TALLINN AS A BIRD
TWO LETTERS FROM VINCENT VAN GOGH TO HIS BROTHER
TO SING TILL DIE
PERFORMATIVITY OF GARDENING
CROSS-OVER ARCHITECTURE AND THE THIRD GENERATION CITY
HARRY PYE'S POSTCARD FROM SAO PAULO
Two Letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother
If someone asked me, whose life and character from the artists circle is the closest to the nature of Jesus, then my answer would be Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890). The mood of some of Vincent’s letters is astoundingly similar to that of Jesus’ contemplations. It is not faith in the mighty God that affiliates them. No, van Gogh had undertaken theological studies in his early youth and found disappointment in the God of the Christian church (which does not mean he gave up searching for God one way or the other). Their connection lies in something else – some humane quality. It seems to the writer here that these two great personalities were linked through some wild independence from their contemporary surroundings, some inner primeval strength and will that led them to proclaim one’s truth of God and the other’s truth of Art. Another thing was their almost indisposed tenderness and compassion toward everything around them. Softheartedness and compassion made these powerful men quite exposed and vulnerable at times, in addition to constant inner struggles and doubts about the righteousness of their chosen path. There was a hidden chasm in both of them. The division between immense internal power and pathological love for the world. Nevertheless it seems, that this inner chasm made both of these men into great human beings. History still admires and appreciates them (and in this context, it is rather secondary to inquire about Jesus’ divine origin). Both of their destinies were greater than themselves. They bore it with dignity and will to fight, until they were broken by it.
One of Vincent’s dreams was to create an impressionist artists community, to live together like hermits or monks, and thus resist the plebeian social order, which saw not and knew not the coming of new art and its values.
When this dream failed to realize, Vincent van Gogh continued on his own. Struggling with poverty, loneliness, derision and insanity, until he got tired. It should be brought out that Vincent possessed a sharp mind and good sense of humour. And undoubtedly great empathy and love for his younger brother Theo van Gogh.
In his letters, he often emphasized that without Theo there would not be himself as an artist, and that was the truth. Because brother Theo supplied him with allowance and colours throughout his artistic career; doing it even when Vincent was depressed and desolate and doubting whether he had talent for anything. There was something deeply humane and touching in their mutual respect and friendship. Despite some arguments and withdrawals, these two brothers always supported each other in everything, until the end.
Precisely for all this, the full length of these letters need to be translated into Estonian language. These letters could be the support and teaching primarily for our younger artists generation – an example of how to become and stay an artist and a man, in spite of the surrounding adversity. And how to become a Great Man.
Theodorus (Theo) Vincent (1857–1891)
is a Tartu-based writer.
Arles, June 1888
My dear Theo,
I must warn you that everyone will think I work too fast. Don’t you believe a word of it.
Is it not emotion, the sincerity of one’s feeling for nature, that draws us, and if the emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without knowing one works, when sometimes the strokes come with a continuity and a coherence like words in a speech or a letter, then one must remember that it has not always been so, and that in time to come there will again be hard days, empty of inspiration. So one must strike while the iron is hot, and put the forged bars on one side. I have not yet done half the fifty canvases fit to be shown in public, and I must do them all this year.
I know beforehand that they will be criticized as hasty.
It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in material things - the happy ones as well - what you said lately about Guy de Maupassant is fresh proof of it. That brings up again the eternal question: Is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see only one hemisphere?
Painters - to take them alone - dead and buried speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work.
Is that all, or is there more to come? Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter’s life.
For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is that we cannot get to a star while we are alive, any more than we can take the train when we are dead.
So to me it seems impossible that cholera, gravel, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses, and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
Now I am going to bed because it is late, and I wish you good night and good luck.
With a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
Arles, august 1888
My dear Theo,
It is a gloomy enough prospect to have to say to myself that perhaps the painting I am doing will never be of any value whatever. If it was worth what it cost to do, I could say, “I never bothered my head about money.”
But as things are, on the contrary it absorbs me. But there it is, and anyhow I must go on and try to do better.
Very often I think that it would be wiser to go to Gauguin, instead of recommending the life here to him. I am so afraid that after all he will complain of having been upset.
I mast write Gauguin today to ask him what he pays for models, and if he has any.
You see, when one is getting old, one must really rule out illusions, and count the cost before embarking on things. And if when one is younger one can believe that it’s possible to get a living by unremitting work, it becomes more and more doubtful now. I already told Gauguin in my last letter that if we painted like Bouguereau we could hope to make money by it, but that the public will never change, and it likes only easy, pretty things. With a more austere talent you cannot count on profit from your work; most of the people intelligent enough to like and understand impressionist pictures are and will remain too poor to buy them. Will Gauguin or I work the less for that? - no - but we shall be forced to submit deliberately to poverty and social isolation. And to begin with, let’s settle down where life costs the least. If success comes, so much the better, so much the better if we find ourselves in easier circumstances someday.
So I have a horror of success, I am afraid of “The morning after the night before” of an impressionist success, even these difficult days will later seem to us “the good old times!”
Well, Gauguin and I must look ahead, we must contrive to have a roof over our heads, beds, in short, the absolute necessities, to stand the siege of failure which will last all our lives, and we must settle down in the cheapest place.
To conclude, we must live almost like monks or hermits, with work for our master passion, and surrendering our ease.
If I had the same ambitions as he, we probably should not agree. But I neither care about success for myself nor about happiness; I do care about the permanence of this vigorous attempt by the impressionists, I do care about this question of shelter and daily bread for them. And I think it’s a crime that I should have it when two could live on the same money.
If you are a painter, they think you are either a fool or a rich man; a cup of milk costs you a franc, a slice of bread two, and meanwhile your pictures are not selling. That is what makes it necessary to combine as the old monks did, and the Moravian Brothers f our Dutch heaths.
I can already see that Gauguin is hoping for success, he cannot do without Paris, he does not realize the eternity of poverty. You understand that under the circumstances it is all the same to me whether I stay or go. We must let him fight his battle, he is sure to win. He would feel that he was doing nothing if he were too far from Paris, but for our own part let’s keep our utter indifference to success or failure.
I had begun to sign canvases, but I soon stopped, because it seemed too foolish. On one marine there is an excessively red signature, because I wanted a red note in the green.
With a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
From the book “The Complete Letters of
Vincent van Gogh”
(Thames and Hudson, 1979)