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If you’re traveling in New England this August, stop by the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts for an inspiring exhibit about Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with nature. (The exhibit closes on September 13th). It will, I believe, give you a special insight into the painter’s mind and heart — and maybe yourself, too.
If you think of Vincent’s work, you will no doubt think of nature: wheat fields, cypresses, olive trees, cherry blossoms, irises, sunflowers… If Vincent obsessed over anything, he obsessed over nature.
In 2011, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith came out with the biography, Van Gogh: The Life, arguably the best, most empathetic portrait of the famous painter to date. If you haven’t read it, you are missing out.
The entire book is striking, but the part that still haunts me is that the driving force in Vincent’s life was a desire — an obsessive desperation — to connect with other people, and yet, during his lifetime, he didn’t.
Or more accurately, couldn’t.
He was close to his brother, Theo, but they often lived in different cities, so their relationship was carried out mainly in letters. The rest of Vincent’s family avoided him; Theo was nearly the only one who mourned the painter’s death. Vincent’s “friend” Paul Gauguin only stayed with him because Theo paid him. Vincent himself paid other people for companionship; he was known to frequent a brothel or two.
But other people — Fellow artists, neighbors, strangers on the street? They all shunned and mocked Vincent because of his strangeness. They dismissed him as madman.
That’s part of the reason he painted so many landscapes, self-portraits, and still lifes — he had a hard time finding people to sit for him. So instead he turned to a wheat field with crows, a vase of sunflowers, or a starry, starry night. Nature, unlike man, didn’t push him away; it embraced him.
It’s an irony that the man who was so desperate to connect to people during his lifetime — but who failed — is probably the the artist to whom modern-day viewers relate the most. When you stand in front of a Van Gogh, don’t you feel like he GETS you? Don’t you feel like he has expressed something profoundly human? Don’t you feel emotionally CONNECTED to Vincent through his work?
During his lifetime, he was an outcast. Today, he is one of the most famous and beloved artists of all time.
That connection comes via nature.
I think there’s an important lesson here for all of us. When you’re feeling alone or disconnected (which seems a common affliction in today’s world), don’t sit in your house and try to find connection over the internet.
Instead, think of Vincent — lonely, ignored, misunderstood Vincent — and go for a walk out in the countryside. Sit in a field. Paint a tree. You never know, that walk might lead to a profound human connection that stretches across space and time.
The Clark Institute in
Through September 13, 2015