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Reviewed by:
  • My Own Portrait in Writing: Self-Fashioning in the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Patrick Grant
  • Cliff Edwards
Patrick Grant. My Own Portrait in Writing: Self-Fashioning in the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Athabasca University Press. xiv, 186. $27.05

Patrick Grant, professor emeritus of English at the University of Victoria, is known for his studies on literature and religion. This volume is one of two in which he now focuses his attention on a gap in Van Gogh studies by providing a first extended work on the letters of Vincent van Gogh as literature. While a first volume provided a practical look at the imaginative and conceptual coherence of the artist's letters, the current volume reviewed here proceeds to a literary-theoretical view using the insights of Mikhail Bakhtin, Wolfgang Iser, and other theoreticians to help uncover the "double-voiced discourse" of Van Gogh's "complementary contraries" as ways of understanding the artist's "self-fashioning" or effort toward finding his place in the world. Grant finds the narrative (temporal) concerns of Van Gogh the draftsman yielding more and more to spatial concerns in his work as colourist, his moral focus on the poor and marginalized moving toward aesthetic concerns regarding the relationship of colour to colour in nature and on the pallet. Complex dialogical exchanges between words and paintings, time and space, insecurity and stability, take us to the deep structure of the texts and the direction taken by the artist's lines and colours. Through all of this, Grant locates a core dialogue between the time-line or narrative of the "I" and the spatial viewing of the "other" that is the very nature of self-fashioning. Van Gogh's own favouring of binary constructions, paradoxes, and contradictions seeking some unified ideal renders the dialogic exchange ever more complex and open to continuing transformations, both internally and between the artist's work and the interpretations of reader-viewers.

Having spent several decades seeking to understand the complexities of Van Gogh's life-journey and the role played by his letters, drawings, and paintings, I heartily commend Grant's theoretical volume as providing a deep and creative inquiry suggesting meaningful structures for understanding the richness of the artist's life and work. Grant succeeds in bringing Van Gogh's letters into the domain of modern literary studies, and demonstrates that the effort opens exciting new ways of understanding the radical tensions, puzzling transformations, and internal frustrations expressed by the artist in writing, drawing, and painting. These literary dimensions of the Van Gogh letters carry them well beyond sources of information about events in the artist's life and push them toward the deeper structures of his self-fashioning, his finding his place in the world in dialogue with the Other. This dialogic focus should stimulate the imagination of future interpreters and should encourage multiple interpretations of the sources which will provide further dialogue and leave the quest for meaning open and inviting. [End Page 276]

The dialogic mode encouraged by Grant includes dialogue within the letters, between letters and drawings/paintings, and between those sources and their many readers and viewers over time. I would suggest that an interesting detail in the continuing quest hinges on our understanding of the recipient of most of Vincent van Gogh's letters, also the key viewer and critic of his paintings, Vincent's brother Theo. The dialogue between the two brothers is especially difficult as most of Theo's responses to Vincent have been lost. Might it be that certain elements of Theo's personality and place in the world as a Parisian gallery director led his brother Vincent to sort out and avoid certain subjects that might be embarrassing to Vincent or unacceptable to Theo? But perhaps more cogent than the question regarding Theo is the role of "erasure" in Van Gogh's work. "Erasure" as a theoretical issue can be traced back to both Heidegger and Derrida. Van Gogh's letters make clear that the only two traditional images of Jesus he created he also "scraped off" and never attempted again: scenes of Jesus in Gethsemane with an angel. Had he allowed those two...


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