Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Van Gogh & his letters

Where are all the sunflowers? Van Gogh, sunflowers. Sunflowers, Van Gogh. Oh, and chairs and beds. Van Gogh, sunflowers, chairs and beds. Colour too. Wonderful, vibrant colour is what we associate with Van Gogh. Although sunflowers are pretty thin on the ground in this exhibition, shape and form, texture and light are there displayed in glorious technicolour. And letters.

The exhibition explained with his drawings and sketches his interest in various forms and ideas. We could how see the different styles took hold and developed into the paintings we know and love. He was primarily enthused and inspired by Japanese prints and from this grew his interest in painting.

Like many artists his changes in technique were influenced by the artists and movements of the time but Van Gogh largely worked out how to achieve the effects for himself. And worked by himself. His continuing interest in different genres led him to become a painter of portraits, still life and landscape and he mastered them all.

But the exhibition that has been on at the Royal Academy in London also showed something quite different. It showed that Van Gogh was just as prolific with his pen. Black and white. Paper and pen. What is so very interesting about Van Gogh’s work is that for every painting of his there is a letter to accompany it. He painted – often a painting a day – and wrote to his brother daily. His letters explain – often with sketches - what he is trying to achieve and how he is doing it.

We therefore do not have to rely on the ‘art experts’ opinion. Now, I have nothing against experts. I admire them, I envy them, indeed I love to hear them explain an art work. But this is from the horse’s mouth. The artist himself. We don’t have somebody else’s interpretation. Somebody else’s view of what the artist was trying to achieve. It is fascinating.

The other thing that struck me about this exhibition - or perhaps I should say that struck me when I learned more about Van Gogh, the man – is that he was a highly intelligent, thoughtful man who could have succeeded in so many other areas, particularly writing. He suffered from manic depression – now referred to as bi-polar disorder – the crippling suicidal lows of the disorder often accompanied by highly charged, exuberant and creative highs. Highs in which genius can shine through.

Art – and frenzied painting – must have given vent to the need to be ‘doing’ and creating in a much more tangible way than something less physical, like writing, would have. And it filled his lonely hours, because his illness affected his ability to make and keep relationships.

As children all we knew about Van Gogh was that he was that mad drunken Dutchman, who chopped off his ear and painted sunflowers in the South of France. That he was an intensely religious man, who wrote well and taught himself to be a great painter, was totally off our radar.

We take as read that Van Gogh had an innate talent for painting. But, without the highs of his disorder and the obsessions (those sunflowers!), would he have had the mental drive, physical energy and inspired vision to develop his style and medium as often as he did in such a short period of time. I doubt it.

With correctly balanced modern drugs, Van Gogh would probably have avoided his terrible bouts of depression and had a normal social life. But would we ever have seen such an amazing collection of works. The number of them, and the quality of them, is more than many wonderful artists achieve in a lifetime. And Van Gogh was only 34 years old when he shot himself. See this exhibition if it emerges elsewhere, and wonder at the man.


Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Fifty fifty: that was how it panned out. Half of us liked the novel, Effi Brest, the other half was rather disappointed.

I like a reflective novel. I enjoy being left with something to think about, something to ponder. To have the text throw up questions and for myself, the reader, to find my own answers. And I have no objection at all to lack of events. Not for me searing, screaming action every step of the way. Fontane pares then pares again. But there comes a time when Less is More become Less is Less: I do want emotion. And perhaps in Effi Briest some of those events left to the reader’s imagination (sometimes later clarified) are perhaps a little too obscure, too coy, even so bland as to escape the reader's notice until the end of the book!

Effi, the heroine, is a charming, impetuous, beautiful young woman. Married too young, to a man too mature. The only thing she and her husband have in common is ambition: both for their own versions of status and power. They have a child: Effi is left alone much of the time and too much is expected of her. Her husband is kind but not demonstrative. Her loneliness leads her into the arms of a passionate man, and, eventually, this and the demands of Society results in a cruel fate.

Some of us felt that Effi was little more than a cipher. That none of the characters developed. I’m not sure I agree. In tune with some others, I think Effi is a character that grows on the reader. As the novel progresses we get to know her better and as the other characters develop we also come to feel sympathy for her. We also appreciate her husband for his good points, in spite of his controlling character. Ultimately, perhaps, we have a real sympathy for him.

Symbolism is strong in this work, we are told, but for the modern readers much of it is lost. Just as the uneducated visitor would miss the classic symbolism and allegorical associations of the 18th century landscape garden, such as that at Stowe, so too does the modern reader miss the Victorian symbolism so prevalent in this most classic of novels. The symbolism of flowers, colours, myths and monsters is not what it was.

And then this is a highly Victorian moral tale: infidelity can lead to the break-up of families, to heartbreak and decline. Ambition and the pursuit of position above all else can be an empty cup. Insistence on honour and status is meaningless compared to forgiveness and the closeness of family. Women, married too young, have not yet had time to develop their character. And women – certainly at the time this novel was written – were at the mercy physically, mentally, and economically, of their men.

Even the characters are imbued with this morality: the old, the disfigured, the poor and unattractive – these are the characters in the book that are the most worthy. Gieshubler, the chemist, Roswitha the servant, the old doctor, Rummschuttel, all display the sort of discretion and kindness that is to be expected of the fortunate. In contrast, those in positions of superiority are not magnanimous but sometimes vindictive and cold.

The novel reminded me here and there of Anna Karenina. But Anna Karenina has dramatic scenes, passion, heart. Whereas at pivotal points in Effi’s life, Fontane gives us barely a hint of emotion: her marriage, the birth of her child, a lover, a death, a separation. I found the lack of that emotion described at such passionate moments, odd.

Nevertheless I did enjoy the novel. There is much to absorb and some very fine writing. But don’t expect action and don’t wait for emotion. Take it on holiday and read it when you have relaxed enough to have readjusted to a slower pace.