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Kristen Lynne Harbeson reviews Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art by Carol Zemel.

A review of Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia, Modernity and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art by Carol Zemel

reviewed by:
Kristen Lynne Harbeson
November 16, 1999

"Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity and Late Nineteenth-Century Art" contrasts modernity and utopia through their representations in nineteenth century artwork. As the title suggests, Zemel chiefly follows the career of Vincent Van Gogh -- from his years in the Hague to his last years of mental illness in rural France. Zemel aims to show how Van Gogh's paintings express both his utopian visions of the future and his views on late nineteenth century modernity. Using these contrasting ideas, Zemel explores how Van Gogh's paintings demonstrate class distinctions, gender roles, and critiques of progress. Although she does not always adequately support her argument, Zemel's book provides an interesting examination of Van Gogh's utopian vision and raises fascinating questions on the role of the artist in nineteenth-century bourgeois society.

Historiographically, this book fits squarely into the domain of art history. As such, the author's argument relies upon the visual cues and symbols within that theoretical framework. Zemel takes great pain to show that, although he suffered from severe mental illness towards the end of his life, Van Gogh's paintings were not merely reflections of inner turmoil. The wild brush work and vibrant colors in the artist's last years reflect his attempt to paint in a specific decorative style. In this argument, Zemel is combating not only art historians, but popular mythology surrounding the famous one-eared painter. The mission to save Van Gogh from his own reputation lurks underneath Zemel's principle concern with Van Gogh's visions of utopia and modernity. Zemel uses Michel Foucault and Louis Marin to frame her discussion of utopian ideas. Marin discusses the creative and a-historical aspects of utopian discourse. Foucault's "heterotopias" represent places, such as cemeteries, which are both mythic and real. Zemel's modernity is defined only in opposition to her discussion of utopia. In her introduction, she builds mainly upon the works of Tsukasa Kodera and Griselda Pollack, who also wrote about Van Gogh. At relevant points in the book, she obliquely uses authors such as E.P. Thompson and Eugen Weber to provide historical context for her discussion. With these exceptions, Zemel uses primary sources only. In addition to several paintings and drawings, Van Gogh's vision appears through his letters to family members. Many of the plates reproduced in these pages show paintings which influenced Van Gogh, from the artist's private collection.

Zemel follows Van Gogh's progress not so much chronologically as thematically, although her themes follow a loose chronology. In his years at the Hague, Van Gogh's paintings frequently depict Sien, a prostitute, and her family. These paintings depict the rough edges and poverty of working class women and family life. As Zemel says, these drawings, "represent an effort to fit the data of daily experience into utopian social and pictorial categories -- and it is often an uneasy fit."1 Several of the images in this chapter portray Sien as a pregnant woman, both honest and repentant. One of Van Gogh's earliest drawings of Sien, entitled "Sorrow," depicts a naked pregnant woman in an almost fetal position with her head hidden in her arms. The unromanticized rendering of the figure, and the symbolic addition of a lily-of-the-valley at her feet, evokes the woman's repentance and the artist's utopian vision of rehabilitation for the "fallen woman." Zemel shows how the relationship between artist and model can be viewed through the paintings of Sien and her family. Always there is a somewhat distrusting intimacy to the images which can be read as class tension between working class models and an artist from the bourgeoisie. Although Van Gogh lived in working-class quarters, the stipend provided by his brother placed him in a less extreme poverty than his companions. Sien and her family relied on Van Gogh financially, but distrusted the relationship. This ambivalence appears in the expression of the figures in Van Gogh's paintings. Zemel's discussion of representations of domesticity is far less interesting than this tension, w hich appears in other chapters as well. As in much of the rest of the book, Zemel brushes over an analysis of modernity and utopia. Presumably the author falsely assumes that her reader will implicitly understand her point.

