Tag: Vincent Van Gogh

Hopeless Escape

Hopeless Escape posted in Eleison Comments on November 20, 2010

Currently showing in London (Tate Modern) is an exhibition of another great master of modern art – or is that a contradiction in terms? – the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Men need pictures, as they need a vision of what life is all about. Today, electronics largely supply the pictures, but in Gauguin’s time painters still had an enormous impact.

Born in Paris in 1848, Gauguin after various travels and occupations became at the age of 23 a stockbroker, and two years later he married a Danish woman who gave him five children over ten years. At this time painting was for him only a hobby for which he had talent, but after a failed attempt in 1884 to go into business in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, he abandoned his young family in the following year and returned to Paris to become a full-time artist.

In 1888 he spent nine weeks painting together with Van Gogh in Arles, but it ended stormily. Back in Paris he was not gaining enough money or recognition, so in 1891 he set sail for the tropics, “to escape everything artificial and conventional.” The rest of his life, except for one prolonged return to Paris, he spent in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, colonies then of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. There he produced most of the paintings on which rests his fame, but still he was fighting against Church and State, and only his death in 1903 prevented him from having to serve a three-month prison sentence.

Like Van Gogh, Gauguin began to paint in the somber and conventional style proper to later 19th century art. However, as with Van Gogh and at about the same time, the colours became much brighter and the style rather less conventional. In fact Gauguin was the founder of the Primitivist movement in art, and soon after his death had a considerable influence on the brilliant but also rebellious Picasso. Primitivism meant going back to primitive sources, because Europe felt as though it was burnt out. Hence the turning to African and Asian models, a notable example being “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” of Picasso. Hence Gauguin’s flight to Polynesia in 1891, where he regretted the intrusion of Catholic missionaries, and where he studied and built into his art pagan gods of the local pre-Catholic mythology, including several quasi-devilish figures.

But does the vision of the Tahitian paintings of Gauguin, which are surely his best, represent a viable solution to the problems of the decadent West which he spurned and left behind him? One may think not. The paintings now on show in the Tate Modern exhibition are original and colourful, but the Tahitian people he paints, mostly young women, remain somehow torpid and dull. Gauguin’s Tahiti may be an escape, but it is not a hope. Gauguin may have been right about the decadent West, but the earthly paradise he fabricated in his Polynesian art left him restless, and he died still rebellious. There remains some problem that he has still not solved.

Interesting is the fictional version of his life by the well-known English 20th century writer, Somerset Maugham. See next week’s “Eleison Comments.”

Kyrie eleison.

Modern Art – I

Modern Art – I posted in Eleison Comments on April 17, 2010

Why is modern art so ugly? Does it have to be so ugly? Cannot artists of today do something nice for a change? And why, when they do something nice, is it normally second- or third-rate as art, sentimental, somehow not authentic? Such recurring questions are raised by a painter like Van Gogh, considered last week, who was on his way to modern art. The questions are easy to answer if God and the human soul are for real. They have no reasonable answer if the spiritual God and the spiritual soul are fictions of self-deceiving man.

If God is the invisible but real “Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible,” then he created the invisible human soul, most intimately united at conception to a visible body to constitute every human being that ever was or will be. His purpose in creating creatures with a spiritual reason and therefore free-will is his own extrinsic (not intrinsic) glory, which increases with every human being who uses that free-will so to love and serve God in this life as to deserve at death to be unimaginably happy, by giving to God glory without end in the next life.

And how does a man love and serve God in this life? By obeying his commandments (Jn. XV, 10) which constitute a moral framework of good and evil for all human acts, a framework which men can defy but not evade. If they do defy it, they will put themselves in more or less disharmony with God, self and neighbor, because God created that framework not arbitrarily, but in perfect harmony with his own nature and the human nature bound by him to act within it.

Now art might be defined in its broadest sense as any confection of materials (e.g. paints, words, musical notes, etc.) over which man takes special trouble to communicate to other men what he has in his mind and heart. So if mind and heart belong to a soul which at any given moment must be in a state of greater or lesser harmony with that moral framework set by God for all its acts, then any artistic product proceeding from that soul is bound to reflect the objective harmony or disharmony within it. And now we are in a position to answer our original questions.

Modern arts are so ugly because all modern souls belong to a global society falling daily deeper into apostasy, such that a huge and influential number of these souls are at war with God, consciously or unconsciously. The artistic products of souls immersed in such an environment can only reflect their internal disharmony with God, self and neighbor, which is why they are ugly. Only from any genuine harmony still remaining in their souls can anything genuinely beautiful proceed. Wilfully “nice” art proceeds from a disharmonious wish to feign harmony, which is why the effect will always be in some way false or sentimental, not authentic, and second- or third-rate as art.

On the other hand if God, and the immortal soul coming from him and due to go to him, are mere fictions, then there is no reason why beauty should not be ugly and ugliness beautiful. That is the mind-set of modern artists, but from the moment that I recognize any ugly artifact of theirs to be ugly, I am implying that there is a framework, not theirs, which they are defying.

Kyrie eleison.

Van Gogh’s Popularity

Van Gogh’s Popularity posted in Eleison Comments on April 10, 2010

At the recent exhibition of the modern Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh, soon to close at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, there have been continual queues of people waiting for hours to get in. How is such popularity to be explained? Certainly Van Gogh is modern without being too modern, a combination that appeals to many souls anxious today to make some sense of the crazy world around them, but surely there is also in him an even more attractive combination – he is religious without being religious – religion for apostates!

He was born in Holland in 1853, the eldest son of a Protestant pastor. For nearly three quarters of his short life all he thought of was giving himself to the service of religion, because only at the age of 27 did he discover his outstanding talent and vocation as an artist. However, from then on he devoted himself with a religious intensity to the mastery of drawing and painting, so that he would be able to express in art what he had found himself unable to express in any outwardly religious form. He said, “In all of Nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul.”

He made that soul almost tangible in the painting chosen by the Royal Academy for their Exhibition flyer, “Hospital at St. Remy.” Gnarled tree trunks point upwards to their dark foliage which crowds over the bright yellow hospital building below, and interlocks with the dark blue sky above. The few human figures seem insignificant amidst a whirling dynamic of Nature, all the more dramatic for the picture’s brilliant colour-scheme, typical for Van Gogh. The same dynamic is still more visible in his famous painting,”Starry Night” (not included in this Exhibition), where landscape, cypress-trees, mountains, stars and sky are all locked together in a wild, rhythmic, yellow and violet dance, seeming to make the whole cosmos whirl.

Both paintings date from Van Gogh’s intensely productive last five years, between his move to Paris in early 1886 and his death in France in the summer of 1890. One may not like modern art, one may not like Van Gogh, but nobody can deny that his paintings from this period represent a profoundly individual and human reaction to what Wordsworth called “something far more deeply interfused” in the world of Nature that surrounds us human beings. What else is “art”? Only, whereas at the beginning of the 19th century that “something interfused” had inspired the English poet to “reflect in tranquillity,” on the contrary by the end of that apostatizing century the Dutch artist, who had also left overt religion behind him, found beauty but little peace, which makes him that much more sympathetic to our own still more restless age.

Alas, Van Gogh paid a heavy price for recognizing the prime movement in Nature without identifying the Prime Mover. The movement without the motionless Mover, the fierce dynamism without the King of Peace, ended by overwhelming him, and he died of a self-inflicted gun-wound. Divine Lord, have mercy, have mercy, on millions and millions of souls who sense you and need you, but cannot – or will not – find you. You alone know just how dangerous is their religionless religion without you!

Kyrie eleison.