Criticism and Analysis
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of books which focus on the life and works of Vincent van Gogh, but only a small percentage of those go into any critical or analytical detail. The books listed below provide extremely valuable insights into the rich complexities of Van Gogh's works.
- Throughout this site (particularly in the On-line Forum section) people discuss the book Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh by Albert J. Lubin (Da Capo, 1996). Lubin's book explores Van Gogh's life and art from a psychological perspective and overall it presents a fascinating exploration of a question so central to the story of Vincent van Gogh: what exactly was wrong with Van Gogh? This book is an intelligent and well written study of the various issues surrounding Van Gogh's ongoing mental lapses. Lubin draws heavily on Vincent's famous letters which is wise--where better to find material to analyze than from the source? One chapter in particular, "Vincent's Ear", I found to be particularly insightful. Lubin doesn't presume to explain exactly why Van Gogh mutilated his own ear--instead he presents a very interesting series of possibilities (biblical references, ear severing at bull fights, Jack the Ripper's atrocities, etc.) that may have formed the motivation of this act. My only criticism is that Albert Lubin, like others who base their interpretations on a psychoanalytical perspective, occasionally forms an opinion and then presents it later as established fact. I can think of three examples:
- Lubin maintains that much of Van Gogh's psychological troubles are rooted in his knowledge of the fact of "the first Vincent"--the stillborn brother, also named Vincent, born exactly a year before Vincent the painter. The premise is interesting and has a great deal of merit, but much of it is pure speculation (in all of his several hundred letters Vincent never once mentions the first Vincent).
- Despite absolutely no evidence Lubin somehow believes that Vincent saw his parents having sex and that this had a profound effect upon him. Again, pure (and completely unsubstantiated) speculation.
- Lubin suggests the possibility that Van Gogh had a homosexual attraction to Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh himself wrote that his arguments with Gauguin were "electric", but does Lubin really have any real evidence that Van Gogh might have been gay? Not at all.
Still, these criticisms are extremely minor and, in the end, Lubin's book remains the most interesting I've read on the subject of Vincent van Gogh's psychological state.
- At Eternity's Gate: A Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh by Kathleen Powers Erickson (Eerdman's, 1998): This book explores Van Gogh's life and art from a religious perspective and is extremely well researched. Erickson provides an in depth background of Dutch religious life and how important it was for the Van Gogh family. One of the best features of the book is a chapter called "Crisis" in which Erickson explores the various hypotheses surrounding Van Gogh's illness (Erickson argues strongly for the diagnosis of epilepsy). In addition, Erickson has a keen insight with regards to quoting from Vincent's letters.
My only complaint about this well written book would be Erickson's sometimes self-congratulatory tone in being the first (she argues) to present interpretations other critics have never considered. Too often Erickson derides the critics who have preceded her for missing the "correct" interpretation of a work (I would argue that there is no such thing) and for undermining their research with glaring mistakes--something Erickson herself is guilty of: "On May 20, 1889, van Gogh left for Auvers." (p. 138). Right day, but a year too early.
- The Glory of Van Gogh by Nathalie Heinich (Princeton University Press, 1997): This scholarly book explores Van Gogh's role as an evolving cultural phenomenon and examines this topic from a variety of perspectives: sociological, psychological and economic. I have to admit that I found this book fairly rough going. I like to credit myself with being a reasonably intelligent person, but I wasn't prepared for some of the "challenges" that Heinich's book presents the reader. Take this following excerpt, for example. In it, Heinich discusses the work of another writer:
"[He] assails the hagiographical5 reduction of hermeneutics to mere
biography,6 a move betrayed by desexualization7 and historical
decontextualization.8 He criticizes the minimization of the aesthetic
dimension9 brought about by a hierarchical inversion that incites readers to
rank the man above his work.10 He excoriates the trend toward exegetical and
allegorizing hermeneutics11 . . . . . . . ."
Between running to the dictionary every ten seconds and flipping back and forth to the (often equally incomprehensible) footnotes four hundred times, I found that I'd often lose track of what the point was. But maybe it's just me . . . . .
- Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art by Carol Zemel (University of California Press, 1997): I haven't had time to read this book yet, although it's high on my list. In the meantime, Kristen Lynne Harbeson submits a very thorough and insightful guest review.
- The Copy Turns Original: Vincent van Gogh and a New Approach to Traditional Art Practice by Cornelia Homburg (Benjamins, 1996): Throughout his career Vincent van Gogh copied other artists he held in high regard: Delacroix, Rembrandt and Millet to name only three. This book focuses on the nature of the copy in nineteenth century art--specifically Van Gogh's copies. It's a very interesting topic and one not often explored, but Homburg's book is disappointing in many respects. This small book (only 128 pages) doesn't even begin to explore Van Gogh's copies until page 37. I appreciate a thorough exploration of the use of copying in the art world, but Homburg spends far too much time on background and too little on Van Gogh's own copies (Van Gogh's Half Figure of an Angel [after Rembrandt] only warrants four paragraphs of discussion). Furthermore this book has an ongoing pretentiousness about it in that Homburg continually cites long passages in French without providing a translation. The author's tone seems to be "Well, if you're not fluent in French, then that's too bad." In addition, the book is extremely expensive and, while it does provide some interesting insights, I can't recommend it.
- Van Gogh: The History and Techniques of the Great Masters by William Hardy (Quantum, 1997): If you're looking for a basic, straightforward overview of Van Gogh's artistic techniques, then this is a fairly good book. Ten works, spanning Van Gogh's ten year career, are examined and discussed in terms of their composition and overall artistic execution. Not a scholarly book by any means (and there's nothing wrong with that), but a good overview with some excellent extreme close ups of the brushstrokes.
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