Having left Paris to live with his father in the country, Van Gogh turned his paintbrush to the weavers of Nuenan, who represented, to him, a utopian vision of artisans. This region of the Netherlands held out against mechanization until well into the twentieth century. Once again, Van Gogh represents the working classes which he sees both in a utopian light, and as cogs in the machinery of modern industry. In his paintings of the Nuenan weavers, Van Gogh shows the human weavers overwhelmed and dominated by their machinery. Instead of presenting a romanticized country utopia, he captures the roughness of daily life. The harsh lines in the detailing of the machinery evoke the endless rhythmic movement of the looms. Van Gogh's weavers stand in the shadows of their machines. As in his Sien pictures, the working classes appear in rude poverty and labor. These images contrast sharply with other painters, who used softer lines and colors to romanticize the rustic peasant. Zemel makes a strong argument that the paintings of the Nuenan Weavers show Van Gogh's conflicted world view. On the one hand, the artist's utopian attraction to the world of the working classes shows in his sympathetic (if not romantic) representation of the weavers. On the other hand, the machinery, which represents modernity, completely envelops the worker, taking on a vicious and carnivorous life.

Zemel represents Van Gogh's years in Paris through an analysis of the artist's portraits and self-portraits. Taken individually, Van Gogh's portraits represent gendered icons. Together, they become a catalog of social types: the soldier represents masculinity and sexual prowess, the bureaucrat evokes the patriarchal state. Femininity takes the form of the sexually exotic Italian immigrant and the fertile mother. Once again, the most sympathetic representations are of the peasant -- both male and female. The painting of the L'Arlesienne encapsulates the anxieties of modern gender roles in its representation of worldly and mature sexualized femininity within the national identity, but outside of the domestic sphere. Here, a woman in regional dress stares dreamily off into the left side of the painting with an open book on the table in front of her. Neither a domesticated mother nor a demurely sexual young woman, L'Arlesienne, in her traditional dress sits with books that symbolize an intellectual, typically male, sphere. This painting, according to Zemel, reflects Van Gogh's view of the conflict between tradition and progress, utopia and modernity. With the exception of L'Arlesienne, Zemel's gendered interpretations of the portraits swallow the argument of contrasting visions of utopia and modernity, leaving the relevance of much of the chapter in doubt.

In chapter four, Zemel talks about Van Gogh's series of self-portraits. Through these paintings, we can follow Van Gogh's self-creation as an artist. For a non-art historian of representations of self and society, this chapter proved the most intriguing and the most frustrating. Zemel focuses on the actual self-representations without further exploring the provocative psycho-theoretical aspect of artistic self-representation: when an artist paints a self-portrait, he becomes both the self and the other. In Self Portrait in Front of the Easel, Van Gogh paints himself wearing a peasant smock with gold highlights of bourgeois materialism -- once again showing the class tension between the artist's attraction to the working classes and his bourgeois background. Zemel calls attention to the almost spectral quality of Van Gogh's face, half covered in shadow, with black eyes staring at the painting on an easel which faces away from the viewer. Zemel agrees with other art-historians who say that this self-portrait invokes ideas of both death and immortality, but she decisively separates herself from critics who see this as an early manifestation of Van Gogh's suicidal tendencies. Rather, she says, this painting reflects Van Gogh's utopian vision of artistic immortality. Using letters to reinforce her point, Zemel explores Van Gogh's preoccupation with physiognomics. One pencil drawing shows three attempts at examining his own physiognomy, each view of his head highlighting different features. This second theme, while providing an interesting psychological sketch of the artist, adds little to Zemel's larger argument of modernity and utopia.

