The Monochrome Intellectual, Part 2.
Vincent van Goch wanted to depict the way he saw life before the onset of industrialization. His passion was for graphic depiction using mainly oil paint on canvas. His early years as a painter were spent in areas that still go largely unnoticed by tourists. Drenthe, a province in the East of the Netherlands provided him with views as dismal as his own feelings. Dark browns and heavy charcoal sketches depict a life that he saw as being full of sorrow and toil. Now it may well have been true that these peasants had little enjoyment of life.
But I know that hard work on my own vegetable garden is anything but sorrowful. The hard work whilst unrewarded has brought me more than the few measly potatoes I harvested in my first season. My work was requited from a different direction altogether. That of reminding me just how astonishingly tasty home grown vegetables really are. That in itself was reward enough. Did those peasants still share this wonder of nature? Or was it already dissipated, lost? Was it just normality for them that potatoes should taste of potato and not paper?
Inside Vincent’s Head.
All of this is important in understanding why Vincent eventually went mad. Because whatever Vincent saw in his peasants, it wasn’t anywhere close to the truth. Those peasants had a very different attitude to their life than any farmer has today. The old ways were already dying, the traditions fading from their collective memories. What’s more those ways and traditions had very little to do with money. They were all to do with what we moderns would call experiencing. The peasants Vincent painted may have been unhappy, their lot a hard one. Their involvement in their life was total and immediate in a way that is unknown today. How do I know this? Because I can see part of what drove Vincent mad, I am explaining this so that you don’t have to follow him. Vincent’s problem was that he held no power. His viewpoint was the same as the encroaching industries, and so could do nothing to stop it.
The exhibition of van Gogh’s paintings in the Hermitage, Amsterdam was to me, quite disappointing. I could not find one painting that had any spark of life. They were exuberant, colourful, energetic. Only they possessed none of the raw passion that
Tom Thomson spread across his canvasses.
Depicting Modern Thinking
In writing about the amazing time I had at Groningen witnessing the realities of Tom Thomson’s works, I realized what it was that made them so effective. They were unfinished. It was that very unfinishedness that compels the viewer to engage. Or, if incapable of engaging as most academics are – to dismiss out of hand. So what is it that Vincent missed out on? How is it that a painter as keen to express his feelings failed so completely as Vincent van Gogh?
Vincent’s paintings are complete. If I may impinge on his personal thoughts here, his intention was to bring you a complete image. Why? Because it is in the nature of intellectual thought to round out the corners, fill in the gaps. Jan van der Linden, a true Dutch master, draws your attention to the prow of the docked ship, Gelria. He uses no artifice, his manner is more honest: focus.
Now to be fair, Vincent’s thin dark lines achieve the same effect of highlighting.
This subtle point brings up the issue of how these two painters think. How they see life.
Van der Linden uses effects that are as dramatic – the important difference is that van der Linden’s painting shows no imposition in his construction. Vincent’s thin dark lines are not usually seen in real life, especially on areas that are not in shadow. It is this imposition that divides Vincent from the things he observes. He boxes himself in by adding lines on his painting where in reality, there are none to be seen.
Van der Linden does this in a manner that is subtle, not crude. Van der Linden follows what is natural, Vincent imposes something that is not. It is crucial to observe impositions of this kind when observing the outward effects of the intellect.
Delineation And Separation In Modern Thinking.
This is important in our modern world where it is so easy to impose our ideas of how things should be. In communication it means that you are telling your customers what they should hear. You supply them with things they may not otherwise want. That it is so common does not mean it is right. Any good communicator knows that listening to the questions posed by their audience gives them a better idea of what their listeners can already understand. This is important as it means you can tailor your approach to them, not just blast them with pre-packaged content. So how is it that I can join these dots? Because someone who thinks at the intellectual level imposes. They think an email blast is important, yet a carefully channelled series of emails to different strata of your list is at least 10x more effective. This is where someone who can focus in on one element of their email list is more effective than one who merely imposes – or for that matter, makes delineations that are merely arbitrary.
So how did this all work out for Vincent van Gogh? As we all know he was dead before the age of 40. His inability to connect his intellect with the nature he saw around him was part of his pain. In living with the peasants of Drenthe, he had discovered people who lived in and with the nature that surrounded them. This is not something that can be done with intellectual thinking – at least with any ease. Vincent’s imposing lines of delineation were more than just an artistic flourish. Vincent sought to define in a way that is arbitrary, imaginary. In being imaginary, imposed, Vincent stepped back from depicting reality.
More importantly, in stepping back, it separated him from the very thing he sought. Imposing lines where none are seen is ground enough for this analysis. The peasants were not intellectuals, they felt and reacted to the things around them whatever they thought about it all. If they gave it any conscious thought at all! Now, I am highly intellectual, yet I have learned connect that to the world around me. Believe me, it has not been easy to do. It is for this reason that I can write about such things with an authority based on understanding, penetrating beneath the veneer of intellectual assumptions.
Vincent’s delineation is at its most extreme in paintings such as his bedroom at Arles. Everything is outlined, even the furniture appears unconnected to the floor. It is this very disconnectedness that pained Vincent so.
The Power Of The Intellect.
The real power of the intellect is in its ability to focus, and this implies that there are things that are unfocussed. Arbitrary lines allow the intellect to work its power in restricted areas. The problem is in doing so you become isolated. The escape is for you to to employ a manner of thinking that is as fluid as it is unfocussed. Only without boundaries, your thinking feels dislocated. That is reason enough for you not to try it again! The very real problem is that without your imaginary boundaries your thinking is dislocated. Untied from these self-imposed boundaries your thinking is now powerless. The solution to this dilemma is not easy. More to the point is that only you can free yourself.
To those who have limited their appreciation of the world through arbitrary boundaries will defend them with vigour. Your escape is the very thing you fight against. This very isolation appears to define who you are in our world. Your mid-life crisis appears when the realities of life itself impose themselves too close for your comfort. Your intellectual psychiatrist will help you to re-erect your boundaries, help you limp back into your box.
Vincent was isolated, felt isolated and had no way to escape. Painters like Monet would provide no solace with their pointillism. For this is intellectual thinking simply used in another way and is equally ineffective. Pontillism is something I will turn to later. Vincent was left unable to connect with the very things he depicted with such energy. The very thing that should have been his salvation became his destruction. Vincent died twenty years before Tom Thomson strode into the backwoods of Canada to commune as only he could.
Since writing this, I have discovered another viewpoint to the work of Vincent van Gogh. This too, is for later.
The Monochrome Intellectual. Links To Other Parts In This Series.
Part 1 <h1>Code Is Poetry.</h1>
Part 2 Vincent Van Gogh: Enclosing Reality On Canvas.
Part 3 Kazimir Malevich: Supremus 1915-16.
Part 4 Decision Making Without A Net. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 5 It’s Cold Out There! Blue as a Phenomenon. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 6 Reverse Engineering The Guru.
Part 7 Leeks For Dinner!