- The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh: A Critical Study by Patrick Grant
In addition to his memorable paintings, Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of remarkable letters that have been published, translated, annotated, and republished time and again. In 2009 they were the subjects of a deluxe, six-volume treatment edited by a team from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, which proved to be so successful that an abridged version was created in 2014. Art historians, of course, know the artist’s correspondence very well. Because of it, I wasn’t certain that I needed yet another study until I discovered the refreshing approach offered by Patrick Grant, a professor emeritus of English literature from the University of Victoria. While art history scholars have noted in passing the distinctly literary [End Page 360] character of Van Gogh’s writings, they have rarely used them as anything but source material for the analysis of his theories about art and, of course, his paintings. The letters have not been subjects of scholarly inquiry in and of themselves. Grant offers in this book a thorough analytical appraisal of the body of letters as a unified, literary achievement. He argues, “[T]his remarkable correspondence exercises upon us the same kind of challenging and revelatory power as does a great work of literature.”
Typically, a Van Gogh letter is used to reveal some aspect of the artist’s thinking when producing a now-celebrated work. One such explains the expressive stylizations of his famed Night Café (1888) as his attempt to use complementary colours not for purely visual purposes but for establishing emotional associations: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of reds and greens … [to evoke] some emotion of a fiery temperament.” Grant, in contrast, sees the letter as a meditation on imperfection and ugliness, a Dostoevskian bid “to counter the harsh realities of abjection and suffering … and to rescue beauty from ugliness, joy from sorrow, life from all that oppresses it.” The painting fades into the background, and the letter ceases to be merely a determinant of our interpretation of it.
Throughout the book, Grant determines that the letters are engrossing for their own inventiveness and animation, especially as they comment on broader themes than those depicted. He breaks his study into three main sections, the first of which explores how the correspondence constructs a kind of imaginary dialogue not about the artist himself but about his contrastive (and sometimes contrarian) views on art, morality, and religion. The second section explores three controlling metaphors—birds’ nests, the mistral, and cab horses—that respectively express the themes of exile, the uncertainties of creativity, and the extremes of hope and despair. A third section moves to themes of spontaneity and patience, as well as to the artist’s strident assertions of his independence even when he was most painfully needful of others (particularly his brother Theo). Here Grant describes the letters as literary, rhetorical strategies. When the artist mentions other artworks, like those of the romantic Eugène Delacroix or the Japanese printmakers he was only recently beginning to discover, Grant discerns a taste for “an austere, disciplined communal life” that has to do with the artist’s wanting to describe an idiosyncratic spirituality that does not arise from religious convention.
While each section of the book has its own conclusion, Grant provides a final chapter that wraps up the argument as a whole. He reclaims Erich Auerbach’s use of the term figural—a “thing or person … felt to be the bearer of some further, mysteriously resonant but unconceptualized significance.” With it, he portrays Van Gogh as a post-romantic transcendentalist whose letters are rhetorically versatile, imaginatively expressive, and emotionally cathartic in the ways afforded by great literature. [End Page 361]
In each case, I found Grant’s arguments to be thorough, persuasive, and clearly presented. I will say, however, that Grant’s strong emphasis on the salutary, if not transformative, effects of great literature occasionally implies that paintings don’t (or perhaps can’t) have such effects...