Exalted in the Face of Truth: Van Gogh’s Leaves

9780140446746Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

My wife and I moved in 2020 and, for no particular reason, I gathered a few leaves when we walked around our new neighborhood. I pressed the leaves in the first book I grabbed off my shelf, which happened to be the Penguin Classics edition of The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I love browsing through Van Gogh’s letters, mostly written to his brother Theo. The letters can be read chronologically, as they’re presented in the book. Or, you can open to just about any page and find Van Gogh at an interesting point in his fascinating journey. Despite his tragic end, Van Gogh had frequent moments of upbeat wonder at the people around him, the natural world, and how they might be depicted in art. While continuing to wait out the Covid-19 pandemic, I photographed the leaves against the respective pages where they were pressed.  It’s a simple project, but something about the texture and colors of the leaves against the text had me trying to see a small piece of the world as Van Gogh might have seen it.

(31 July 1874) It is beautiful here, if one just has a good & single eye without too many beams in it. And if one does have that eye, then it is beautiful everywhere.

(3 March 1878) Lord, keep my memory green. That is something one should say over and over again.

(3 Nov. 1881) Forgive me for expressing myself somewhat harshly in order to make the position clear to you. I admit that the colours are somewhat glaring & the lines somewhat starkly drawn, but that will give you a clearer insight into the affair than if I were to beat about the bush. So do not suspect me of lacking in respect for the older people.

(3-12 May 1882) Well, gentlemen, I shall say to you, you people who prize manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it is the genuine article – which is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to desert a woman or to concern oneself with one who has been deserted?

(21-28 March 1883) It may well seem to you that the sun is shining more brightly and that everything has taken on a new charm. That, at any rate, is the inevitable consequence of true love, I believe, and it is a wonderful thing.

(March 1884) The gist of what I am saying in this letter is this. Let us try to grasp the secrets of technique so well that people will be taken in and swear by all that is holy that we have no technique. Let our work be so savant [skillful] that it seems naive and does not reek of our cleverness. I do not believe that I have reached this desirable point…

(28 Dec. 1885) I think you value the truth enough for me to speak freely to you. For much the same reasons that if I paint peasant women I want them to be peasant women…

(c. 25 July 1888) Consider, if you will, the times in which we live to be a true and great renaissance of art, the worm-ridden official tradition still holding sway yet ultimately impotent and idle, the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned…

(3 Feb. 1889) But it won’t do for us to think that I am completely sane. The people from round here who are ill like me have told me the truth. You can be old or young, but there will always be times when you take leave of your senses.

(c. 20 Nov. 1889) No, I can’t call that sound, for if I am at all capable of spiritual ecstasy, then I feel exalted in the face of truth, of what is possible, which means I bow down before the study…of peasants carrying a calf born in the fields back home to the farm. That, my friend, is what people everywhere, from France to America, have felt. And having performed a feat like that, can you really contemplate reverting to midieval tapestries?

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