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Am I Truly . . . . Your Sunshine?

Privacy vs. History: Reflections on the Van Gogh Family Letters

By David Brooks

It's arguable that more has been written about Vincent van Gogh than any other artist in history. Van Gogh bibliographies list thousands of books and articles which focus on Van Gogh's life and art. And it's quite remarkable that much of the original material that's currently being published offers interesting and exciting new insights into Van Gogh. 110 years after his death Vincent van Gogh's work still intrigues and inspires—-and sends us on new quests for understanding. Having said this, however, I can't help but contemplate the more invasive aspects of Van Gogh analysis and scholarship.

The idea for this article came about after reading a new book of letters published by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This book, Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Jo Bonger, is an extremely enjoyable and entertaining collection of the 101 surviving letters written by Vincent's brother, Theo, and Theo's fiancée, Jo. Most of these letters have never been published and, as a result, often present an interesting, new awareness of Theo and Jo's relationship . And putting Theo and Jo's pivotal role in Vincent's life aside for a moment, this book is also an interesting look at a young, late 19th century couple planning a life together.

As much as I enjoyed reading the letters of Theo and Jo, I have to confess that at times I was struck with an ever-growing sense of voyeuristic guilt. Without doubt, these letters do shed new light on the lives of Vincent, Theo and Jo, but at the same time I was struck by the irony of reading these intimate and personal letters when Theo and Jo themselves make it clear that they found such an intrusion extremely disturbing.

The first example of this is evident when a letter from Jo to Theo (Letter 19—19 January 1889) gets lost in the post. Jo, still living in Amsterdam, was writing to Theo, in Paris, about day-to-day pleasantries as well as her dreams of married life with Theo. Like most of their correspondence, Jo's letter is cheerful, yet intimate—clearly written by someone with a good heart and an optimistic view of the future. Unfortunately, the letter went missing. Theo mentions in Letter 21 (20 January 1889) that it still hadn't turned up yet, but then wrote to Jo the following day to reassure her that the stray letter had finally been delivered:

A few words to let you know that your letter has turned up. I received it this morning & was delighted with it. You can see that someone opened the envelope, but at least the indiscreet finder was good enough to forward it to me. I do think it indigne [despicable] to open a letter, but he is probably someone we don't know and never shall.

(Letter 22: 21 January 1889)

At this point in reading Theo's comments I couldn't help but consider his point. Herein lies the irony—in this newly published volume, Theo condemns the unknown person's indiscretion in reading Jo's intimate words—words that I myself had read just a few pages before. Jo's comments in her next letter go even further in strengthening the validity of Theo's point:

My dearest Theo, I am so pleased that the letter has been found. It's appalling to think of a stranger reading something that was intended for your eyes only—but we mustn't think about that.

(Letter 23: 22 January 1889)

Once again, I felt a pang of guilt—despite being separated from the private thoughts of these two young lovers by more than a century. At the same time, however, I had to consider that one irony was laid on top of another. Jo finds it "appalling" that a stranger would read the intimate correspondence between two people—and yet it was she herself who would, years later, organize and edit the very first volume of letters between her late husband, Theo and his dear brother, Vincent. Did Jo have any reservations concerning the ethics of publishing these letters? Quite possibly, since she took it upon herself to edit many portions of the letters—including, not surprisingly, details about Theo's involvements with other women before meeting Jo.

I was unable to forget Jo's comments, however, as I continued on through the collection of letters. Theo and Jo loved each other a great deal—their correspondence makes this abundantly clear. The letters often contain love-struck whisperings between the amorous couple. They planned for their future together, but at the same time complained of the enduring emotional pain caused by the separation preceding their wedding. I think that my feelings of voyeuristic guilt became most acute after reading Letter 36 (2 February 1889) from Jo to Theo. Jo's tone is cheerful and chatty as she discusses social gatherings with friends, the details of the new apartment in Paris the newlyweds would share—the linens that they would need for their dining room. It's the closing salutation, however, that I found the most touching, but at the same time, the most uncomfortable to read:

I do wish you were here. Am I truly

your sunshine?

Once more I had to consider the ethics of reading such private and intimate thoughts—thoughts which, in this specific excerpt at least, shed no new light on Vincent van Gogh's life and works. And, again one irony is piled on top of another as I consider that I wrestle with these thoughts, while at the same time deliberately publish Jo's words on the World Wide Web—making her private whisperings easily available to people from around the world. Am I as guilty and indiscreet as the anonymous reader of Letter 19? Is the Van Gogh Museum? It's an interesting question.

