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.
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.
I WANT TO INTRODUCE HERE AN IDEA OF MY OWN. I believe there is a stream of Modernism other than the well-known mainstreams of Abstract-Formalism, Dada-Surrealism-Duchampism, and a Realism-Naturalism almost asleep during our time. The stream of art I want to identify I will call Painting-Drawing, where the two methods are wed in a marriage perhaps neglected by critics and historians. The painters who transfix me each day are Cézanne, Degas and van Gogh, with Matisse and Picasso right up there as well. Degas kept an early masterwork of his, sometimes called Young Spartans (1860), all his life — it was still in his studio when he died in 1917. This splendid oil painting is virtually a drawing in color, in which Degas makes no attempt to paint over the pentimenti or history of its drawing. It is the earliest example I know of this Painting-Drawing, a method Degas would bring into blazing power later on, even into our century, especially in his pastel paintings. Cézanne, my favorite painter, painted 200 “Bather” compositions from imagination, where the dark-blue contour drawing, sometimes in a flurry of lines, determines the amazing, unstable, half-human forms, all the way though to his last three tremendous “Bather” epics, again left in his studio when he died in 1906.
Although I believe that Painting-Drawing makes subsequent appearances, in Lautrec for instance, and then arguably in the high moment of Picasso and Braque's so-called analytic Cubism, and in Mondrian's great plus-and-minus paintings, too, the apotheosis of Painting-Drawing lies for me with Matisse in the period from 1910 to 1920. Closer to our own period, the painter who uses this method is, of course, Giacometti.
Back to “my” Vincent. I'm convinced that van Gogh is a prime mover of Painting-Drawing along with Degas and Cézanne. He spends the years 188085 drawing, hardly learning painting at all. He spends the next couple of years in Paris, caught up in the fervor of Impressionism and Divisionism, taught him by the good Pissarro and the doomed Seurat, where drawing takes a back seat. And then, all of a sudden, bang! Arles — the South — the Sun — Gauguin — and the quick slip into a real madness, all in two years. Two years when he finds and invents his “mature” style. It is my contention that his mature style in oil painting is largely, but not exclusively, a great drawing style. That he is still drawing as if he had charcoal or a Japanese reed pen in his hand. In much of the latter two years, van Gogh is drawing fiercely in paint, with a not-very-wide brush, explicitly, constantly outlining faces and figures and objects like no other painter had ever done.
The emphatic outlining has at least two powerful sources in van Gogh's pantheon: Japanese prints (especially the pen jabs of the Hokusai sketchbooks) and popular graphic illustration in cheap magazines, both of which he collected lovingly. He was a very early appropriationist. There have been engrossing exhibitions of these very sheets at the Van Gogh Museum and elsewhere. Vincent wrote to Theo: “For me the English black-and-white artists are to art what Dickens is to literature. They have exactly the same sentiment, noble and healthy, and one always returns to them . . . I am organizing my whole life so as to do the things of everyday life that Dickens describes and the artists I've mentioned draw.” With the possible exception of Gustave Doré, these illustrators are largely forgotten today, but they spoke to Vincent, who tried to find a vocation as a kind of worker-priest quite mad about drawing (and reading). To Theo he wrote: “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books and I continually want to instruct myself, to study if you like, just as much as I want to eat my bread.” He read widely, or I should say deeply, in three languages — Dickens, Zola and Julie Michelet appealed to his powerful proto-socialism, his yearning for utopian ideals that the next century would bring to political-despotic hellfire.
Our finest art historian, Meyer Schapiro, believed that van Gogh was the greatest painter of the peasant ever, perhaps even the last great painter of reality. He wrote: “The strong dark lines that [van Gogh] draws around trees, houses and faces establish their existence and peculiarity with a conviction unknown to previous art.” I agree with this. Van Gogh, mad about drawing, simply continued his contour drawing when he wanted to paint the human face and form — an unheard-of practice in his time, clearly the work of a madman without an audience for his madness. As if that were not bad enough, he kept on drawing with his brush — strokes which compose the image — insisting on stabs of line in the modeling of each form as draftsmen do. In fact, the short brush strokes became a force of nature in van Gogh's painting, even in his skies, even in his delirious sense of the southern sun, its heat and aura, as if it, too, was a portrait to be drawn.
At some point in my own life and art, those three painter-draftsmen — Degas, Cézanne and van Gogh — worked on me so that I could feel myself drawing hard into the very “give” of the supple canvas with a brush loaded with color, mostly along insistent contours. Later on, Matisse's Painting-Drawing brought a new, experimental, cosmopolitan approach into our art, fit for our awful century. Later it would itself become an endangered species, along with endangered, radical cosmopolitanism itself. Van Gogh wrote to Theo: “I beg you to believe that in Landscape I am going on trying to mass things by means of a drawing style which tries to express the interlocking of the masses . . . I feel strongly inclined to seek style in brush strokes . . . by that I mean a more virile, deliberate drawing!” There you have it from the horse's mouth.
MEYER SCHAPIRO GAVE A HINT AS TO WHAT IT WAS that so endears van Gogh to so many people. He said that he was drawn to art as a communication of the good. Van Gogh loved Giotto faces. He said they were always full of kindness. Goodness, kindness, facial expression, loneliness . . . these days young artists are too often told to shy away from such “literary” things. I like to think that painters like Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh and Cézanne were on the verge of a kind of physiognomic renaissance, like the Greeks or Florentines, a new perusal of character in men and women. The last fin-de-siècle was a time of ravishing depiction and rich mimetic blood.
What is drawing? van Gogh asked in a letter. “It's the action for forcing one's way through an invisible iron wall which seems to be located somewhere between what one feels and what one can do. How does one get through this wall? . . . It has to be undermined and penetrated with a file, slowly and with patience . . .” I've never heard a better definition of drawing in all my years in the art game. To Theo, Vincent wrote: “What impassions me most — much, much more than all the rest of my métier — is the portrait.”
Long after Vincent put an end to his suffering, another inmate of a French mental asylum, the very strange Antonin Artaud, conjured up these words in his mad essay on van Gogh, “The Man Suicided by Society”: “I do not know of a single psychiatrist who would know how to scrutinize a man's face with such overpowering strength, dissecting its irrefutable psychology as if with a knife.”
Oscar Wilde was a great contemporary of van Gogh who knew a thing or two about suffering at the hands of Perfidious Albion. Said Wilde about suffering, “It is what is hidden behind everything.”