Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life

I recently listened to the audio book of Lust for Life, a biographical novel on Vincent van Gogh's life. The book was written by Irving Stone in 1934 after a lot of research and processing through 200+ letters between Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh.

The book is long at around 500 pages. But I enjoyed the book because I was mesmerized to learn about Vincent van Gogh's life and the hardships he endured. On the other hand, this book was written 90 years ago, and it shows.  In many places, the book is cheesy, novelized with cheesy romance, oversimplification, sentimentalization, and chivalry. It is ironic that the book explicitly violates the principles of avant-garde art movement, which it narrates from Emile Zola's mouth while narrating Van Gogh's life at Paris.


A short biography of Van Gogh

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet, and thoughtful. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often traveling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion and spent time as a Protestant missionary in southern Belgium. He drifted in ill health and solitude before taking up painting in 1881, having moved back home with his parents. His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept a long correspondence by letter. His early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met members of the avant-garde, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the Impressionist sensibility. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include series of olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers. 
Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, did not eat properly and drank heavily. His suicide at 37 (in 1890) came after years of mental illness, depression and poverty.

Van Gogh, as a monument of grit

In just over a decade, Van Gogh created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life.
I am really amazed by the persistence of Van Gogh. How can someone be so prolific to the face of debilitating doubt, uncertainty, unrecognition, and even ridicule?
Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, then gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million. 
In March of 1889, the police closed his house [in Arles] after a petition by 30 townspeople who described him as "le fou roux" (the redheaded madman).

Van Gogh was a monument of grit only if you discount his earlier professions. He quit being an art dealer, being a teacher, being a missionary, before deciding to stick with painting against all odds. This was discussed in the book "Range:Why generalists triumph in a specialized world",  as follows:
Van Gogh was an example of match quality optimization, Robert Miller’s multi-armed bandit process come to life. He tested options with maniacal intensity and got the maximum information signal about his fit as quickly as possible, and then moved to something else and repeated, until he had zigzagged his way to a place no one else had ever been, and where he alone excelled. Van Gogh’s Grit Scale score, according to Naifeh’s assessment, was flush with hard work but low on sticking with every goal or project. He landed in the 40th percentile.
He did commit fully to being a painter though, to the expense of his health. He slaved for his craft for 10 years. He was told repeatedly that he sucked at painting and he will never amount to a painter. His rich uncle controlled art dealing in Europe, and later his brother Theo become an art store manager, but he got surprisingly little lift from that.

Theo supported him through out his entire life with about 100 Franks a month. This money was insufficient for food, as he spent the money on painting. And he just went with just bread and coffee for many months, effectively starving himself. Yet, he kept on painting a picture a day for 10 years, despite the constant criticism and discouragement.


His first promising painting, The Potato Eaters, came after 5 years of incessant practice. And, he only received some limited recognition in the last 2-3 years of his life. But it looks like the work was its own reward for him, he persisted through all odds, and became the patron saint of dedication to the craft.

Van Gogh, the becoming

If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” *Scenius* doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

The scenius in Paris was very instrumental in Van Gogh's growth and becoming. He has always been in touch with the art world, thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo. But living in Paris and meeting with other artists in the post-impressionist and avant-garde movement really opened Vincent's eyes. He pulled many all-nighters with other artists discussing about art. He started copying them. He stole like an artist and found a way to internalize the thinking behind these styles. At Paris, his palette started to lighten up.


But what is interesting is that, he really bloomed after he deserted Paris. He made a conscious decision that although he was enjoying his time at Paris a lot, he needs to leave it to focus on his painting and find himself. He traveled to Arles so he can work again without disruption. And work he did! He labored under scorching sun in the fields, and produced a painting a day with a manic energy and dedication. Again, he was malnourished, but he did everything he can to keep painting. That is dedication.







