Willing to lay everything on the line

VAN Gogh, more than any other artist of the past century, seems motivated by love. It permeates his every sketch and canvas, daub of paint, and written word. Beneath the turbulence of his painted surfaces, beneath the anxiety and ecstasy of his images, there lies a depth of compassion and understanding unsurpassed in the work of any other recent painter. His great popularity with people who otherwise care little for art stems both from this and from his extraordinary vulnerability. Looking at his work, we know that he felt deeply, that he never shut himself off from any kind of experience, that he tried his best to ``be'' whatever he drew or painted. It comes across in the simplicity of his color, the responsiveness of his line, and the remarkable ``on target'' formal inevitability of his compositions.

Style, for Van Gogh, was a matter of commitment and clarification, not a cloak masking deficiencies of substance or character. When he picked up a pen or a brush, he went right to the point, just as he did when he sat down to write to his brother or carried on conversations with the residents of Paris or Arles.

Such directness had its price, and he paid it, both in his life and in his art. The history of painting has seen no one else quite like him -- either in purity of intention or in willingness to lay everything on the line for his art. He was uncompromising, passionately in pursuit of a vision that could only be verified through art, and he was willing to push himself to the limits of endurance.

He was special, not because he had Big Ideas or tried to change the world, but because he saw how rare and beautiful were such ``ordinary'' things as sunflowers, a pair of old shoes, and a few thatched roofs. Others have perceived that, of course, but very few have attempted to transcribe that perception into art, and even fewer have actually pulled it off.

Van Gogh succeeded because he gave himself totally to his vision. He was fortunate in that he was able to give symbolic form to the universal through everyday objects, people, and places. Deprived of the great artistic tradition that gave formal substance and imagery to Michelangelo, El Greco, and Rembrandt, he turned to his immediate world for his subjects and single-handedly created an art that spoke of truth, love, and God through such things as fields of wheat, cypress trees, and the hot blazing sun.

We tend today to be embarrassed by such religious intensity in art, and prefer to view Van Gogh's drawings and paintings in secular or formal terms. And yet, to discuss his work without reference to God or love is to miss its point entirely, and to diminish him in the light of the more intellectual, sensational, grandiose, or trivial values and pursuits of 20th-century art. He and his art must be examined and responded to on their own terms. It makes little sense, after all, to insist on viewing Kandinsky, Ernst, Pollock, and Stella within the full context of their theories and formal ideals while discussing Van Gogh as though he were merely the first Expressionist and a tragic human being.

Rather than dragging Van Gogh down to our level, we should attempt to raise ourselves to his -- which is precisely what the many art students and artists studying his paintings and drawings during the Metropolitan Museum's recent exhibition of his works were obviously hoping they could do. Every one of them, I suspect, left more determined than ever to become more themselves as artists, to resist the blandishments of sensationalism and easy success, and to devote themselves a bit more fully to giving form and expression to what lies deep and true within them.

We tend, in our pursuit of entertainment, solemnity, and exotica in art, to forget that this challenge to our ``higher'' selves is really what great art is all about. That it is perfectly all right for art to be playful and entertaining as long as it also confronts and inspires. And that, difficult as it may be at times to believe in greatness, dignity, and character, proof of these qualities can always be found in a great work of art.

The marvel of Van Gogh's creative efforts is that they demonstrate what he knew and believed to be true without defining or depicting it or turning it into a puzzle that only a few art professionals could unravel. As a result, everyone, regardless of experience or background, can respond to his work on his or her own level of insight or sophistication. A professor of art history is no wiser in front of a Van Gogh than anyone else, and in fact may actually miss the full impact of his ``message'' by focusing too exclusively on external matters of style or technique, or by viewing him in the light of influences and derivations instead of the truth he was attempting to embody in a rickety old chair or an old man leaning on a cane.

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