Van Gogh's Heavens

`LATER on they are bound to recognize me, and they will write about my work.'' That statement by painter Vincent van Gogh in 1885 was more than an understatement. Even on the 100th anniversary of his passing, Van Gogh hardly needs a notice. His life and work receive attention every time the sale of a painting signed simply ``Vincent'' makes the news - a yellow explosion of sunflowers for $13.5 million, the famous Irises for $49 million. The Van Gogh story continues to evolve, and to teach. The impoverished genius who sold one painting in his lifetime this year required not only the Dutch royal family but a peck of multinational corporations to chip in several billion dollars to insure his works at a centenary exhibition now showing in the Netherlands. The story smashes a smug and conventional sense not only of art, but of life and its possibilities.

Now two new Van Gogh biographies smash the conventional myth of the Dutch painter as a classic lunatic artist - the view apotheosized by Hollywood. ``He's mad! He's mad!'' the children shouted as a barefoot Vincent, failed itinerant preacher and painter-to-be, left a Dutch mining village at the age of 25. Yet while Van Gogh flirted with the brink - the biography by David Sweetman, and more so, that by Jan Hulsker, point out how very sane he was most of the time.

More important, perhaps, is the new ground these biographies turn in restoring to Van Gogh his deeply religious self. Future biographies, in fact, may have to deal with him as a religious, even Christian, painter.

The intensity of Van Gogh's formal religious passion - his desire to be an evangelical preacher, his efforts to transcribe the Bible in three languages, his love of John Bunyan and the English Puritans, the fact that his father and grandfather were pastors - has too easily been written off by secular critics. They may prove to be central to the mature painter.

How does one account for such early and typical Van Gogh musings as this: ``Nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous is necessary, and man does well not to be contented with anything less, and not to feel at home as long as he has not acquired it.'' One may account for it years later in such luminous and profoundly loving works as ``Starry Night.''

One hundred years later, Van Gogh increasingly appears to have been doing in art what Brahms and Gerard Manley Hopkins were doing at the same time in music and poetry - honoring and exalting a living God through new vibrancy and color.

Van Gogh's efforts to bring the gospel to miners by living among them was rejected by churchmen who felt, as Mr. Sweetman writes, ``One could only bring people to God by representing the pattern of bourgeois values to which they could aspire.'' That rejection may have brought us some 550 works of genius done over four years.

The religious impulse in history's characters should be given its due. It's also a reminder that we not neglect that impulse in our own lives and with each other.

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