About Vincent Van Gogh in the history of fine art

Editorial by Hannes Keller, publisher of Visipix.com
Draft from 6 th January 2004


«You write about the Poussins in the Louvre; I am very fond of Poussin. But how long - too long - is it since I saw those paintings?
You cannot imagine what a longing I have to see pictures…»


(Vincent in a letter to Theo, September 4rth, 1885)

  • Startpage
  • About Vincent Van Gogh in the history of fine art: Page: 1 | 2 | 3
  • The sermons of Vincent Van Gogh: Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
Content of page 1
Tenthousands of newcomer artists believe that every artist must prove the authenticity of his mission on earth with his originality. But, alas, it seems that the history of art is complete. From aborigine fetishes that "can kill a man" to Russian icons that revive deceased children and heal the blind. From the detailed pictorial of unimaginable horrors in hell by Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516 ) .

To the "Pillar of civilisation" by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a 13 ft statue made of obsolete human fat which had been sucked out of clients on beauty surgery sessions. (The hit of the Yokohama Triennale 2001).

See a detail of Sun Yuan "Strawberry" 1998

From eye-candy by the excellent Jeff Koons to quality-controlled canned artists-shit (limited edition) by a Mr. Manzoni: www.samsara.ca/pictures/zmanzoni.htm
The newcomers try to figure out "Vincent van Goghs secret for eternal fame" - and those multimillions of money which would have been flowing into his pocket if he would have reached the age of 60 and not ended his life at the age of 37. There is indeed a key factor: Vincent van Gogh had something to say.

This led him to his great style. Not any smart planning or an analyse of the market. His enormous influence on the following generation put him into his prominent position in the history of art. Let us have a closer look at these sectors.
Since 10.000 years: Sacred art versus profane art
Ancient "artists" made sacred objects as fetishes with magical power. Of course the design "off the normal" was of fundamental importance. In the history of art up to now, the widespread believe in the magic power of original art objects has never faded. Well, at least it makes more sense than astrology.

Animals cannot be called "artists". However butterflies, peacocks, radiolaria display a lot of "art". But animals like termites, birds, spiders and even fish also make extraordinary architecture. Termites make cathedrals which compete with Gaudis "Sagrada familia". We cannot deny that they are talented. "Animal art" has always stimulated human art.

(To the left: Detail from Ernst Haeckel "Art forms in nature" 1904).

Sacred art has a high-level purpose. Profane art has low-level purposes such as sex-appeal, selling things, politics or just beauty, decoration and entertainment. There is no difference in artistic quality. Period.
The human brainsectors behind the eyballs love "recognition of patterns". Therefor almost all of us arrange a lot of patterns. Mother makes appealing arrangements of fruit. This human instinct is one of the strong forces of fine-art. Stoneage hunters marked their returnways with distinctly manmade piles of stones. Exactly as every year the artists in Venice mark their ways from the Biennale back to their hotels. Certainly in the stoneage there was a Harry whose piles were more artistic than those of his rival Bob, while his girlfriend Alice was popular for the uncommonly sexy cut of her beaver apron. In other words: Humans always spared a moment to create "appeal". Somebody started to sing. It turned out to be a great idea. If I were not 70 years old, I would start a career with the remake of "the first love song on earth" and claim that a boy had successfully sung it in a cave 10.000 years ago. A scientist would explain ancient throat acoustics under libido stress.

Sacred art split into two directions, both claiming higher meaning:
  • Art for truth (unveiling what is behind appearance)
  • Emotional art (communicating the knowledge of my heart)
Profane art split into:
  • Art for art's sake (enriching and fascinating the world)
  • Not-art entertainment (simple pleasures that we all deserve)
1550: The fine art establishment takes control over the history of art
Many recognised the power of art. Protestant and Islamic leaders were so frightend by the potentials of mass euphoria that they restricted or totally forbid sacred art.

The fine art establishment took control and began to fix up "THE history of art". It started 1550 with Giorgio Vasaris "Live of the artists": http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/giorgio.vasari/vaspref.htm

The fine art establishment exerts quality control with the question "What is legitimate art and what is not". The main factor is the influence of an artist on later periods.To be on the safe side, it ignores e.g. textiles and ceramics with the exception of Pre-columbian, Greek and Roman plus Flemish tapisserie. Anything useful made by women is more or less off.
The non-conformist Maurits Cornelius Escher (1898-1972) is not really in. He was leading into "techno art". The history of art has a problem with technology, also a bias against the internet. Already at college the groups of those related to literature etc. separate from those related to calculus etc.

See the woodblock "Sky and water" 1938
The entire Kingdom of Mangas and Fantasy, the heartblood of the pop-movement, of CD-covers and mythology-movies is ignored by "The history of art". This, despite the fact that the masters of Mangas and Fantasy are extraordinary virtuosi. Already around 1830 the Japanese art-establishment rejected Hokusais Mangas. Their popularity increased the notion that they lack "noble meaning".