Chapter 5 explores the relationship between Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, who acted as Vincent's primary art-dealer in Paris. Unlike the previous four chapters, chapter 5 deals less with Van Gogh's art than with the selling of art in general. The relationship between the two brothers illustrates the tension between artist and art-dealer, and Van Gogh's utopian rhetoric. Art dealers free the artist from the worldly concerns of publicizing and selling their work. In return, the artist sacrifices both a share of the profits and a degree of artistic autonomy. To function in society, even artists needed to have representation in the capitalist market place. Through their choice in what artists and paintings to represent in their galleries, art dealers who peddled the artists' wares could partially determine what style or subject the artists chose. Vincent and Theo's relationship illustrates the tension which accompany this uneasy symbiosis. Vincent's artistic vision did not coincide with Theo's understanding of what he could sell. Impressionism didn't sell. Naturalism -- the style out of which impressionism grew -- sold. Vincent, however, could not be persuaded to diverge from his artistic vision, which included an artist's commune for his Impressionist colleagues in Arles. Gauguin, in fact, joined Van Gogh at his "Yellow House" for two months late in 1888. Zemel frames this chapter by exploring the phenomenon of post-mortem art sales drawing enormous profits for those who had no hand in the creation of the work. She contrasts Van Gogh's notorious inability to sell his paintings at any price with the media-circus sale of Irises in 1988 for 53 million dollars. The controversy over the extortionary cost of famous paintings by dead artists is not purely a modern phenomenon. During Van Gogh's time in Paris, Millet's Angelus sold for the exorbitant price of 580, 000 francs, inspiring heated public debate over the morality of such a sale.

After he moved to Paris, Van Gogh's style took a significant departure from traditional Impressionism. While Impressionism is marked by its objectivity, Van Gogh's paintings show intense emotion, vibrant colors and exaggerated figures. The paintings from Van Gogh's last two years show wild brush work and franticness of feeling which many have interpreted to have been a manifestation of the artist's much celebrated mental illness. It is true that during the last months of his life, Van Gogh painted with an almost uncontrollable frenzy, completing 70 paintings in as many days. Zemel departs from this common interpretation to posit that behind this apparent wildness, Van Gogh deliberately and consciously experimented with a new style of decorative art. Van Gogh hoped to sell paintings in sets of two or three as decorative pieces for larger rooms and cafes. The suggested pairing of some of these paintings, Zemel suggests, further reflects Van Gogh's conflict between utopia and modernity. These last paintings of the countryside around Auvers-sur-Oise show the resolution of the conflict expressed in earlier paintings of the Nuenan weavers. As Zemel explains: "They represent the Auvers he saw around him and, more important, the place he imagined it to be."2 In Zemel's description of the region, the reader sees what amounts to a nineteenth century tourist trap where Parisians could come in droves to see "the real country." Van Gogh imagined Auvers as a perfect convergence of nature and culture, utopia and modernity.

"Van Gogh's Progress," as in John Bunyan's book by a similar name, represents a journey from conflict to resolution. Like Bunyan's pilgrims, Van Gogh learns lessons and gains skills as he progresses from place to place, finally arriving at the utopian promised land. Despite her best efforts, Zemel does not succeed in convincing her reader unequivocally that the wildness of the brush work was not a manifestation of the artist's madness. The progression of the argument, on the contrary, painted a picture of a man whose conflict between the chaos of modernity and the control of utopia provoked his fatal madness. Zemel effectively shows the elements of modernity and utopia in his artwork. She does not effectively demonstrate that Van Gogh deliberately developed these themes. To be fair, this critique applies to much of art history, as well as to much of cultural history, which try to ascertain what people thought or felt about what they did.

Zemel concludes her book by saying that "Van Gogh's pictures of Nuenan weavers registered an impasse, a nostalgic longing for the past that could not be. The Auvers pictures . . . resolve that dilemma and provide a reassuring utopian promise in their decorative style or program. . . . Like Van Gogh's icons of modern citizens . . . the passion in these paintings points utopically elsewhere: to the progress and possibilities of modern culture and a modern republican dream."3 On reading this concluding passage I found myself surprised by what Zemel claims to have proven. In truth, I would have had difficulty speculating on the underlying theme of the book. If pressed, I might have arrived at the conclusion that Zemel demonstrated how Van Gogh differed from his contemporaries in the representation of the working class; that Van Gogh lived the life of a tortured idealist, unable to fit into either bourgeois or working class society; that his images of society reflect the anxieties of modernity. This last speculation comes closest to Zemel's concluding thoughts, but is also the most problematic of the three.

Zemel is ambiguous about the role of modernity in her story. The subtitle, "Utopia, Modernity and Late Nineteenth-Century Art" implies equal treatment of utopia and modernity in the context of Impressionism. In her introduction, Zemel states that "Van Gogh's approach was grounded in a recognizable modernity."4 Later in her introduction, she balks at the centrality of modernity in her argument by saying that she is "less concerned with . . . defining a systematic politics for Van Gogh's modernism" than exploring "the links between nineteenth-century cultural and social issues."

