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Sunday, July 17, 2016

An Interview with Vincent


On that day, taking the slow train, I followed Vincent’s path from Paris to Arles in Southern France, searching for the light, colours and warmth of the Provence.

The journey is a feast for the eyes, seeing picturesque villages, and cities and towns, colourful landscapes. Vincent loves this place, the landscape, the light, and the people.

The first step for him was finding a house and setting up a studio here. He found that in a small yellow house on No. 2 Place Lamartine for 15 francs per month.

I found the yellow house with the green shutters, which Vincent shared with Paul to produce their paintings.

When I met Vincent, he looked fresh and glowing, it seemed the nourishing light under the sun of Arles had done well to him.




Interviewer:

We notice that your paintings nowadays are bright, colourful, and cheerful, quite a departure from the dark gloomy paintings you produced a few years ago.


Vincent:

Yes indeed the fresh air here in Arles has influenced the way I look at life, at people, the nature, the bright sun, the beautiful landscapes, the curling wheat fields, the shuddering sunflowers, the wavy blue sky, they are all captured in my paintings. See my yellow house, my bedroom blue and green, the sky blue, the sunflowers golden yellows, the red apples, those are fascinating me.

Thanks to Theo, my younger brother, who suggested me to move here to Arles to do my paintings. He gave me a good suggestion.


Interviewer:

So you have left behind the dark gloomy period of Borinage?


Vincent:

Although I have left Borinage, the place is special to me. The paintings I did there are dark and gloomy, but those are the reflection of the real life of the coal miners. The dark colours reflect the coal mines, reflect the poor people, the suffering, the hunger the struggle of the coal miners in their daily life. They walk in the darkness, in the centre of the earth, in the black coal mines.

These mines are an imposing sight, 300 metres underground, into which daily descend groups of working men, worthy of our respect and our sympathies. The miner is a special Borinage type, for him daylight does not exist, and except on Sunday he never sees the sunshine.

He works laboriously by a lamp whose light is pale and dim, in a narrow tunnel, his body bent double and sometimes he is obliged to crawl along; he works to extract from the bowels of the earth that mineral substance of which we know the great utility; he works in the midst of thousands of ever-recurring dangers.

One day, the miners returning home in the evening towards dusk in the white snow were a singular sight. These people are quite black when they emerge into the daylight from the dark mines, looking just like chimney sweeps.

Their dwellings are usually small and should really be called huts; they lie scattered along the sunken roads, in the woods and on the slopes of the hills. Here and there one can still see moss-covered roofs, and in the evening a friendly light shines through the small-paned windows.


Interviewer:

I see, one of the most striking paintings you made is the “Potato Eaters”. The peasants eating in a dark and gloomy room, their face and hands dark and rough expressing their hard life.


Vincent:

It is a painting that will do well in gold - of that I am certain. But it would do just as well on a wall papered in a deep shade of ripe corn. I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and - a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people.So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.

I've held the threads of the fabric in my hands all winter long and searched for the definitive pattern - and although it is now a fabric of rough and coarse appearance, the threads have none the less been chosen with care and according to certain rules. And it might just turn out to be a genuine peasant painting. I know that it is. But anyone who prefers to have his peasants looking namby-pamby had best suit himself.

Personally, I am convinced that in the long run one gets better results from painting them in all their coarseness than from introducing a conventional sweetness. A peasant girl, in her patched and dusty blue skirt and bodice which have acquired the most delicate shades from the weather, wind and sun, is better looking - in my opinion - than a lady. But if she dons a lady's clothes, then her authenticity is gone. A peasant in his fustian clothes out in the fields is better looking than when he goes to church on Sunday in a kind of gentleman's coat.

And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.


Interviewer:

A Pair of Shoes is another painting that is very impressive that fascinated Heidegger, a famous philosopher. Even without hearing his interpretation, the painting really tells a lot of stories about the worn out shoes, neglected, damp, cold and lonely.


Vincent:

It is good to love as many things as one can. … I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum. …

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it. I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream." To be spiritual is to have an abiding respect for the great mysteries of life and to see the fingerprints of the Divine in the most ordinary objects and things.


Interviewer:

Let’s talk about your portrait paintings. In there most of the persons are portrayed without smiling. Your doctor portrait looks like he is in despair, your self-portraits never smile as well.


Vincent (still not smiling):

Throughout art history, there are seldom self-portraits with smile, and I am not about to change the tradition. Dr. Gatchet looks like that as I think he is sicker than I am, but I have found true friend in him, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally.


Interviewer:

However you’re the portrait of your mother shows her smiling proudly.