Does time form part of the equation? Most people wouldn't have any ethical issues about reading similar written intimacies between, say, a Roman soldier living in 300 BC and his distant wife. At the same time, few would fail to condemn the publication of the personal letters of any public figure alive and well today. Somehow more than two millennia are able to erase any ethical qualms and transform intimate words into an interesting anthropological discovery. But this is oversimplifying one critical point—that Roman soldier and his wife are long dead. Well, so too are Theo and Jo. But has it been long enough?

Before considering further, I'm reminded of Vincent's own feelings of privacy and discretion. Shortly after Vincent moved to Nuenen, where he would paint his first masterpieces, he struck up an affair with the young woman living next door, Margot Begemann. The little we know is that their relationship was turbulent—ultimately culminating in Margot attempting suicide. Vincent wrote to Theo:

Something terrible has happened, Theo, which hardly anybody here knows, or suspects, or may ever know, so for heaven's sake keep it to yourself. To tell you everything, I should have to fill a volume--I can't do it. Margot Begemann took poison in a moment of despair . . . .

(Letter 375: Second half September, 1884)

Given his forceful request to Theo to keep the news to himself, what would Vincent have thought of having the letter published in countless volumes of the correspondence—and now, complete with a convenient hyperlink, on the internet?

Questions deserve answers. In essence: does the cultural and academic value of the collected correspondence outweigh any (arguably oversensitive) issues of privacy? Again, the whole issue is complex enough that a simple "yes" or "no" would be a gross oversimplification.

Having said that, I have no choice but to conclude that—yes—the collected correspondence of Vincent, Theo and Jo (to say nothing of the Bernard letters, the Gauguin letters, etc.) are far too important and insightful to distract the reader with the ethical considerations I've discussed. While it's true that much of the correspondence—particularly the newly published letters between Theo and Jo—delve into the simple day to day niceties of a young couple in love, each letter, arguably, reveals some new facet of their lives that do indeed contribute to a better appreciation and understanding of Vincent van Gogh and his family.

Indeed, even those letters which don't focus specifically on Vincent van Gogh nevertheless present the reader with beautiful and touching commentary. In Letter 41 (9-10 February 1889), for example, Theo writes to Jo about attending a performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. Theo describes the music as something:

. . . which transported me to a land where the sun was shining, flies, crickets, birds, butterflies, all fluttering & soughing in the warm air over the water & the rustling trees. People dancing by singing a lovely song, the male voices rising above the sweet melody played on a shepherd's flute. Then the storm broke, the shrillness of the wind, the relief of rain, & afterwards the trickling of water once the storm had passed, & the finale, an ode to nature's power of regeneration.

Theo's emotional and poetic description clearly shows that his skills as a writer were just as perceptive and brilliant as those of his brother.

Ultimately, there's no question that the Van Gogh Museum has done a tremendous service by publishing the letters of Theo and Johanna. The Museum is currently working on a new edition of the complete letters of Vincent van Gogh-—a project years in the undertaking--and this, too, should be applauded.

I probably wouldn't have even considered the ethical issues of "privacy versus history" if it weren't for that stray Letter 19 from Jo to Theo. But in a way, I'm glad that the 110 year old letter did go missing for a few days. The points are interesting to consider, but in the end the letters—no matter how intimate—are absolutely invaluable.

Nothing better affirms my point than to contemplate what Theo writes to Jo in Letter 35 (1 February 1889). Here Theo writes about the arguably coarse and ugly subjects that Vincent chose to paint (he's likely thinking of his brother's time spent with the prostitute, Sien--depicted powerfully by Vincent in "Sorrow"). Consider for one last time the ethical issues of publishing the most private of correspondence in the most public of venues—and then reflect on Theo's words to Jo:

. . . we cannot doubt that this painter, too, had a reason for rendering this subject. So we have to find out what prompted him to choose this frightful subject. So we ask ourselves, is it authentic? has it been lived? what history does that creature have, what past, what future? What a world of ideas this subject opens up & if we enter into it, the painter will in all likelihood have succeeded in giving us a glimpse of ourselves. And although we have nothing in common with the subject, which is indeed quite as offensive & tasteless as people say, he will have succeeded in touching our very soul. This is art.

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