Modernity pervades the story even though Zemel only mentions it by name a handful of times. Modernity provides the backdrop against which Zemel places Van Gogh's utopian visions. Modernity is the ogre behind Sien's poverty, and the machine which traps the weaver. Most of all, modernity is responsible for L'Arlesienne, and her disquietingly intelligent sensuality. Van Gogh's utopian vision united modernity with tradition in a bucolic country setting, but Zemel never actually defines the term. The poor reader is left in the lurch, wondering whether modernity actually exists in Zemel's analysis, or whether it is only implied. It lingers unnamed in the background of her analysis, existing only in opposition to the somewhat more specified 'utopian visions.' Admittedly, defining modernity is an exercise much like trying to nail jello to the wall. Nevertheless, a working understanding of the concept would have given Zemel's argument much needed depth and coherence. Van Gogh's utopian vision warred against an increasingly modern nineteenth-century society. Without providing context, the reader only sees Van Gogh struggling in front of a blue-screen.

Modernity does not suffer alone from a frustrating lack of historical context or explanation. Two of Zemel's intended points of inquiry remain equally neglected: expression of modern republicanism and the "Japanist" influence in Van Gogh's work. In the latter case, Zemel refers at a number of places to 'Japanism' and the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh's work. Once again Zemel tantalizes the reader with an idea which she leaves undefined and unexplained. Zemel does not provide context, an explanation of "Japanism," or an analysis of how "Japanist" art influenced Van Gogh's paintings. Instead, she leaves the reader to either overlook this repeated reference or look elsewhere for information. Perhaps Zemel sought chiefly to speak to an audience of art historians whose background knowledge would compensate for the author's lack of explanation. Even if this were the case, by repeatedly alluding to Van Gogh's interest in Japan without tying it back to her central argument, Zemel further confuses her discussion.

The supposed "modern republican dream," receives equally vague treatment. Unlike modernity, whose importance is under-represented, by concluding her book with a reference to republican ideals, Zemel gives extra weight to a previously tangential point. The implied importance of this concept takes the reader by surprise as she reads the final words of Zemel's text. Only chapter three makes any reference to the idea at all. Like 'modernity', the 'modern republican dream' requires explanation. What was the modern republican ideal, and who were the dreamers? How did this idea fit with other stages of Van Gogh's paintings? What does Zemel mean by 'republican?' In Zemel's book, 'modernity' and 'republicanism' are dreams inferred.

Despite these flaws, and perhaps because of them, Zemel's book provides intriguing possibilities for historians of the late-nineteenth-century. Zemel's argument behaves almost as a palimpsest, with implications appearing out from under the actual text. Writing this review proved to be a confusing exercise of trying to separate out what Zemel actually wrote from what I thought she did, or wished she had. Her discussion of Van Gogh's relationship with the working class places the artist almost outside of class considerations. She reinforces this tantalizing idea in her discussion of the relationship between artist and art-dealer. How unique was Van Gogh in this apparent class-limbo, or in his utopian visions? How did other artists negotiate the increasingly class-conscious bourgeois society? How did late nineteenth-century society -- of all classes -- view the artist? How did the art-dealer fit into this intriguing picture? Van Gogh's inability to sell his art-work has achieved mythic status. Could a creative historian use the bourgeois reaction to Van Gogh's paintings as a vehicle to illustrate nineteenth-century society's understanding of and reaction to modernity? Besides its merit as fodder for future studies, Van Gogh's Progress gives a vivid biographical sketch of Van Gogh, and provides an uninformed reader with tools to interpret some of his paintings.

Despite its many significant problems, Van Gogh's Progress adds another angle by which to view late nineteenth-century modernity. Although it does not rank in the highest tier of historical scholarship, it raises questions which could stimulate further exploration of the subject. Readers will find the presentation of Van Gogh's life intriguing, and the book as a whole to be flawed but worthwhile.

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