In the Big Apple, to perform a traditional Bharata Natyam Margam, connoisseurs of the art tell me, “For what Paris was to all artists in the 20’s, New York was to dancers in the 30’s. If one could please in this unpredictable town: jackpot!”
Art burgeons beyond borders, beyond boundaries, beyond belief. And some pockets of the world become its permanent sanctums.
At the Museum of Modern Art one evening, as I stood before ‘The Starry Night’, a legend hitherto preserved was revealed to me.
Art is full of colours. And they aren’t always bright ones.
The same is true for artistes. And when darkness dominates, it destroys the best of them.
Vincent Van Gogh. A man, just as vivid as overwrought with gloom, let himself eclipse. And then, as we all know too well, the sun shined on him.
“We cannot speak”, he once wrote, “other than through our paintings”. And this, quite markedly, is what he wanted to say:
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nobody, 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 all absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, this nonentity, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
People disapproved of him. Nevertheless, he tried more and more to be himself. Learning what he needed to learn. Off in search of his own path. Dreaming his paintings and then painting his dream. “For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass at the beginning.” If he was worth anything later, he was worth something now. There was no stopping him. Here was a man, whose story would end well. His star, finally rising. His revolution, won. A strange, wild man roaming the fields of France, all over, really – the woods, the city, the river, to catch some special kind of light – not only the world’s greatest artist but also one of the greatest men to have ever lived.
“But great artists are not peaceful souls…it is the price of their path”, said Amma, wistfully.
“Is it worth it?”, I asked, not sure I was willing to hear the negative.
“He had a breakdown, Kaali. It happens to people.”
She hadn’t answered my question, she knew. Or maybe she had summed it up too soon. Did I even want an answer? Did I have the nerve to hear a “no”? I sure held the curiosity for something more, anything. Far from the museum now, we sat under a starlit New York City sky, away from the high-rises, where you couldn’t otherwise see it. She looked up into that twinkling boundlessness and started, with a voice as heavy as her heart, “You see the stars, don’t you? Vincent did too. There’s a whole other world up there. Something we get to gaze upon but don’t necessarily see. Vincent did too. He stargazed, seeing right into it. He didn’t know anything with certainty, but the sight of the stars always made him dream. And he brought the vista merged with ingenuity and memory down onto his canvas with turbulent energy. The whole sky moved in swirling patterns, in waves of colour. How many blues do you see? Do you see any at all? Vincent saw sundry. Often certain that the night was more alive and richly coloured than the day. And who knows, this intensely turbulent, violent, excited, agitated night sky might’ve simply been an expression of the turmoil within. Or a deeply thoughtful desire to interweave the visual and the metaphorical. Because the sky made him dream. And he revealed the matchless gift of his imagination with intricate, kaleidoscopic, knotty, strokes of colour like no other. His command of colour was most supreme. Vincent transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps, no one ever will again. To the world, Vincent Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all; the most popular; the father of Modern Art; our most beloved. And so yes! The answer to your question is a definitive yes! It is worth it! Because he lived and struggled for the truth; the truth that he had come into this world to be an artist. That’s the contribution he wanted to make. He had purpose. Unbeknownst even to him, he had prodigious talent. He was seeking, he was striving and he was in it with all his heart. A warm heart that his friend, little Marcel saw. She was all of 10 months but like babies can, knew his heart just by the sight of him. A heart together with an art that he hoped would touch people because he felt so deeply, so tenderly. And it did! He lived and struggled for the truth, while so many others live a lie when they abandon their dreams, their most precious assets. Art is not easy. The beginning, perhaps, is most difficult than anything else, but you have to keep heart. In his own words, it will turn out all right.”
Art, Vincent believed, was to console those who are broken by life. It fell short however, in consoling him.
When he first picked up a brush at the age of 28, he did so with the unwavering hand of his brother Theo. And it remained, there for him, holding him, till he took his last breath, tragically, far too soon.
Life broke him. It brought him down.
He wasn’t weak, no. “Live longer, you’ll see…Life can even bring down the strong…” Amma said to me, brooding and grieving for a man, celebrated posthumously and punished when alive. For his earnestness. For his faith. And her heart bled. It bled buckets for the anguishing journey of a fellow, struggling artist; a journey she knew too well.
Nobody gave him a chance. Babies did, because they were less fickle than grown-ups. Kids would torment him, hurl stones at him while he worked silently in the fields and chase him out of wherever he had settled with palette and easel. His neighbours were mean. The police were gruff. The mayor was callous. And the whole town! Cruel. Brutal towards a humbled man.
The hostility, the inconsideration, the undermining, to be left without a dime, discredited and dependent, despite the dedication – it drove him to suicide.
Don McLean fittingly sang,
“And when no hope was left in sight,
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you.”
In only 8 years, Vincent had travelled from an amateur to an artist of influence. It was unbelievable. And he worked bloody hard: Reading fat books for inspiration. Always painting, day in, day out. No matter what the weather. The only time he felt alive was when he was painting. “Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheque, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”
A shining star he was, yes! But the stars – they don’t shine without darkness. And they sure can’t see their own glow. The days seemed like weeks to him. Melancholy enveloped him like a terminal illness. He could never break away from its toxic shackles. And he oscillated from feeling life as a wondrous joy one moment to being stuck in a pit of despair in the next.
