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The January 2008 Smithsonian has an interesting article about an exhibit of correspondence from Vincent van Gogh to painter Emile Bernard. Portions of the letters Van Gogh penned are mixed in with the article, and as I read through them I felt like I was getting a lucky and intimate glimpse into the man who created some of my favorite paintings.

Near the end of the article, I stumbled across a couple of things that yet again may go a long ways toward explaining why I am so drawn to this man’s paintings. In this letter from October 5, 1888, he discusses the importance he places on form in his painting:
I mercilessly destroyed an important canvas—a Christ with the angel in Gethsemane—as well as another one depicting the poet with a starry sky—because the form hadn’t been studied from the model beforehand, necessary in such cases—despite the fact that the color was right . . .

I’m not saying that I don’t flatly turn my back on reality to turn a study into a painting—by arranging the color, by enlarging, by simplifying—but I have such a fear of separating myself from what’s possible and what’s right as far as form is concerned. . . .

I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes to the subject, but still I don’t invent the whole of the painting; on the contrary, I find it readymade—but to be untangled—in the real world.
And this one dated October 8, 1889, from an asylum (after the infamous incident when he slashed off part of his left ear) in Saint-Remy-de-Provence:
Dear God, this is a pretty awful little part of the world, everything’s hard to do here, to disentangle its intimate character, and so that it’s not something vaguely true, but the true soil of Provence. So to achieve that, you have to toil hard. And so it naturally becomes a little abstract. Because it will be a question of giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky, and to the scorched and often so melancholy fields their delicate scent of thyme.

I resonate with this language of untangling art in the real world and disentangling the “intimate character”—“giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky, and to the scorched and often so melancholy fields their delicate scent of thyme”—of the land in which we walk. It reminds me of these lyrics from Andrew Peterson’s Far Country, which echoes this sense that there’s a greater world bubbling through the surface of this one:

. . . And I long to find it
Can you feel it, too?
That the sun that’s shining
Is a shadow of the truth

This is a far country, a far country
Not my home

In the dark of the night
I can feel the shadows all around me
Cold shadows in the corners of my heart
But the heart of the fight
Is not in the flesh but in the spirit
And the spirit’s got me shaking in the dark

And I long to go there
I can feel the truth
I can hear the promise
Of the angels of the moon

This is a far country, a far country
Not my home

Perhaps a lot of artists feel this way, this call of or longing for some deeper reality or truth hovering in or exploding from the form of this one. I know I feel that way about God’s Kingdom—its present and yet-to-come reality in the air we breathe or the warmth of that star around which we orbit. One of things I really love about painters like van Gogh and musicians like Peterson is that they awaken again this sense in me. And that only deepens my appreciation of their gifts.

(Images: Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows and Cornfield with Cypresses via Wikipedia)


Don said…
Thank you for finding and sharing those Van Gogh comments, beautiful words to describe the creative process. Ive been hiding in traditional church for awile and had not heard of Peterson, I will listen. Just got an 80 gig IPod and am filling it with my CD collection.

Pastor Don in AZ
Carmen Andres said…
peterson is one of my favorite music artists (i think he's a poet at heart) - and his 'far country' album is my favorite of his work. i hope you like him!