To the left: a detail from a pix from the visipix-newsgroups
For years, Theo van Gogh - an art dealer in Paris - tried to make Vincents work popular. Nobody recognised any trace of quality. Then the commercial side of the establishment made fortunes out of Paul Gauguins work while his impoverished widow and her children suffered.
The embarassment over this dark episode had the direct consequence that international law conferences decided that the copyrights from now on belong to the artists and their inheritors until 70 years after death. They are not automatically passed over to the buyers of the works. Had the law come earlier, Gauguins widow could have sold repros (even signed them in supermarkets like the widow of René Magritte).
Landsdcapes and the power and glory of God
One part of our destiny is under our own personal control. We smoke or dont smoke. A second part of our destiny is under control of other humans, e.g. doctors and teachers. The third part of our destiny is not under human control. Many say it is in "the hands of God", the "will of Allah".

We are imbedded in nature. This is the visual part of "what is beyond human power". Of course nature is the favorite theme of Fine Art. It is inevitable that there is a deep conflict between our emotional relation to nature versus what the power of science and technology do with nature. To many people, progress appears as human hybris with awsome destructive potentials. The story of Eve, Adam, the snake, the tree, the apple and the big sin explains this context in all details.
Caspar Wolf 1735-98 shows overwhelming divine presence with mountains dwarfing us humans with their size and timelessness. It is the time of the Enlightenment and the raise of the United States in the eve of the French revolution. Caspar Wolf reminds the world of the virtue of modesty.
The romantic artists in the 19 th century found God in nature. Pure nature was a fantastic replacement for the more and more disappointing Church. Nature offered great emotions, euphoria, ecstasis and catharsis. Best of all, nature could be combined with modernism and rationalism. It promised truth in a consistent context. Science as well as sex and a lot more was all understood as being based on the laws of nature. Death was no longer an act of God but an occurrence in statistics. The artists theme was "The magnificience of Nature", "Die Erhabenheit der Natur". The magnificience was shown with storms, mountains, the sea but also simple flowers, birds, human faces, escpecially the eyes.
Steam power and electricity had been invented. But what was it all in face of the power of a snow storm in the alps as painted by by William Turner in 1842 . The scene shows Hannibals troups with ist elephants moving towards Italy. After the manmade nuclear storms in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the painting of Godmade storms was definitely out.
The plains at Auvers by Vincent van Gogh shows what a peasant sees every day in midsummer. It manifests the glory of God without awsome storms or anything monumental.

The drama is in our minds. The ardent desire of being part of nature, the feeling of peace and home and being alive. Vincent van Gogh painted this landscape just days before his death by suicide when his own personal hopes had vanished. Vincent van Goghs concept is very different from the classic "scenery" where nature is a sort of platform for astonishing "scenes". For van Gogh it is enough that nature is nature and a face is a face. (Click for logics)

Vincent van Gogh was not an impressionist. He had totally different goals. He used some methods of impressionism (how colors influence each other in a painting, e.g. orange color changes when deep blue is around) but that was all. He made sermons with the ambition to get God and people together. Not more not less.

Impressionism is a method of synthesising for our eyes the optical effects of "nature in sunlight". This is beautiful and astonishing. It is sizzling our eyes and brains. It makes us happy but it is harmless. Van Gogh was not harmless.
In 1873 Claude Monet painted mothers with children in a field of poppies. This is one of my favorite paintings. It brings back the happiest times in childhood when the beauty of summerdays embraced us and all was blooming and all was fulfillment and expectation. Two trees exaggerate it all by blooming on top of each other.

Claude Monet did not forget to mention the sanctuary of the house in the backgound.
Expressionism was the violent reaction to impressionism. Expressionist fine art could be anything, including being ugly and even repulsive. But under no circumstances could it be cosy or harmless. In the following period fine art was burdened with the responsibility to change social circumstances. This worked well in the art related to the Russian revolution. It did not work convincingly elsewhere. Later, up to now fine artists were obliged to give evidence that they share the hardships of all the poor on all continents. In German this is called "Die imperative Betroffenheit".

Calmly, with clarity and without exaggeration Vincent van Goghs life and work is the sum of it all. If I were religious, I would see him as a saint.
* Mathematical logics
Mathematical logics (Polish style) declares that a statement is true when its description of an item is identical with the item. USA poet guru Getrude Stein said: "A rose is a rose is a rose". The statement "A rose is a rose", says that probably everything is at least identical with itself. But there could be special cases. Is an ocean wave or an energy quantum identical with itself? A single rose is not such a special case.

The statement "A rose is a flower" looks like truth but it is not. Any decent mathematician smells immediate danger in such a statement. In fact a plastic rose is called "rose" but it is a piece of plastic and not a real flower. One can smell it. Even perfumed plastic does not smell right. There exist also stones which are not flowers but have a remote resemblance with roses.

Polish logics means that the statement "A rose is" is mathematically identical with the fact that "a rose is a rose". Gertrude Stein was mathematically precise. Only Karl Poppers falsification theory is now in trouble. (Great fun, all this, isn't it?)
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