Van Gogh, as a sensitive soul

Despite the whitewashing in the book, it was clear that Vincent had short temper, did many bad and irresponsible things. On the other hand, he also had many redeeming qualities and displayed an unwavering moral compass towards justice.
In January 1879 he took up a post as a missionary at Petit-Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person, and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. His squalid living conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood". He then walked the 75 kilometres (47 mi) to Brussels.
His letters also include brilliant analysis and passages. Coincidentally Van Gogh is gaining more recognition for his talent as a writer. 
those who hold that no one thinks clearly when in love are wrong, for it is at just that time that one thinks very clearly indeed and is more energetic than one was before. And love is something eternal, it may change in aspect but not in essence. And there is the same difference between someone who is in love and what he was like before as there is between a lamp that is lit and one that is not. The lamp was there all the time and it was a good lamp, but now it is giving light as well and that is its true function. And one has more peace of mind about many things and so is more likely to do better work.
This passage might as well be from Rumi. It seems like Van Gogh had a hyper-sensitive hyper-feeling soul.

Notice another thing about the paragraph? Look at the last sentence, he is obsessed about his work. This came many many times in the book as well, he is probably the painter with the strongest work ethic.

Van Gogh, the essence

If you are not much into art and painting, you may find yourself thinking "but... but, anyone, probably a child, can paint some of what Van Gogh painted!"

Well, I will let Rabo Karabekian from the Breakfast of the Champions respond.
   The painting did not exist until I made it,” Karabekian went on. “Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the five-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find. 
    I now give you my word of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal - the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us - in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.” 
Here is another supporting quotation from Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious. The cry 'I could have thought of that' is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn't, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too.

Van Gogh also reminds me about this book: The War Of Art, by Steven Pressfield. He is this book personified actually, because he has become his art, and his art himself.
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.
Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you're all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There's no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You're doing it territorially.
If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.
Of course, there is a selection bias at work here. Van Gogh became famous posthumously, that is how we know of him, and maybe that is why we think his dedication to the craft is vindicated. But there have been many talented and hardworking and dedicated artists that did not get recognition even after death. I am not suggesting dedication gets you success. I am just saying that dedicating yourself to your craft can give you fulfillment and a life well lived. I suspect, Van Gogh did not care for the reward, as the work was its reward for him. I hope everyone can have the opportunity to find and pursue a cause to dedicate themselves without worrying whether they would make it at the end or not.

Related Links 

Earlier I had written about my visit to the Van Gogh museum in Netherlands and to impressionists and Van Gogh exhibit at Orsay in Paris. 

Going through this book, I was also reminded about this post from last year. Especially these parts seem most relevant.

You don't need to take others views/expectations of you as the guide, and you should explore your tendencies/talents by trying different things. And you should remember that it doesn't necessarily come easy first. Struggling/suffering is inevitable, and you should push through and grow from it. There is a saying: "Don't quit on bad days." Push through the hard part, and then see if you develop a taste for this. 
In fact, sometimes the people who have difficulty learning something, whom others would not call a natural, may have the freshest perspectives on things. If you are the type that do not understand things quickly, that is not necessarily bad. This may even make you more suitable for explaining things to others, because you spend longer time in understanding them. This may also make it easier for you to synthesize these hard-earned dissected information into new insights. 
DILLER:​ ​By purpose or by temperament, I'm only interested in those things where I haven't figured it out, and I really do think that however it happened, that when I was presented endlessly with things I didn't understand, the only thing I could do—because my brain is slower, and therefore is more literal--and therefore my process is, I have to get it down to its tiniest particle, or else... I can't come in and understand an equation, if you can put it in equation terms, unless I de-equation it--I can't pick it up. So I'm forced – by a lack of brain matter, I am forced to – no I'm not saying it – it's true! To break it down as hardly low as I can get it, and only then--and that's learning. That's real -- that is joyous work to me, is getting through those layers, down to something, and then once I'm down there, once I'm actually at the very, very base of it, I can actually start to do something good.

This site which contains links to all of Van Gogh's paintings was a nice find from subreddit on Van Gogh

This documentary (where Andy Serkis plays Van Gogh) is a good watch.

Here is another documentary.

And here is the famous Dr. Who clip about Van Gogh traveling in time to see his paintings being adored.

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