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(Thanks to Michael Yates for painstakingly putting together this from a
cut and paste job on the Kindle version of Berger's "Portraits".)
FOR AN ANIMAL its natural environment and habitat are a given; for man,
despite the faith of the empiricists, empiricists, reality is not a
given: it has to be continually sought out, held – I am tempted to say
salvaged. One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though
the first were always at hand and the second distant, far away. This
opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of
these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative
construction. Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for
materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one
interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces
such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish
habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to
those with power.
All modern artists have thought of their innovations as offering a
closer approach to reality, as a way of making reality more evident. It
is here, and only here, that the modern artist and revolutionary have
sometimes found themselves side by side, both inspired by the idea of
pulling down the screen of clichés, clichés which have increasingly
become unprecedentedly trivial and egotistical.
Yet many such artists have reduced what they found beyond the screen, to
suit their own talent and social position as artists. When this has
happened they have justified themselves with one of the dozen variants
of the theory of art for art’s sake. They say: Reality is art. They hope
to extract an artistic profit from reality. Of no one is this less true
than Van Gogh.
One knows from his letters how intensely he was aware of the screen. His
whole life story is one of an endless yearning for reality. Colours, the
Mediterranean climate, the sun, were for him vehicles going towards this
reality; they were never objects of longing in themselves. This yearning
was intensified by the crises he suffered when he felt that he was
failing to salvage any reality at all. Whether these crises are today
diagnosed as being schizophrenic or epileptic changes nothing; their
content, as distinct from their pathology, was a vision of reality
consuming itself like a phoenix.
One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van
Gogh than work. He saw the physical reality of labour as being,
simultaneously, a necessity, an injustice, and the essence of humanity
throughout history. The artist’s creative act was for him only one among
many such acts. He believed that reality could best be approached
through work, precisely because reality itself was a form of production.
His paintings speak of this more clearly than do words. Their so-called
clumsiness, the gestures with which he drew with pigment upon the
canvas, the gestures (invisible today but imaginable) with which he
chose and mixed his colours on the palette, all the gestures with which
he handled and manufactured the stuff of the painted image, are
analogous to the activity of the existence of what he is painting. His
paintings imitate the active existence existence – the labour of being –
of what they depict.
A chair, a bed, a pair of boots. His act of painting them was far nearer
than that of any other painter to the carpenter’s or the shoemaker’s act
of making them. He brings together the elements of the product – legs,
crossbars, back, seat – sole, uppers, tongue, heel – as though he too
were fitting them together, joining them, and as if this being joined
constituted their reality.
Before a landscape this same process was far more complicated and
mysterious, yet it followed the same principle. If one imagines God
creating the world from earth and water, from clay, his way of handling
it to make a tree or a cornfield might well resemble the way that Van
Gogh handled paint when he painted a tree or cornfield. He was human,
there was nothing divine about him. If, however, one thinks of the
creation of the world, one can imagine the act only through the visual
evidence, here and now, of the energy of the forces in play. And to
these energies, Van Gogh was terribly attuned.
When he painted a small pear tree in flower, the act of the sap rising,
of the bud forming, the bud breaking, the flower opening, the styles
thrusting out, the stigmas become sticky, these acts were all present
for him in the act of painting. When he painted a road, the roadmakers
were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a
ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included
in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labour of existence; and
this labour, recognised as such, was what constituted reality for him.
When he painted his own face, he painted the production of his destiny,
past and future, rather as palmists believe they can read such a
production in the lines of the hand. His contemporaries, who considered
him abnormal, were not all as stupid as is now assumed. He painted
compulsively – no other painter was ever compelled in a comparable way.
And his compulsion? It was to bring the two acts of production – that of
the canvas and that of the reality depicted – ever closer and closer.
This compulsion derived not from an idea about art – this is why it
never occurred to him to profit from reality – but from an overwhelming
feeling of empathy. ‘I admire the bull, the eagle, and man with such an
intense adoration, that it will certainly prevent me from ever becoming
an ambitious person.’
He was compelled to go ever closer, to approach and approach and
approach. In extremis he approaches so close that the stars in the night
sky became maelstroms of light, the cypress trees ganglions of living
wood responding to the energy of wind and sun. There are canvases where
reality dissolves him, the painter. But in hundreds of others he takes
the spectator as close as any man can, while remaining intact, to that
permanent process by which reality is being produced.
Once, long ago, paintings were compared with mirrors. Van Gogh’s might
be compared with lasers. They do not wait to receive, they go out to
meet, and what they traverse is not so much empty space as the act of
production, the production of the world. Painting after painting is a
way of saying, with awe but little comfort: Dare to come this close and
see how it works.
IS IT STILL POSSIBLE to write more words about him? I think of those
already written, mine included, and the answer is ‘No’. If I look at his
paintings, the answer is again – for a different reason – ‘No’; the
canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have
been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made –
not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of
eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.
Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the
words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he
often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the
process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will
try with words.
