Friday, 23 December 2011

Vincent van Gogh ... suicide or murder ?

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith say that, contrary to popular belief, it was more likely he was shot accidentally by two boys he knew who had "a malfunctioning gun".
Van Gogh did not kill himself, authors claimVincent van Gogh did not kill himself, the authors of new biography Van Gogh: The Life have claimed.

The authors came to their conclusion after 10 years of study with more than 20 translators and researchers.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam called the claim "dramatic" and "intriguing".

In a statement, however, curator Leo Jansen said "plenty of questions remain unanswered" and that it would be "premature to rule out suicide".

He added that the new claims would "generate a great deal of discussion".

Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, in 1890 aged 37.

The Dutch master had been staying at the Auberge Ravoux inn from where he would walk to local wheat fields to paint.

It has long been thought that he shot himself in a wheat field before returning to the inn where he later died.

Cowboy game

But author Steven Naifeh said it was "very clear to us that he did not go into the wheat fields with the intention of shooting himself".

"The accepted understanding of what happened in Auvers among the people who knew him was that he was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to protect them by accepting the blame."

Will Gompertz
Arts editor

Van Gogh: The Life consists of 900-plus well-written pages of intensely researched biographical detail about an artist who, in 10 prolific years, introduced an expressionistic style of painting that changed art forever.

In a short chapter at the end of the book, the authors start to make their case that Vincent van Gogh was shot by a 16-year old boy called Rene Secretan, who had a history of tormenting the troubled artist.

On why he would cover for a boy he loathed, the authors reasoned, "because Vincent welcomed death" and didn't want to drag the brothers "into the glare of public enquiry… for having done him this favour".

They lavish praise on their two main sources and pay little heed to the one person who was definitely there - Vincent van Gogh - when he quite clearly said: "Do not accuse anyone... it is I who wanted to kill myself."

As they admit in the book, the truth of the matter is that, "surprisingly little is known about the incident". Which leaves, of course, plenty of room for conjecture.

Read more from Will
He said that renowned art historian John Rewald had recorded that version of events when he visited Auvers in the 1930s and other details were found that corroborated the theory.

They include the assertion that the bullet entered Van Gogh's upper abdomen from an oblique angle - not straight on as might be expected from a suicide.

"These two boys, one of whom was wearing a cowboy outfit and had a malfunctioning gun that he played cowboy with, were known to go drinking at that hour of day with Vincent.

"So you have a couple of teenagers who have a malfunctioning gun, you have a boy who likes to play cowboy, you have three people probably all of whom had too much to drink."

He said "accidental homicide" was "far more likely".

"It's really hard to imagine that if either of these two boys was the one holding the gun - which is probably more likely than not - it's very hard to imagine that they really intended to kill this painter."

Gregory White Smith, meanwhile, said Van Gogh did not "actively seek death but that when it came to him, or when it presented itself as a possibility, he embraced it".

AdvertisementGregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh describe some of their findings for the book
He said Van Gogh's acceptance of death was "really done as an act of love to his brother, to whom he was a burden".

He said Van Gogh's brother, Theo, was funding the artist who, at that time, "wasn't selling".

Other revelations claimed by the authors include that:

Van Gogh's family tried to commit him to a mental asylum long before his voluntary confinement later
Van Gogh fought so furiously with his parson father that some of his family accused him of killing him
Van Gogh's affliction, viewed as a mix of mania and depression, was a result of a form of epilepsy
Gregory White Smith said the biography, published on Monday, helped to give a greater understanding of a "frail and flawed figure" and that his art would be seen "as even more of an achievement".

Thousands of previously untranslated letters written by the artist were among documents studied by the authors to create a research database containing 28,000 notes.
in BBC News.

Van Gogh: the Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith: review in The Telegraph.
Martin Herbert enjoys a brilliant new biography of Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
28 Oct 2011

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are the big-game hunters of modern art history. Their previous doorstop biography of a legendary painter, Jackson Pollock: an American Saga (1989), was fact-packed enough to win a Pulitzer yet also riotous enough to inspire a Hollywood biopic. Van Gogh: the Life, which similarly rushes along on a tide of research, could do the same. Yet if it does – and unlike all previous films about the iconic, splenetic Dutchman – it won’t end with Van Gogh shooting himself.