Vincent:

I did the portrait of Mother for myself, from a black and white photograph. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory. She introduced me to art, herself an amateur artist. I shared some of my works I thought my mother would appreciate most, of flowers and natural settings.


Interviewer:

You painted several “Sunflower”, which people strongly identified with you. Your brother and Paul like it. The flowers look rustic but cheerful, the bright yellow seems to emanate happiness.


Vincent:

It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it. Most of my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude.


Interviewer:

How is your relationship with Sien?


Vincent:

I met her in winter, she was pregnant, deserted by the man whose child she was carrying. A pregnant woman who walked the streets in the winter--she had her bread to earn, you'll know how. I took that woman on as a model and have worked with her all winter. I couldn't pay her a model's full daily wages, but I paid her rent all the same, and thus far, thank God, I have been able to save her and her child from hunger and cold by sharing my own bread with her.


Interviewer:

Perhaps, do you see her as Mary Magdalene?


Vincent:

I am genuinely attached to her and she to me - that she is my loyal helpmate, who goes everywhere with me - and who is becoming more indispensable to me by the day. She and I are two unhappy people who keep each other company and share a burden, and that is precisely why unhappiness is making way for happiness, and the unbearable is becoming bearable.

I was then just in the mood to be able to give her some practical support, which at the same time helped me stand fast. But gradually and slowly it became different between us - a real need of each other, so that she and I could not be separated - our lives became more and more united, and then it was love.


Interviewer:

In “Sorrow”, it seems your paint her in the natural appearance without any make-up.


Vincent:

She is slightly pock-marked, so she is no longer beautiful, but the lines of her figure are simple and not ungraceful. And she is useful to me just because she is no longer handsome, no longer young, no longer coquettish, no longer foolish. The feeling between Sien and me is real; it is no dream, it is reality. I think it is a great blessing that my thoughts and energy have found a fixed goal and a definite direction.


Interviewer:

How was the delivery of her baby?


Vincent:

Sien has had a very difficult delivery, but thank God has come out of it alive and with a particularly nice little boy as well. Her mother and little girl and I went there together - you can imagine how very anxious we were, not knowing what we should hear when we asked the orderlies in the hospital about her. And how tremendously glad we were when we heard: “Confined last night…but you mustn't talk to her for long...” I shall not easily forget that “you mustn't talk to her for long”; for it meant “you can still talk to her,” when it could easily have been, “you will never talk to her again.”

I was so happy to see her there, lying close to a window overlooking a garden full of sunshine and greenery, in a sort of drowsy state of exhaustion between sleeping and waking, and then she looked up and saw us all. She looked up and was so happy to see us exactly 12 hours after it had happened.


Interviewer:

So other than her, do you have many other girlfriends?


Vincent:

I tell you, I am not good from a clergyman's point of view. I know full well that, frankly speaking, prostitutes are bad, but I feel something human in them which prevents me from feeling the slightest scruple about associating with them; I see nothing very wrong in them. I haven't the slightest regret about any past or present association with them. If our society were pure and well regulated, yes, then they would be seducers; but now, in my opinion, one may often consider them more as sisters of charity.


Interviewer:

Then there is this girlfriend, whom you gave your cut-off ear, what on earth were you doing?


Vincent:

I think I was out of mind after my fight with Paul, I cannot remember really.

I took a razor and cut off a portion of my left ear. The police would find blood all over the house, with blood soaked rags in the studio and bloody handprints along the wall leading upstairs. They told that I took the ear and wrapped it in newspaper. With a hat pulled down over my wound, I, with ear in hand, left the house to go to a “maison de tolerance”, a brothel close to the house.

There I asked for a girl whom I gave the ear to. I don’t remember what I said, but she said I was saying “Guard this object carefully.”

After I recovered, I went back to see her. I was told there that things like that aren’t at all surprising around here. She had suffered from it and had fainted but had regained her composure. And what’s more, people say good things of her.


Interviewer:

Are you not worried that your paintings are not selling well?


Vincent:

You see the trouble is that the possibility of working depends on selling the work, for there are expenses - the more one works, the greater the expenses are (though the latter is not true in every respect). When one does not sell and has no other income, it is impossible to make the progress which would otherwise follow of its own accord.

I am thankful to Theo, my brother, who supports my life and my work. I owe a great debt to him, however, and if I continued in exactly the same way, it would grow worse and worse.

The respectable natives of this region asked me at least three times in one week by absolute strangers, “Why is it that you never sell your work?”

Maybe my paintings won’t sell in my lifetime, perhaps if they understand me then they can appreciate it more.


Interviewer:

Thank you so much Vincent for the interview, wish you all the best with your work and your health.


Vincent (with a handshake):

Adieu.


This is an imaginary interview in memory of Vincent Van Gogh.