Arts & Life


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

Many have wondered what was going on inside the mind of Vincent Van Gogh. The impressionist painter clearly suffered from some sort of mental affliction. He eventually committed suicide.

A new exhibit at New York's Morgan Library gives us greater insight into Van Gogh's mind. The show is called "Painted with Words," and it's based on 20 letters that Van Gogh wrote to his artist friend, Emil Bernard, in the late 1880s. That's when Van Gogh was doing his best and most famous work in the south of France.

From New York, NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Van Gogh met Bernard in Paris. He was 15 years older than Bernard. But it was two years later, when he arrived in Arles in the south of France, that he began a correspondence with his artist friend. These letters newly acquired by the Morgan Library and available to the public for the first time are filled with advice, thoughts about life and the theory of color. Take this one, read by the actor Paul Hecht.

Mr. PAUL HECHT (Actor): (Reading) "I'm still doing landscapes, sketch enclosed. What I should like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. You can't have blue without yellow or orange. And if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well."

ADLER: A number of the letters have beautiful sketches. In one, Van Gogh draws the famous bedroom in the yellow house. In another, a sketch of a sewer in a field.

Jennifer Tonkovich is curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan.

Dr. JENNIFER TONKOVICH (Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, Morgan Library): You see what he's underlined, what he's emphasized.

ADLER: And he's crossing out things, too.

Dr. TONKOVICH: Yes, absolutely. He's always making changes or trying to cram more in.

ADLER: Very small writing…

Dr. TONKOVICH: And - exactly.

ADLER: …extremely small writing. Some of it's just beautiful like the way that little tree…

Dr. TONKOVICH: He really does have an expansiveness at times when he's really excited and trying to emphasize something.

ADLER: Van Gogh also gives surprisingly frank critiques of other artists. He calls Degas a little lawyer who does not have sex often, which is why his painting are so aloof. Cezanne's stroke, he says, is sometimes awkward. And Van Gogh is convinced it's because Cezanne's easel wobbles in the wind. But Van Gogh writes he, himself, has learned how to secure his easel in the ground.

The letters, says Tonkovich, show you someone finding a successful way through daily struggles.

Dr. TONKOVICH: You get a sense of his life and also of him as a physical being, who, carrying heavy stuff out into the field, having to stake his the easel, having to dry the paints in the sun.

ADLER: Besides the letters, the exhibit also has paintings by Van Gogh and Bernard. Van Gogh writes about painting a bridge over a quay and includes a sketch. And across the room, you'll see Bernard's version of the same scene.

At several points, Van Gogh writes about his desire to do a night sky. Just as I shall paint a green meadow studded with dandelions, he writes, but how to arrive at that?

Mr. HECHT: (Reading) "But when will I do the starry sky then, that painting that's always on my mind? Alas. Alas. It's just as our excellent pal Cyprien says 'En Menage' by Huysmans: The most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one's bed, but which one doesn't do. But, nevertheless, it's a matter of attacking them, however incompetent one may feel, vis-a-vis, the ineffable perfections of nature's glorious splendors."

ADLER: Of course, he eventually overcomes these problems and paints some of the most celebrated night scenes in the history of art.

"Painted with Words" gives you a picture of Van Gogh far different than the legend. As Tonkovich puts it…

Dr. TONKOVICH: These are not the letters of someone crazy. While he, indeed, did have these episodes of illness, he was still a very rational, lucid, intelligent thinker. And that comes through throughout the letters.

And also, people are often surprises that his handwriting is so legible.

ADLER: We all like to believe in myths and legends, says Tonkovich. But this exhibit shows the struggles of a man deeply exploring nature, thought and color. It's a more balanced picture. The small but choice exhibit goes through January 6th.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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