In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the
ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the
obvious question: Why did this man become the most popular painter in
The myth, the films, the prices, the so-called martyrdom, the bright
colours, have all played their part and amplified the global appeal of
his work, but they are not at its origin. He is loved, I said to myself
in front of the drawing of olive trees, because for him the act of
drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he
loved so intensely what he was looking at, and what he looked at during
the eight years of his life as a painter (yes, only eight) belonged to
I can think of no other European painter whose work expresses such a
stripped respect for everyday things without elevating them, in some
way, without referring to salvation by way of an ideal which the things
embody or serve. Chardin, de la Tour, Courbet, Monet, de Staël, Miro,
Jasper Johns –to name but a few – were all magisterially sustained by
pictorial ideologies, whereas he, as soon as he abandoned his first
vocation as a preacher, abandoned all ideology. He became strictly
existential, ideologically naked. The chair is a chair, not a throne.
The boots have been worn by walking. The sunflowers are plants, not
constellations. The postman delivers letters. The irises will die. And
from this nakedness of his, which his contemporaries saw as naivety or
madness, came his capacity to love, suddenly and at any moment, what he
saw in front of him. Picking up pen or brush, he then strove to realise,
to achieve that love. Lover-painter affirming the toughness of an
everyday tenderness we all dream of in our better moments and instantly
recognise when it is framed …
Words, words. How is it visible in his practice? Return to the drawing.
It’s in ink, drawn with a reed-pen. He made many such drawings in a
single day. Sometimes, like this one, direct from nature, sometimes from
one of his own paintings, which he had hung on the wall of his room
whilst the paint was drying.
Drawings like these were not so much preparatory studies as graphic
hopes; they showed in a simpler way – without the complication of
handling pigment – where the act of painting could hopefully lead him.
They were maps of his love.
What do we see? Thyme, other shrubs, limestone rocks, olive trees on a
hillside, in the distance a plain, in the sky birds. He dips the pen
into brown ink, watches, and marks the paper. The gestures come from his
hand, his wrist, arm, shoulder, perhaps even the muscles in his neck,
yet the strokes he makes on the paper are following currents of energy
which are not physically his and which become visible only when he draws
them. Currents of energy? The energy of a tree’s growth, of a plant’s
search for light, of a branch’s need for accommodation with its
neighbouring branches, of the roots of thistles and shrubs, of the
weight of rocks lodged on a slope, of the sunlight, of the attraction of
the shade for whatever is alive and suffers from the heat, of the
Mistral from the north which has fashioned the rock strata. My list is
arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is the pattern his strokes make on the
paper. The pattern is like a fingerprint. Whose?
It is a drawing which values precision – every stroke is explicit and
unambiguous – yet it has totally forgotten itself in its openness to
what it has met. And the meeting is so close you can’t tell whose trace
is whose. A map of love indeed.
Two years later, three months before his death, he painted a small
canvas of two peasants digging the earth. He did it from memory because
it refers back to the peasants he painted five years earlier in Holland
and to the many homages he paid throughout his life to Millet. It is
also, however, a painting whose theme is the kind of fusion we find in
The two men digging are painted in the same colours – potato brown,
spade grey, and the faded blue of French work clothes – as the field,
the sky, and the distant hills. The brushstrokes describing their limbs
are identical to those which follow the dips and mounds of the field.
The two men’s raised elbows become two more crests, two more hillocks,
against the horizon.
The painting is not of course declaring these men to be ‘clods of
earth’, the term used by many citizens at that epoch to insult peasants.
The fusion of the figures with the ground refers fiercely to the
reciprocal exchange of energy that constitutes agriculture, and which
explains, in the long term, why agricultural production cannot be
submitted to purely economic law. It may also refer – by way of his own
love and respect for peasants – to his own practice as a painter.
During his whole short life he had to live and gamble with the risk of
self-loss. The wager is visible in all the self-portraits. He looks at
himself as a stranger, or as something he has stumbled upon. His
portraits of others are more personal, their focus more close-up. When
things went too far, and he lost himself utterly, the consequences, as
the legend reminds us, were catastrophic. And this is evident too in the
paintings and drawings he made at such moments. Fusion became fission.
Everything crossed everything else out.
When he won his wager – which was most of the time – the lack of
contours around his identity allowed him to be extraordinarily open,
allowed him to become permeated by what he was looking at. Or is that
wrong? Maybe the lack of contours allowed him to lend himself, to leave
and enter and permeate the other. Perhaps both processes occurred – once
again as in love.
Words. Words. Return to the drawing by the olive trees. The ruined abbey
is, I think, behind us. It is a sinister place – or would be if it were
not in ruins. The sun, the Mistral, lizards, cicadas, the occasional
occasional hoopoe bird, are still cleaning its walls (it was dismantled
during the French Revolution), still obliterating the trivia of its
one-time power and insisting upon the immediate.
As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the
olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He
recognises the sensation – he has often experienced it, indoors,
outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this
pressing – which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in
his lifetime – he responds with incredible speed and the utmost
attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on
the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his
feet – on one of which (on the paper) he will write ‘Vincent’.
Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a
gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?
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