Vincent van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
For in a revelation that has already efficiently publicised this 912-page opus, Naifeh and White Smith’s tireless investigating suggests that Van Gogh’s “suitably tragic” exit – his suicide – isn’t factual. Nor, apparently, did he die in the wheat field of his final painting. The writers tally up weird angles of bullet entry and Van Gogh’s apparent movements after the shooting – which was most likely a near-accident that resulted from an encounter with one René Secrétan, “a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West”, whose denials are inconsistent, who carried a gun everywhere and who liked to tease the painter when he was drunk. The story, Naifeh and White Smith conclude, planted “a seed in the Van Gogh legend that could not be uprooted by logic or lack of evidence”.

However, in other ways, the writers don’t disturb that legend but merely deepen it. Their Van Gogh is remarkably consistent: at the outset, his character is described as that of a “fanatic”, and everything we see him do fits the template, and every turn of events seems to ensure a more screwed-up central character.

In what amounts to a massive study in psychological profiling, Naifeh and White Smith set up a tragically flawed figure, obsessive but unable to stick at anything: school, jobs, a religious vocation. A strict, guilt-filled upbringing, hitched to progressive rejection by his parents, leaves him wanting to play the prodigal son. Yet his father tries to have him committed to an asylum in his twenties and, when the father dies, his sister tells Vincent that he has effectively killed him.

Grown from a “strange boy” to a friendless, intimacy-starved, repeatedly suicidal emotional knot of a man, Van Gogh passes through a fearful identification with Christ and human suffering to produce an art of rough-edged humility. Through compulsive mania – drawing through the night, relentlessly pursuing models (“locals began to avoid the ‘peculiar’ parson’s son…”) – he becomes a clandestine master of it. In so doing, he finally, though with painful impermanency, finds something controllable in a world apparently and implacably against him.

He becomes, then, a model modern artist – against convention, against the world – through utterly unenviable circumstances: arriving there after everyone has turned away from him, adopting an oppositional pose to salvage some self-respect. This book is not called The Life for nothing, or in hubris. For the authors, clearly, the life shaped the art. “Oh, if only nothing had happened to mess up my life!” Van Gogh yelps, near the end; if so, the authors insist, we wouldn’t have had the paintings.

The book’s structure is a grimly predictable see-sawing: Van Gogh is raptly hopeful about something; then it founders. This rhythm structures his development, keeping a reader on edge. He first discovers oils – painting a seascape in a lashing storm – and it’s wonderful, then he loses confidence. He makes repeated allies only to embark on titanic quarrels with them; not least Paul Gauguin, with whom he dreams of a creative brotherhood but then, inevitably, has blazing fights. “Every surge of hope was followed by new obstacles,” the authors write on page 608, by which time you feel like you’ve heard that phrase a hundred times.

The Van Gogh summoned here is, in effect, at once hugely detailed and two-dimensional, an intricate cut‑out: always lashing out – you wouldn’t want to have known him – and extreme in his responses to the world.

Naifeh and White Smith begin by saying that “no one believed in the importance of biography” – the life explaining the maker – “more fervently than Vincent van Gogh”. That’s their rationale, apparently, for producing this engrossing but in some ways fiercely old-fashioned book.

At once a model of scholarship and an emotive, pacy chunk of hagiography, Van Gogh: The Life swallows archives whole to argue that the tempestuous, tragic, romantic figure of the artist we always had was the correct one, the main difference being that his exit was probably in keeping with the majority of his terrible, yet impossibly fruitful, three-and-a-half decades on earth: beyond his control.

Van Gogh: the Life

by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Splendor in the Stars
Published: November 25, 2011 in The New York Times

Vincent VAN GOGH tends to be remembered as an art saint whose radiant paintings of sunflowers and starry skies seem somehow imbued with moral valor. He identified with the poor and marginalized, and looked upon art as a humanitarian calling. He died unknown, at age 37, and you suspect he will always be a shining hero not only to people who worship art but to those who feel their own talents remain insufficiently acknowledged by their peers — meaning, most everyone.


