maintain a certain serenity with regard to the possibilities of painting under superior and changed conditions of existence, an existence changed by a phenomenon no queerer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, or of the white grub into a cockchafer.”
The synthesis of sun/moon represented, for Vincent, this “superior and changed condition of existence,” as he developed a visual diction of transformed experience. In other words, he saw the transformation before it happened, and by faith painted the world to come.
Again, Vincent was able to translate the “Word became Flesh” gospel7 into visual forms, aided enormously by his cross-cultural and multilingual training. Wrestling with another language or mastering writing makes one sensitive to the limitation of one’s own language and allows greater empathic capacity to relate to another culture. I began to feel kinship in this experience with Vincent, as I wrestled with my bi-cultural upbringing, and with my lack of mastery of either language in my youth. I, too, felt this longing for the universal language, and art provided a respite from my frustration in navigating between two cultures.
Vincent’s alienation from church and society, his exile and lonely existence only added to the urge to break through cultural and linguistic barriers. But especially in his case, art and language flow out of the same source and complement each other. To be sure, he experienced the void within, but he also believed that the source of fulfillment was in the creative God who delighted in his creation. Vincent wrote in a July, 1880, letter to his brother Theo: “But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things…one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper better and more. That leads to God, that leads to unwavering faith.” 8
To Vincent, there is a direct relationship between painting and loving God. The Morgan exhibit made it clear, though, that he also loved to write letters, and to communicate the intent of his heart to others. This overwhelming desire to reveal his heart forced a unique synthesis. Every artist wrestles with the limitation of existence and attempts to unite fragmented pieces into something whole, as an offering to the world. Rather than narcissistically dwelling on ego, Vincent wanted to commune and communicate with humanity.
If the report “To Read or Not to Read” is correct, then engagement with the arts and civic activities is intricately tied with reading. But we need more than remedial reading classes to get to the heart of the matter. We need a creative milieu that would involve all of our senses, because deeply engaged reading leads to perceptual awakening, stimulation of the core of the intuitive and experiential. We need to teach that languages of any kind are limited in their ability to reach the true depth of our hearts, for the inherent limitation of a language echoes the divides of cultures. Creativity begins with our dialogue at that point of limitation, at that moment of frustration. We need then to help students to move toward a generative creativity, one that entrusts intuitive and perceptual intelligence to lead the way in creating a world that ought to be.
“You never really understand a person,” Atticus Finch tells us in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), “until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 9 Atticus Finch, and later Scout, are able to rise above their worlds of injustice and the hatred that surrounds them, because they have cultivated that capacity to leap into another’s skin. To be well read means not just to be able to score high on a reading test, but to develop an attuned empathy that allows us also to walk around in another’s story.
Vincent loved and feared his world. He heard in a contorted cypress tree the whispers of the Spirit and saw in a flight of crows in a wheatfield a calligraphic trajectory toward his own mortality. He saw in a family of poor potato farmers a sacred, warm light he never felt at home. His work embodied this kind of empathy, driven by his own limitations and brokenness. He developed an empathetic language of hope, full of prismatic colors, that invites us to hope with him, and long for a renewed world.
This empathic language requires us to use all our senses. Perceptual education must be tied into our experience of learning at the highest level, one that makes visual education connect with intelligence. It is no surprise that Vincent sought inspiration from Japanese woodblocks. The Japanese language fuses the visual ideograms of ancient Chinese with the phonetic lyricism of the Japanese Hiragana alphabet. In the Bun-jin ga tradition, various forms merge into one art expression, combining visual, poetic and descriptive. Rudolf Arnheim, in Visual Thinking, tells us that such a multi-pronged approach should be the norm of education:
The arts are neglected because they are based on perception, and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve thought. In fact, educators and administrators cannot justify giving the arts an important position in the curriculum unless they understand that the arts are the most powerful means of strengthening the perceptual component without which productive thinking is impossible in any field of endeavor. The neglect of the arts is only the most tangible symptom of the widespread unemployment of the senses in every field of academic study.10
Arnheim points out that there is an “unwholesome split” between reason and visual thinking today. Theologically speaking, it is precisely this split that caused the gospel to be communicated as information only, not as a cohesive life force full of mysteries and multi-sensory stories. Vincent brings them together. The gospel, as preached by St. Francis, would have meant full engagement of the senses, too.
If Vincent had not been such a deeply attuned and dedicated communicator, and a student of foreign languages and cultures, such a powerful synthesis would have been highly unlikely. His visual language developed because of his language interests, not in lieu of reading and writing. He was painting not because he could not write, but because these indelible images were part of the total communiqué package. He learned these mark-making skills by studying pictograms, and was attuned to walking around in another’s skin, in all that he did.
If we desire to love the world and communicate that love, we must use all our senses. Communicating in this visual age will require us to read more, and more deeply, than ever before. Development of a visual language requires more than learning to depict what we see. We must thirst for deeper knowledge and probe the layers of mystery beneath what we see. Education of any kind must begin from the acknowledgment of the deep connectedness between writing, reading and other forms of the arts. “To Read or Not To Read” raises serious issues for education and reading, but the van Gogh exhibition suggests that the report points to a demise of visual imagery as well, if we do not chart a new course of education.
Sciences, the arts, philosophy, theology and even business must find a common tongue, a reconciled whole. At the same time, such a common tongue must honor and recognize the distinctive limitations of each language and each sphere. We need to see through the window of own brokenness to gaze into a salvific reality. In other words, we need to come up with a “third” language of synthesis that values the whole of humanity, both past and future, both in body and spirit. Without the intervention of the Spirit, language of any kind, including visual language, will continue to break up into debased fragments, unable to communicate the deepest conditions of our humanity.
Van Gogh’s letters and coded strokes offer a profound mystery that probes the depth of our twenty-first-century condition. We need Vincent’s beautiful, and sometimes awkward, meditations today because our current state of culture will not even come close to the level of articulation he mastered, alienated as he was from the church and society. If we do not have a nation full of engaged readers and imaginators, we will also lack the creative mind that can mediate communication or create new languages. We may have all the technology to communicate but have nothing to say to each other. More significantly, we will not feel for each other if we do not cultivate the inner lives of contemplation that reading and engagement with art brings. What van Gogh wrote to another artist of his time tapped into a world that ought to be, a world where barriers of linguistic limitation are removed. Will we be able to create, above the clamor of fragmented splintered voices of the art/media world, and continue to trust that light can be resplendent with life, even in the gnarled twist of branches, in van Gogh’s olive trees?
1. International Arts Movement lecture on van Gogh by Dr. James Romaine, October, 2007
7. I realize that many theologians would disagree, at least in principle, with the idea that the gospel truth can be communicated via visual languages. What I am suggesting here depends on an assumption about what language is. Vincent’s linguistic capacity allowed him a rare synthesis, and words are central to his visual symbolism.