Vincent saw peace in the storm. He saw that “the heart of a man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too.” Even so, he was the same man who thought, “La tristesse durera toujours”.
Observers were often too gobsmacked to ask, ‘how lonely is this man?!’ when he displayed wonder at a thieving crow, perched on the quay, pecking at his lunch laid out by the river. It was incomprehensible how it brightened up his day. He liked flowers. He’d appreciate the delicate beauty of their bloom. Even each blade of grass he saw was distinct. No detail of life was too small or too humble for him. He appreciated and loved it all. Needless to add, the genius painted scenes from the world around him, in sweeping, unrestrained, complete brushstrokes, mixing colours on canvas directly, unlike the others who did so on their palettes, creating a fresh thickness with his Oil paints on the piece. Every brush stroke mattered. For there could be three micro-blows of colour on each one. And the result: as unfailingly original as it was breath taking.
He was just obsessed. Obsessed with being an artist. With every restless feeling painted in intense colour, he made his work the touchstone of all subsequent Expressionist painting. But he was still far, far from being what he wanted to be.
“It just feels so wrong! All that life snuffed out, in one moment of folly! He knew what he was fighting for! If he had just kept with the fight…for a little longer…if only he knew how many artists were sweating blood to get to his level of brilliance…for a rising star to smother his own light!…” I groaned, riled.
Amma let me mumble in frustration. When she thought I was done, she soothingly said, “For Vincent, death was not an ominous thing. He wanted those spots of light in the firmament to be accessible to him. He wanted to take death to go to a star. To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot. He wanted to take the train like he did to any other black dots on the map of France.”
“Amma!” I was so disquieted, “you’re telling me the white lie; making it all sound like a fairy tale; romanticizing his death! Convincing me like he did himself. Tell me why he gave up? Tell me why he decided to pack up, load that train and leave?”
Maybe Amma was seething on the inside, but she remained composed, “He made a sacrifice. For the sake of one half of his heart: his brother, Theo. The man who believed in Vincent when he had reached every dead end with multiple career attempts. The man who believed Vincent would fight for himself. The man who swore to fight alongside him, as he tried to prove he was good for something.”
“Good for something?!”, I yelled out maddened, “He was a genius! Doing right what he should have been, in the manner that he was!”
“You aren’t wrong Kaali. And neither was he. His circumstances were. The unhappiness went right back to childhood. Every star he painted, every gem of nature, was surrounded by an unfathomable, empty loneliness that he contented with as a little boy until the very end. He tried so hard to fit into his family. But he never succeeded in this. Vincent said he was the oldest but not the first. There was another Vincent. A still born, older brother. He thought that boy was the perfect Vincent. That he could never measure up to him in his mother’s eyes. His friends weren’t quite like friends. They were often mean. And of the others around him, you already know of their nastiness out of utter disregard for this gentleman.”
“And so, he shot himself in despair at his lonely life?” I was reaching breaking point.
“There’s more to it than just that, Kaali. In the 8 years between starting to paint and his death, Vincent painted over 800 paintings, only one of which was sold in his lifetime. He lived in dire straits, relying on his brother Theo, for every last penny. Underneath, he was deeply afraid of the future. Of his own. Of his brother. He knew that Theo had spent a small fortune on him. And the knowledge of this tore into Vincent. Theo could’ve had a couple of riches of his own with all the money he’d spent on Vincent over the years. But instead, what did he have for his new wife and baby? Rooms full of paintings that no one wanted to buy. Vincent’s biggest fear was that the burden of him would bring down his brother.”
“But his star was rising, Amma…”, Teary-eyed now, although I was beginning to sympathize with the titan artist.
“It was Kaali. And in a lot of his new works, he painted a shining star, just like the one we saw. Venus was supposed to share her flame and her flight, to help him soar and peak and beam and dazzle. And sure enough, it happened. In a life after death. Vincent wanted to die Kaali. He took his life to try and save Theo. He was informed by his friend and doctor and admirer, Dr. Gachet that Theo was in the tertiary stage of syphilis. Any stress – financial, emotional or physical could kill him. What do you think the burden of worrying about Vincent was doing to his brother? It was quite likely killing him. One feeling, not more nor less, lay on his conscience and so he wrote of it to Theo, ‘I wish I were far away from everything. I am the cause of all, and bring only sorrow to everybody, I alone have brought all this misery on myself and others.’ He felt everything, poor Vincent. He felt too much. It made him want the impossible.”
“And that, was the price of his truth? The price of his path as an artist? Was it worth it?” I quailed, abstracted and so, so rueful.
“Vincent once saw a reaper. In it, he saw the image of death. But in this death, nothing was sad, it took place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. Vincent shot himself in such broad daylight, doing what he loved most – painting to the end. He held on until Theo arrived, who just kept asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Vincent only said, ‘maybe it is better for everyone’, insisting, thereafter, they discuss life, not death. Though he was shot in the sunshine, he succumbed to the wound in his belly on a starry, starry night.”, she was done, just as sombre as when she first began.
“And his Art remains in-Vinc-ible to this day, Amma! His worth: immeasurable. Perhaps, a force the world could only contain for as long and little as he lived…” I trailed off.
(Amit Kaikini made a brilliant ode to our beloved Vincent with his Art. We can’t thank him enough for being such a kind WizArt.)
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