A schoolboy swept away by Van Gogh

YOU could do a lot worse than start with Vincent. There was a big exhibition, when I was at school, of color reproductions of Vincent van Goghs. Imagine the main hall: a very dull, self-important, official-function sort of place normally. But not now. The walls are lined with eccentric, inspired, wild, but somehow amazingly balanced paintings; paintings loaded with colors - rich, unexpected, imaginative, often disharmonious but somehow authentic in their relationships. I saw a new world of strong lines and determined dashes of paint, teeming, as nature teems, but with a purpose - a vision of the world that, for all the artist's personal anguish and unhappiness, amounts to a downright relish of its beauties and energies.

Who celebrated vigor like Van Gogh in his art?

I couldn't keep out of that hall. For three weeks I drank it all in. I started trying to paint everything as much like Van Gogh as I could (I couldn't!). The bark and branches of trees, garden fences, vegetable patches, pathways, people. I saw Van Gogh in every hedgerow. Absurd, of course, for a schoolboy in a cool part of eastern England to imitate so admiringly a 19th-century artist-genius, ecstatic with the ferocious vigor of the sun-smitten South of France.

Van Gogh's art is, in fact, an appreciation of just about everything he clapped eyes on: old boots, a bird's nest, beds of irises, spring blossoms, the postman, an old chair, a kingfisher, onions, ripe cornfields with poppies, summer insects fluttering over meadows of grass (every blade of grass a deliberate streak of thick paint), swirling starlight, deep dusk, streaming rain, and brilliant, dazzling light.

But this omnivorous art was not just appreciation. It was also an ability with paint and brush that could grasp what he saw and transform it into vital pictures, filled with feelings: paintings existing in their own right, on their own terms, not just accurate and descriptive, but able to convey something of his sense of discovery, of his extraordinary openness to art's possibilities. The result is a vision associated only with him; paintings that could have been made by no one else.

Here is a child's directness and wonder, but an adult's experience: simple paintings - but extremely subtle. A combination of immediate perception and deeply considered feeling that leaves the strongest possible afterimage.

My admiring, schoolboy imitation of Van Gogh seemed doubly absurd, on later reflection, when I realized that what had actually dawned on me like a discovery was his uniqueness of vision, his inimitability.

The value of art, surely, lies above all in the intense recognition of the individual's capacity to be different. Art is to be found in individual vision and individual expression. The 20th century, more than any other, has shown art to be a chameleon, changing color with virtually any whim or fancy conceived by anyone who chooses to call him- or herself an artist - a kind of glorious collective mayhem.

But who would have it otherwise? Surely only tyrants, oligarchies, die-hards, and sometimes art critics.

There is, however, in all this apparently chaotic individualism a persistent tendency toward consensus - a desire to answer the impossible question: ``What is art?'' This consensus can be as ruthlessly exclusive to those artists who don't happen to fit as it is adulatory to those who do. It is a forever-shifting consensus, which is a good thing. The fact that such an agreement exists at all indicates something crucial. It proves that art, for all its individualism, is also an expression of things fundamentally shared and collective. If it weren't, it could be dismissed as nothing but egotism.

But that is one of art's paradoxes: The more truly individualistic it is, the more it touches on something universal.

Van Gogh's work is just one astonishing instance of this. In terms of sharing his art with others during his short but vastly productive career, his efforts were a disastrous failure. But in the almost 100 years since his death there have not been many artists whose works have been propagated, to the extent Van Gogh's paintings have, through reproductions good, poor, and terrible. ``What is more natural,'' asked Daniel J. Boorstin in 1962, ``than that we should begin to measure the stature of a work of art - especially of a painting - by how widely and how well it is reproduced?''

Beyond such recognition, Van Gogh's paintings and drawings have also long been collected, protected, and exhibited by museums worldwide. It is even possible that all this wide recognition may have led to some degree of understanding of the quality and character of his art - and, by extension, of the meaning, value, and ``life-enhancement'' of art in general.

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