Loving Vincent

staff note

Loving Vincent van Gogh isn’t an uncommon thing.

In fact, van Gogh’s works have left a clear mark on pop culture. Just take a tour in the libraries, and you’ll see students using "Starry Night" laptop skins, "Starry Night" keyboard protectors, "Starry Night" phone cases or "Starry Night" water bottles. At the poster sale every year, van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” “Café Terrace at Night” and “Almond Blossoms” are among the top sellers (and you can be sure that I bought all of these). By now, van Gogh is a household name, and it would likely be difficult to find someone that doesn’t at least recognize his work.

I don’t recall the first time I encountered his paintings, but he has been the single major source of great inspiration and deep fear for me to pursue the creative arts. I remember seeing the Arles “Sunflowers” for the first time — the popping density of the seeds made me believe for a brief moment that the painting was embroidered, and the wildness of the flowers refused to follow the direction of a single sun. Even without knowing the full story of von Gogh's troubling psyche and self-doubts at the time, I see the sunflowers as a faint, yet hopeful beam of light coming from an echoless abyss of indescribable darkness and loneliness. I remember the 9-year-old me, sitting in front of the computer screen, thinking, “Wow, one day I want to make something like that too.”

Then I immediately decided against it when I dug deeper into his bio and found out that he suffered from manic depression and cut off his own ear. The 9-year-old me found that fact horrific and I was a little disturbed when I went to sleep that night. Mom came in to check up on me and asked what was wrong. I said, “Nothing, I’m just a little scared by Vincent van Gogh.”

Despite this incident, I started pausing before anything van Gogh – notebooks, postcards, stickers, etc. I had hidden this obsession pretty well until on one of my family’s tours around the neighboring garage sales, I couldn’t help but pick up a print reproduction of “Starry Night.”

I saw the real “Starry Night” at MoMA for the first time during last Thanksgiving break. I searched the entire floor and asked four security guards before finding it. Dwarfed in size by many other paintings in the room, it silently stood on the wall, its darkness beaming in front of a packed crowd. I struggled to the center, my eyes greedily taking in every brushstroke, every line, every curve of the wrist. I could almost see him sitting at the window in his small room in the asylum, his mind confounded and his eyes insane with passion.

People came and went. Where were they going? Carrying the conversation to a nearby café, savouring von Gogh's tragedy while sipping tea? Returning to their glass-windowed office buildings, looking down at the people who are looking up at them longingly?

I have a taste for tragedy too. I love Vincent for his sadness, but I also resent him for it. I want to believe that he had the talent to sell his art and become a marketable artist but just didn’t bother to. I want to believe that he was a free spirit and did not care about the opinions of others. I want to believe that he was self-assured in the value of his art and did not seek other people’s acceptance or approval.

But the truth is that he only started painting because he had failed at all his previous jobs. He only managed to sell one painting in his life no matter how hard he tried. He was desperate for others’ approvals and cut off his left ear when his admired partner and friend left him. The truth is that just like Vincent, I am also deeply afraid of failure and worry about the paycheck and status.

Did he ever want to give up? What kept him going? Did he know that his art is great even though few told him so? What would he think of his posthumous fame?

I’ll never know the answers to these questions. But I do know that Vincent is one of the bravest and strongest men I’ve ever learned of. I do know that nobody can paint like Vincent — with the eyes of a child seeing the world for the first time. Nobody can live like him, with the innocence of a child living the truth of his dream. As he famously said:

“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

Eva Hong is a Trinity sophomore and Recess features editor.


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