artist on a mend
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Reflections now and then

Painters' blues, and Vincent

Painters, like all artists, can experience deep, sustained periods of blue.

This can be deadly. Like what happened in Vincent's case. When he shot himself in the stomach, Van Gogh had reached the nadir of his pychological well being. He had nowhere else to turn to. He was tired, oh so tired, after a long long battle to prove his worth to his world. Brother Theo had married and become father to a little Vincent, his art business was not doing too well and his expenses were rising all the time. Vincent could sense that Theo was under increasing pressure to step back from that little 'deal' he had made with his beloved brother. The world wasn't ready for Vincent. He was not selling. Far from it, he was the object of ridicule and disgust both for his erratic life, as well as his work. Theo encouraged him to paint, sending him money in return for his canvases. Theo had this deep-seated belief in his brother, that some day the world will recognize his genius. But he was also a practical man and understood that painting gave Vincent a reason to plod on with his life. So he continued to send him money as if to buy his work - providing Vincent's wretched existence with a thin cover of dignity.

Dark clouds were beginning to gather, the crows were getting increasingly restless, they clawed and pecked at Vincent all the time. Painting was like the stars that lit his perpetually dark blue days. But slowly, and inevitably his senses were losing their edge. The starlit nights were beginning to turn into a homogenous grey. A prelude to the blacks. Vincent was beginning to realise that soon a time will come when Theo will not be able to send him money. Money symbolized a demand for his creations. His life as a painter will suffer the ultimate disgrace - death of that flickering self-belief he was desperately clinging on to.

Theo, beloved Theo, at least he believed in Vincent. Didn't he? But no more. Theo's priorities in life were changing. That utterly vulnerable and innocent brother of his, that crazy red-head, who could only paint and not fend for himself, in the mind or in the material world, will have to be left alone.

Vincent couldn't find a reason to go on. He had hit a brick wall. The blues have turned into an impenetrable black. His entire life, all thirty-seven years of his existence now floated past his detached, desensitized vision. His frustrations as a junior art dealer, his days of extreme physical deprivation as a self-appointed missionary in the coal mines of Borinage, which ended in a clash with the church, the many many rejections of his social life, his finding of a new calling in the art of painting, and the slow, inevitable creeping in of a realization that it didnt matter to the world whether he painted or not - subdued the clamour of voices inside his head. Ultimately there was a deathly stillness. It was then that Vincent raised his gun. It wasn't an act of madness. All spikes of crazed behaviour had died long ago. It was a deliberate act - the final admission of complete defeat.

Left to Right - sections of paintings by Anders Zorn,
Lucien Freud and Odd Nerdrum. Click to enlarge.

I am a painter. I didnt know I was one, busy as I was pursuing other dreams till the dawn of the new millennium. But I still have so many interests making noisy claims for my attention that sometimes, looking at myself from the outside, I wonder if I really am. That fragile mean of artistic expression is so utterly shy, and demands such complete devotion that it will not share space with other activities - physical or mental. It is a non-competitive wimp that fails to push away other endeavours and make space for itself. It is selfish and jealous but will not speak for itself. It must be nurtured with every caring hand the soul can muster. If not, the inevitable happens - I have not painted for the last six months!

This article began with the subject head "painter's blues' and went on to narrate an imagined illustration of the last diminishing activities of Vincent's mind. So why am I bringing myself into this? I believe that painters who are true artists, whether they end up unrequitted and unrecognized, or ride off in a blaze of glory like Peter Paul Rubens, or eventually reclaim everlasting fame like Rembrandt, who had once been forgotten for a century, must have coursed through sustained periods of blue.

This I can feel deep inside my soul, and it hones my ability to appreciate a painting. I can pick out the fakes, I can pick out the insincere, and the falsehood of eulogies that follow them around. Melancholia can inspire amazing insight. It can give the artist powers of perception which makes him see things which are normally overlooked. Van Gogh's paintings are rich examples of an artists's extremely elevated levels of awareness about himself and the world around him. It is this awareness which allowed him unfettered access to the deepest corners of his soul and pour out its contents on the canvas. It is this special ability to communicate, to express, which may be lacking at other times in the same artist, that leads to great works of art.

Left to Right - sections of paintings by Andrew Wyeth,
William Bouguereau and Picasso. Click to enlarge.

Forget latest trends in the art-mart, forget critical preferences, forget what your last buyer wanted from you - the process of creating art, true art, is not like churning the wheels of a manufacturing machine. It has to be a saturated reflection of the artist's soul, rendered with enough hints of uncommon skill. A connoisseur of art will only look for these qualities in the paintings, unlike a dealer who is essentially looking for short-term profit (and I am not being judgemental on that profession, because art dealers are dedicated cogs in the wheels of the art industry) . To the true connoisseur, the signature is immaterial. It is often foolish to be lead by the signature alone.

Periods of blue have resulted in great works of art. For the affected artist, perhaps it is not the best phase to pass through. But prolonged depression can also act like a drug, providing the artist with a sense of detachment which helps remove the somewhat 'earthly' considerations of fame and fortune. Of course, this doesn't mean that artists henceforth should engage in wilful acts of sadomasochism to lift their work, nor does it indicate that happiness can trivialize art (just look at Renoir!). It simply points out that days, weeks or months of quiet resignation may impart enhanced powers of observation in an already sensitive soul. Seeds of great creativity begin to germinate in such stillness.

The Leap - oil on canvas


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