Monday, March 1, 2010

Irving Stone - Lust For Life

Irving Stone was a biographer of immortals. I had read Stone's Agony & Ecstasy on Michael Angelo a while back and was on my way into another round when this post in pareltank came to my attention. Thanks! Afterwards, I had to visit a neighborhood library to get a copy of 'Bridge To Terabithia' for my 4th grader's class project. (A wonderful book. Do read the book or watch the movie of the same name.) Wandering around I found 'Lust For Life' grinning at me from the shelves. Grabbed that along with some for my Kindergartner and we left happy customers.

Stone's ability to inhabit the people and events of the period that he writes about is uncanny. He must really love/respect his subjects to be able to do that. This is probably why he was able to portray Vincent Van Gogh's life so realistically. This painter strove to capture real life characters and places into his canvass. At the height of his painting days it was imperative for him to finish a painting the same day that a scene or people caught his imagination. Irving Stone succeeded very well in making the reader understand the agony of creation that goes on inside a painter's head. To be a true artist one should have no inhibitions in the expression of the art. Van Gogh's paintings were ridiculed for being childlike and for portraying a lower class of people. He lived during a time of renaissance in painting but people were just getting used to the Impressionists and Vincent's time was still in the future.

Van Gogh's story is never complete without that of his brother Theo Van Gogh. It was Theo who stood by this lunatic of a brother - to ordinary standards - when he wanted to take up painting around the tender age of 27. An age when most men were established and married. The world would not have heard of a Vincent Van Gogh if it was not for Theo's ardent financial and moral support. I'd like to watch the movie Vincent & Theo someday.

Van Gogh was born in Holland and was part of a well known family. His father's five brothers were all well known in politics and in the arts. Two of the Van Gogh brothers had controlling interest in art galleries in London, Paris, Brussels, The Hague etc.. Vincent's father was the least known Van Gogh but was the beloved and intelligent curate of a small parish. His parents wished their son would be like others but stood by him as much as they could in all the decisions he took. He started off as an art salesman in a London art-gallery owned by his uncle and namesake Vincent Van Gogh. He was doing well and was even thought to inherit the Van Gogh art kingdom some day. Unfortunately Vincent was a man of strong passions and an initial unrequited love pushed him off the path of normalcy and into his ultimate destiny. He left the gallery and wanting to become a curate which eventually lead him to the disparate lives of miners in utter poverty in the Borinage. True to character Vincent tried to do them justice by giving up all he had for their betterment but it was more than anything he could do.  When Emile Zola wrote about miners in his book 'Germinal' he mentions having met many in the Borinage area who spoke highly of a Christ like Van Gogh who lived among them and loved them.  

When he could not be a successful minister Vincent got depressed and unhappy. He spent days barely eating and always in the clutches of a fever that stayed with him ever since. One day the urge to bring to life the raw people around hit him and that was the beginning of the artist.  Theo who was starting as an art dealer in Paris, stood by him in this with an understanding that defied norms. He promised to send Vincent a monthly allowance from his salary as Vincent had no other means of support. This was single most thing that let Vincent pursue his art in his own way. Unlike the existing norms Vincent was trying to capture the essence of true people - as he called it - into his canvass. He considered himself to be a peasant like his subjects. He lived in the outdoors or found models from real life such as laborers, and washerwomen when indoors. He spent every franc to pay the models and on painting supplies. This often left no money for food towards the last days of the month which in  turn would bring the fever and the cycle will stat again.

He lived with his parents for a while in Etten and fell in love with a widowed cousin. This was not acceptable to the families but at least this time he had his painting to look forward to. He went to the Hague where he got some guidance from Mauve who was a maternal uncle through marriage.  Here he lived with a woman Christine and her children for a year or two while trying to rescue her from street life. This was the only semblance of family life he had in his entire life. Running out of money does not conduit to a stable life and he was driven out of this life back to his father's new parish in Nuenen. There he painted prolifically while getting mildly frustrated in search of that painting that could ultimately satisfy the artist in him. He went out with easel and supplies in the morning and got back only in the evening. A routine he kept through the remaining years.

From Nuenen Theo took him to Paris where by now he was a successful art dealer.  This is where Vincent met most of his friends and was introduced to Impressionism. Paintings used to be generally dark till then but the exposure to Impressionism gave Vincent a new perspective.Theo was well loved for taking the side of new artists against established gallery practices. He fought hard to give the Impressionists a display space in the walls when the art buying world had not woken up to them yet. Vincent made friends with Georges Seurat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Zola and the likes. He was very fond of Gauguin and they hit it off well.

Vincent developed his own style after at first futilely attempting to copy the impressionists. The time had come to settle down. From Paris he went to Arles which is a sun baked little town with olive trees and vineyards. Here he rented a small yellow house that he loved and started on his famous sunflowers. The scorching Arles sun could not stop his relentless pursuit to capture life with character on canvass. His most satisfactory and productive years were spent here. The grueling routine and the inevitable lack of food got to him and started his epileptic spells. It was around this time that  Paul Gauguin came to live with him. They each harbored a solitary temperament which did not bode well for the relationship. It ended one day when Vincent cut off his ear while they were quarreling. Gauguin left and Vincent's doctor admitted him to a peaceful mental asylum in the countryside with Theo's permission. There at St. Remy's he painted the surroundings but the fire inside was slowly dying down. He also figured that the epileptic bouts came about once every three months. The waiting and the uncertainty of the attacks brought him further down but knowing an approximate time also gave him a certain amount of confidence. After a year, he went back to Paris to be near Theo who had married and had a child named Vincent. Theo placed him under the care of Dr. Gachet and Vincent chose a cheap place in Auvers where he stayed till his untimely death.

One page biographies will give you a vague idea of the person but Stone's book will make you a close acquaintance. At the end Stone mentions that almost all the events described are true based on his extensive research. It helped that Theo Van Gogh kept every single letter written to him by his brother. About 700 of them I believe. This is available as a book. Vincent died of self inflicted gun shot wounds in the arms of his brother at the age of 37. Theo died 6 months later. Theo's wife Johanna - herself the sister of a painter -  loved Vincent as much and was instrumental in bringing Vincent's life and painting to public attention.

Needless to say, I am on quest to read all of Stone's books. Oh and don't forget to listen to Starry Starry Night.