The Life

By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

On the other hand, is it possible that we have him entirely wrong, that he was just a creep and selfish user who felt that a life in art basically meant never having to say “Thank you”? Such is the portrait that emerges from Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s energetic, hulking and negatively skewed “Van Gogh: The Life.” The artist, as they see him, was bitter and manipulative, more of a perpetrator than a victim. The eldest child of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, he grew up in a rural corner of Holland and was not exactly an easy son. For part of his adulthood, we are told, in “a campaign that seemed intended to mortify and embarrass his parents,” he moved into their parsonage in Nuenen and shocked the congregation by swearing, smoking a pipe, drinking ­Cognac from a flask, dismissing the locals as “clodhoppers” and loudly proclaiming his atheism.

His financial dependency on his brother Theo is already well known, but it is not until now that anyone has publicly accused him of being lavish. Although he pleaded poverty and was forced to cadge, in reality he lived beyond his means, “never budgeting and never saving,” at least according to the authors. They itemize his purchases: art supplies, novels, reproductions of other artists’ work, the services of a “little girl he paid to sweep his studio” as well as models who posed for him. “The problem went beyond simple profligacy,” the authors write. He had a “delusional sense of entitlement.”

From such comments, you might think that van Gogh harbored an epicurean predilection for Bordeaux wines and foie gras. It is true he lived on borrowed money, but you cannot accurately call him profligate. He used his money to finance his art, and the paintings that resulted, most of us would agree, were worth the expenditure.

In some ways, “Van Gogh” resembles the authors’ previous biography, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. As an example of what might be called Extreme Biography, the Pollock book is extremely long (more than 900 pages) and larded with extreme theories (e.g., Pollock’s famous drip paintings originated in a childhood memory of watching his father urinate on a rock). The van Gogh biography, while free of any attempt to link the advent of Post-Impressionism to the workings of the urethra, does float at least one sensational theory. It strongly suggests he was murdered.

In this it challenges the version of history offered by everyone from professors like Meyer Schapiro to performers like Kirk Douglas in “Lust for Life.” It asks you to delete from memory the image of van Gogh lying alone in a wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise, bleeding from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his stomach. The authors argue that the bullet was fired elsewhere in town by a French punk, a teenager who had made a summer sport out of teasing the artist. Although based on decades-old hearsay and unaccompanied by forensic evidence, the claim has impressed at least one journalist: Morley Safer recently devoted a segment of “60 Minutes” to the book, without inviting any art historians to respond. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has stated that it does not accept the verdict of murder.

The new biography runs to 953 pages but is actually longer. The footnotes, which “ballooned to roughly 5,000 typewritten pages,” as the authors say, have been divorced from the hardcover edition and relocated to an online site. When you click on, you learn that the footnotes have expanded to “more than 6,000 typewritten pages.” Apparently they’re growing as we speak, perhaps as part of a fun experiment to see whether a biography can be too big to fail.

But length alone does not render a book definitive. In this case, gaps abound. The authors seldom slow the rush of facts to offer analysis or raise even the most basic questions. For starters, what illness was van Gogh suffering from? Naifeh and Smith, inexplicably, do not weigh in on the debate. Some psychiatrists have made the case for paranoia. Others believe he was manic-depressive. It goes without saying that no diagnosis can begin to explain the origins of van Gogh’s art. But it would have been helpful to have a page or two summarizing the current medical ­consensus.

Asked about van Gogh’s illness on “60 Minutes,” the authors cited “temporal lobe epilepsy.” They see no reason, they explained, to revise the opinion of ­Félix Rey, who treated van Gogh after the hideous incident in which he sliced off a substantial chunk of his left ear. It is not surprising that Dr. Rey, a 23-year-old intern at the hospital in Arles, felt van Gogh was afflicted with nonconvulsive epilepsy — the concept referred to invisible fits believed to occur in the brain. It provided doctors, in the pre-EEG late 19th century, with a convenient label to apply to every­thing from schizophrenia to ordinary obnoxiousness. Such a diagnosis hardly seems persuasive today.

