New Edition Of Van Gogh Letters Reveal Surprises

Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum has released a definitive six-volume collection of the painter's letters. The new translations of 902 original letters written by and to Van Gogh cast a different light on the brilliant, troubled artist.

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Vincent Van Gogh's story is one that's been told many times over. It's also a story that continues to fascinate. Now Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum has released a definitive six-volume collection of the painter's letters - almost 1,000 of them translated into English. As Frank Browning reports, the letters hold some surprises.

FRANK BROWNING: For starters, who knew how deeply Vincent Van Gogh reflected on poetry as in this letter dated April 19th, 1888 to his friend, the poet and painter Emile Bernard.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) There are so many people, especially among our pals, who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don't you think? It's as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing.

BROWNING: Or how profoundly spiritual, even religious he was comparing the roundness of the Earth to the circularity of the soul.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) But life too is probably round and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that's known to us at present. Future generations, probably, will enlighten us on this subject that's so interesting. And then science itself could, with all due respect, reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ's words concerning the other half of existence.

BROWNING: Radical religion, ideas and literature, these letters reveal a Van Gogh deeply and broadly cultured, says painter and historian Julian Bell, who wrote about the letters for the London Review of Books.

Mr. JULIAN BELL (Historian, Painter): I knew that he was wild, earnest and possible, but he is one of the 19th century's greatest readers. He devours books from long before he ever starts painting.

BROWNING: The curators at the Van Gogh Museum spent 15 years collecting every original letter they could find, annotating them and always, says historian Hans Luijten, adhering strictly to the text as Van Gogh wrote them, not to the highly trimmed and censored versions published earlier by the family.

Mr. HANS LUIJTEN (Historian): They changed names. They left out things that had to do with sex or with diseases or that kind of thing. So it's important to go back to the manuscripts and find out what's actually written on the paper.

BROWNING: Everything from his caustic broadsides against other painters, to his regular visits to the whore houses of Arles in the south of France.

Mr. LUIJTEN: Vincent was young, his fellow artisans were young and he wrote a lot about blood running through your veins and that's important for being healthy as an artist.

BROWNING: Though he cautioned against visiting brothels more than once a fortnight.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) So a brothel here on Sunday, not to mention the other days, a large room tinged with bluish lime wash, like a village school - a good 50 or so red soldiers and black civilians with faces of a magnificent yellow or orange. What tones in the faces down here, the women in sky blue, in vermillion, everything that's of the purest and gaudiest, all of it in yellow light, far less gloomy than the establishments of the same kind in Paris.

BROWNING: The passion and the vitality of the French south exhilarated Van Gogh and yet the bouts of depression he had long suffered grew worse. And he seemed to know that something was wrong inside his brain, says Hans Luijten.

Mr. LUIJTEN: There are so many artists becoming completely mad and Van Gogh knew these stories. And he was aware that an artist is often placed outside society, that because of his working methods, because of his working sometimes more than 15 hours a day in the sun must drive a man mad. He knows that he is living on the edge, and he wants that.

BROWNING: During those years in Arles, Julian Bell says the letters reveal an apocalyptic convergence of mind, art and spirit.

Mr. BELL: Here is someone with this extraordinary surplus of spirituality energy. He kind of doesn't know how to handle it, still less, does anyone around him know how to handle it? Until this burst of exaltation who runs through his (unintelligible) in 1888, when his painting breaks through to extraordinary levels.

BROWNING: Thick color impregnated his canvasses, intense yellows, greens and blues made stars pierce the heavens and sunflowers leap from their vases. But Van Gogh's dream of creating an artist community in Arles collapsed after his famous fight with his friend Paul Gauguin that led to the slicing of his ear and his self-commitment in a mental asylum.

Mr. BELL: His mind, this extraordinary seething quality, as he describes it, has just tumbled over, spilt and he can no longer contain what he is in one vessel as it were. And it horrifies him. But the quality that stays uppermost throughout his letters is an extraordinary lucidity of mind and extraordinary gift for clear and trenchant expression.

BROWNING: Vincent Van Gogh's last letter to his brother Theo was in his pocket when he shot himself in Northern France, July 27th, 1890. He died two days later. Nine hundred and two letters to and from Van Gogh, along with notes, sketches and paintings, are freely available on the Web at vangoghletters.org or in a six-volume set published by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning.

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