My Vincent 

R.B. Kitaj on van Gogh

Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
The following is adapted from a lecture on Vincent van Gogh given at LACMA, on March 1, by the painter R.B. Kitaj. An American who moved to Los Angeles in 1997 after spending almost four decades in London, Kitaj has been closely associated with the "School of London" -- a group of figurative painters including Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and others. Brendan Bernhard's profile of Kitaj, "The Refugee," can be found in the Weekly's archives here .

MY FAVORITE PLACE IN THE WHOLE WORLD IS THE cafeteria of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. During my last years in London, I would retreat about four or five times a year to Holland whenever I needed to collect my thoughts, lick my wounds, ponder picture ideas, catch up on correspondence. I am a caféist, you see, and when I tired of writing in the cafeteria of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I would go upstairs to be with the beloved pictures now at LACMA. They are old friends.

Holland was only one hour from London, and I grew to cherish that little egalitarian society with its dark streets and alleyways seething and moody with old bookshops, bicyclists, many freedoms and quite incredible art, in Amsterdam and wonderful nearby towns such as Utrecht, Haarlem and the Hague. Neither mighty Russia nor the Americas have spawned such sheer concentrated treasure for the easel-painting art as that tiny speck of land. The why of it will always be shrouded in mystery, as will the phenomenon called van Gogh. Had Vincent dropped dead when he stepped off that train at Arles in 1888, he would be remembered today as a very minor Dutch impressionist in the circle of Pissarro. He had less than two years to live, to live it up into those rarefied airs above the clouds of art history which so very few reach -- in his case doomed by melancholy, loneliness and madness leading to suicide, but not before he achieved the most intense, God-struck few years in the history of art.

When I tired of staring into his paintings and drawings, I would go back downstairs to the cafeteria to sketch ideas or write some more. The three fat volumes of van Gogh's letters mean that he himself wrote in a fury almost every day. Those letters belong to the canon of great Confessional Literature, an examined life right up there with Montaigne, Dostoyevsky and the diaries of Kafka, with Rousseau and Proust and Augustine. The letters are often exegetical, like what the Jews call Midrash, and have emboldened my commentaries about my own pictures, getting me into deep trouble with those critics who can't bear hearing what the artist has to say -- unlike the public, which, judging from the hundreds of letters I get, likes to hear what the artist himself has to say about his work.

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Now that I have returned home to America, the only thing I miss greatly about London, to be honest, is Holland. And, going over the van Gogh literature, I strongly sense that van Gogh, too, would have gone home had he lived. When he shot himself in that lonely field at Auvers (where he lies today next to his brother Theo, and which is still lonely 100 years later), he was on the way back north, as if the southern sun had already sucked too much energy out of his desolate northern soul and he was ready to return to the lowlands of his beloved Rembrandt and all the other Dutch and Flemish painters he dwells on in his letters. He only spent about a year in Arles -- he became the van Gogh of legend in that one year (1888), and also during 1889, most of which he spent in the mental asylum at St. Remy, and halfway back north at Auvers in 1890, when he would paint 70 paintings in 70 days before killing himself in one of his frenzies.

His letters during those last months sound like a man yearning for his northern home ground. He writes that were he to start anew, he would not look to the Midi. He felt defeated. Writing to his sister in 1890 from Auvers, he says it reminds him of Nuenen. They are almost the same, he says, re-creating his not-so-distant past. Auvers was to have been a resting place on his return to the dark turmoil of his origins. Instead, he would rest there forever. Van Gogh's entire life in art lasted only 10 years. The first five years are almost all given to learning to draw, culminating in 1885 with his first memorable painting, The Potato Eaters. Those first five years, from 1880 to 1885, are stamped with his attachment to the Wretched of the Earth. The drawings of these years are a singular corpus, unlike anything ever seen before or since. His drawing was evangelical, like the rest of him, fast and furious, like religious fervor among very poor people, but based in a scrutiny that is all but lost in today's art. Scrutiny alone would not be enough -- but scrutiny of van Gogh's intense order was coupled with the other aspects of genius: an extraordinary mind and an imagination which arises only a few times in a century. Van Gogh drew like a demon, making up each day what another painter would take months to achieve. Michelangelo said one paints with the mind, not with the hand. And what a mind Vincent brought to drawing.

  • R.B. Kitaj on van Gogh

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