Another question that remains unanswered: When and how did van Gogh become interested in art?

The authors trace his awakening to July 1869, when, at age 16, he left the family parsonage in provincial Zundert and moved to The Hague to begin his working life. He was hired by his Uncle Vincent, who, as it happened, was an art dealer with Goupil & Cie, a fashionable Paris-based firm. “In his enthusiasm for his new job,” the authors write, “Vincent took a characteristically sudden, feverish interest in a subject toward which he had shown no particular inclination before: art.”

Not true. As the authors well know, van Gogh drew copiously throughout his childhood. Their book reproduces a stiffly detailed barnyard scene sketched in pencil shortly before he turned 11. Although van Gogh spoke of his childhood efforts as “little scratches,” naturally they hold great interest today. It is hard to know why Naifeh and Smith opted to disregard any art biographer’s obligation to look at juvenilia and identify themes and preoccupations that recur in an artist’s mature work. In van Gogh’s case, his early drawings represent more than a vestigial glimmer of his later accomplishments. He was, of course, a master letter writer, and many of his early drawings were landscapes inserted like so many illustrations into the body of his letters. His instinct for combining text and images is fascinating, because you might say that the chief struggle of his art was to integrate the two forms. How do you inject the immediacy and charisma of your personal letters into a painting?

In the end, he did find a way to make his paintings as alive as his correspondence — significantly, his marks as a painter are reminiscent of handwriting. In his masterpiece “Wheat Field With Crows,” for instance, a profusion of short, blunt, parallel lines of cadmium yellow slant strongly to the right. The strokes of his brush come in a sequence, like words in a sentence. He transformed the trademark unit of Impressionism, the buttery brush stroke, into a calligraphic, confessional presence.

But that came later. His early stint at Goupil & Cie was important because it acquainted him with a vast array of 19th-century prints, many of them photo­gravure reproductions of popular French paintings. A close observer, he remembered images that other people forgot and came to possess a deep, nearly erudite knowledge of art history. Or, as the authors clumsily put it, “Vincent kept a salesman’s open mind about the images passing across his ­desktop.”

For all its put-downs and grating cynicism, the book is highly readable and lavishes welcome attention on van Gogh’s lesser-known middle period. Other studies, especially those by art historians, tend to concentrate on the last four years of his short life, when he made the paintings that changed art history.

But the bulk of this book is taken up with his pre-Arles adventures, the meandering years when he was trying to find his artistic bearings. He did not care for the newly ascendant French Impressionists, with their fixation on the shifting effects of sunlight, and accused them of elevating cleverness over substance. He preferred, in his own work, the smudgy atmospherics of black chalk and narratives involving lumpen weavers who subsisted on potatoes.

For inspiration, he turned to weekly British magazines like The Graphic and Punch and cut out affecting illustrations, scenes attesting to poverty and illness. He eventually amassed thousands of images and saved them in portfolios that were among his most cherished possessions. Although Naifeh and Smith deride his taste for social realists like Jean-François Millet and “the sentimental, cliché-driven world” of popular prints, van Gogh had an admirably daring eye. He found the line separating high and low culture entirely phony, and preferred to divide the world’s images into those that move you and those that merely pretend to sophistication. Magazine illustration no doubt played a role in helping him formulate a pictorial style that is singularly direct and accessible.

After all that has been written about van Gogh, there is still no agreement on who he was. Whether he was a high-I.Q. aesthete (yes!) or an intellectual simpleton, a frugal-minded bohemian or a miscreant squandering spare resources, whether he was the Ingrate From Hell or an achingly sensitive artist, or whether he was none of these — clearly, it is a sign of his greatness that so many people feel so proprietary about him. Yet not all interpretations are created equal. Perhaps only in an age that distrusts the notion of genius could we wind up with a life of van Gogh that treats his iconoclasm as an expression of anger-management issues. Hasn’t he suffered enough without this?

Deborah Solomon, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell” and a forthcoming biography of Norman Rockwell.

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