Review: Van Gogh: The Life
The year 2012 seems to be the year of the biography, and at a staggering 950 pages of mania, obsession, and all-around drama, Van Gogh: The Life is clearly leading the pack. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the authors of this work, clearly decided to roll up their sleeves and really dive in. Given their background as law-school graduates, it’s tempting to wonder if they were charging their publishers an hourly rate. It’s one of the more plausible factors involved in creating a book that comes with 6,000 pages of online footnotes.
It is hardly surprising that one of the most enduring and influential artists of the 19th century would be associated with information overload, but what works best in Van Gogh: The Life is the authors’ approach: they tell it as a real story, a tale of ambition, hope and despair, a soap opera (but written by Aaron Sorkin) set in the 1800s.
Like the best biographies, this book reaches beyond facts to inform and entertain, which is not to say that the facts themselves are anything less than highly diverting: a school dropout who was fired from his first job with an art dealer, van Gogh was something of a professional dilettante, carrying out stints as a preacher and a bookseller, before he finally decided to become — without any training or tutelage — an artist. In the ten years that he survived following that decision, his oeuvre expanded from stick figures to raging scene-scapes of raw colour and energy that now adorn everything from cheap plastic magnets to the walls of the world’s über-rich.
Naifeh and Smith are no strangers to the world of art, nor to the realm of the “extreme biography”, a genre devoted to thorough, epistemological examination of mythic cultural figures. Their biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, on the volatile, died-young Jackson Pollock won a Pulitzer prize, and Van Gogh: The Life shows why. Viewing the Dutch painter through multiple lenses, the authors bring new levels of insight to their analysis (ironically, it culminates in a fairly weak argument that van Gogh’s death by gunshot wound was inflicted upon him, rather than a suicide). Their narrative takes van Gogh solidly out of the realms of the heroic: we find ourselves reading about an irascible, belligerent, petty, emotionally abusive mini-Machiavelli who could easily have stood in for Iago in terms of sheer detestability.
Modern perspective would view Vincent van Gogh as the Jungian archetype of the “tortured creative genius”, a man who lived a tragic — but oh-so-romantic — life that was only fulfilled by his art. This is terribly sad, in the way that leads impressionable young students to adopt world-weary expressions of torment, chain-smoke foul-smelling cigarillos and engage in self-mutilation at the drop of a beret. If Naifeh and Smith are to be believed — and indeed, the depths of their scholarship would bear out their propositions — Vincent was exactly what you’d get if you took a human being and removed everything even remotely likable. There’s an odd sort of purity in just how utterly unpleasant the man was: emotionally needy and unbearably passive-aggressive. At the same time though, if personality is taken out of the equation, he come across in Naifeh and Smith’s research as a martyred enfant terrible, St. Sebastian for a future generation of artists as varied as Picasso and Damien Hirst.
It is difficult to reconcile these two diametrically opposed views of van Gogh, but Van Gogh: The Life manages by taking readers through a fast-moving, almost cinematic narrative that starts with a birth in Zundert, a tiny town in the Netherlands, and ends with a dramatic death-by-gunshot in Auvers, France, about four decades later. The ensuing biography reads like noir, peppered with pockets of suspense and an exuberance of detail. There is a Socratic tendency to the writing: do we trust what this person said? Was van Gogh really a victim? Could his actions be more monstrous than pitiful? What do we really know about him? This creation of an implicit dialogue goes far towards changing this from a simple “tell-all” biopic a la Kitty Kelley to a virtual debate that effectively encourages readers to engage with the text intimately.
A few things in particular come into sharp focus in Van Gogh: The Life. In particular, the tendency to “go back to the source” is amply demonstrated. Naifeh and Smith closely read their source texts, namely van Gogh’s letters and correspondence. These same letters are presumptive but accurate, predicting as they do both his disastrous personal relationships and his eventual — lasting — success as an artist.
Having failed in anything that involved family or indeed human interaction (working for his uncle, as a teacher, as a priest etcetera), van Gogh is revealed in his letters to be an intensely, even bitterly, lonely man, an individual trapped by his own manias and incapable of building any sort of meaningful connections with other people. His letters to his brother, Theo, who for many years supported him financially and emotionally, reflect his fantasies, namely that art could substitute for humanity: that his talent, rooted in childhood scribbles and sketches, would somehow link him into a greater community, be it of lovers, fellow artists or friends. It is not hard to see how van Gogh, who seemed to be a perpetual failure and disappointment to his family, would turn frenziedly to art, which if nothing else, was at least an occupation that would not result in any disgrace greater than lack of success.
So what could create such an odd Frankenstein’s monster of the art world? Naifeh and Smith claim that van Gogh suffered from “temporal lobe epilepsy”, a supposition rooted in the diagnosis made by one Dr Rey, a medical intern who treated van Gogh after he had a falling out with Paul Gaugin (if there is one theme implicit in this biography, ostensibly, it is that one should avoid European painters whenever possible). Regardless, whether he was an idiot savant, or just a naïf, an obnoxious ingrate or an excessively fragile artist, the fact is that van Gogh comes across in this biography as not much more than a depressed Dutchman with anger-management issues (there’s a movie in there somewhere, I’m certain).
However, this is a minor quibble. Naifeh and Smith have written a book that is intellectually and emotionally complex, even if it does occasionally take flight into realms of the glossy magazine sort, with breathless cynicism and a slightly overweight emphasis on van Gogh’s dalliances with prostitutes. It makes up for these moments in its scholarship, spending time on those years when Vincent was trying to find his own aesthetic sensibilities, and exploring the multitude of spaces in which he carried out these experiments of self-discovery: Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Arles… These are interesting commentaries on van Gogh’s “middle period,” as it were. This academic bent, rather than the sensationalism of parts, is what justifies the use of the definite article in Van Gogh: The Life.
Van Gogh: The Life
By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith