Leandro Fanzone reviews Vincent van Gogh; a Biographical Study by Julius Meier-Graefe.
Meier-Graefe's book was written originally in german and what I have read was an english translation (Holroyd-Reece's). The whole book is constructed around the Letters, and the holes are filled with literature. In that sense it's a very remarkable piece of work. It's written very passionately, thing that is opportune sometimes, and sometimes it makes a dense curtain around the facts. I remember a similar book: Victor Hugo's "Shakespeare", so impassioned that you almost cannot see Shakespeare, but only the sun shining on him. Meier-Graefe's poetry (because it's more poetic than prosaic) it's sometimes fair with the subject, and sometimes gives us images of questionable beauty, like this one: "Living in Paris was like swimming without arms or legs". He wanted to express how naturally artists grew with art in Paris; he was thinking on the water carrying the swimmer with no effort from him, but the final result is clumsy, to say the least. There are other moments, of course, when his prose is bright and even reveals good humour through the opressive atmosphere of the book. I pick randomly two examples. When Vincent was leaving Paris, already fed up with the Impressionists, Meier-Graefe puts in his mouth these words: "Was there anything more absurd than this cult of sunshine in a town where the sun never shone?". Or this sentence, trying to describe Van Gogh's nature: "The winter was always Vincent's worst time, because he could not let off steam in the open air and had to swallow his temper, which was very indigestible". There is a chapter fully dedicated to the time Vincent and Gauguin shared in the Yellow House that is incredible on depicting both characters, and their contrasts. His knowledge about art, on the other hand, is uncertain. He makes a lot of comparisions, mainly with Delacroix, Millet, and the Impressionists, and I don't know until which extent he is exceeding his role of biographer. One thing is to give a piece of mind, and another is to judge as an art-expert, firmly, with no doubt and sometimes with no aim. In one of those games, he compared "L'Arléssienne" with a japanese painter called Sharaku, which Vincent did not know, nor did I. So I sought some pictures on the Internet and found it very interesting.
Coming back to his artistic oppinions, I said before that I did not agree with the author about the talent of Vincent. He said that Van Gogh was not an artist, because "artists are gifted with certain playful, poetic, inventive qualities, and with talent, but of these powers he possessed less than the average man". It's easy to disagree. Nevertheless, the book has some charm, more if we think that the first edition was published on 1926 (mine is from 1936) and Meier-Graefe even spoke with people who knew Vincent.