Van Gogh & the Art of Longing


Beyond power of speech,
When the one thing you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.

—Stephen Sondheim

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true

—Emily Dickinson

In Greek mythology there is a story about Tantalus, a son of Zeus, who attempted to deceive the gods.  As punishment for his foolishness, he was condemned to Hades, where he stood in a pool over which hung trees heavy with luscious fruit.  Whenever he stooped to the pool to satisfy his tormenting thirst, the water disappeared into the ground, returning only when he stood up.  And each time he reached to the branches above him for a fruit to ease his ravaging hunger, the wind tossed them away from his reach.  So he stood forever, thirsty and famished in the midst of plenty.

A while back I revisited the life and works of artist Vincent Van Gogh.  In my previous post I remarked how Van Gogh embodies the idea of the suffering redeemer out of whose brokenness flows astonishing beauty, insight, and even healing.  I have also been reminded of the profound cost of longing—and reaching—for the ineffable.  In no other visual artist do we sense more fully the human struggle to capture the transcendent.  And in no other artist do we more completely experience the gorgeous, tragic failure to do so.

tumblr_ltidloro1k1qbo39mo1_1280earnestly I seek you
my soul thirsts for you
my body longs for you

—Ps 63:1

This consuming attempt to grasp the ineffable literally colors nearly every one of Van Gogh’s paintings.  Unlike most of his impressionist contemporaries who are content to capture the elusive moment, Van Gogh seems almost dismissive of the particular moment.  For him, particulars are—to borrow from Wordsworth—intimations of immortality.  This intimation patinas his canvases; mere phenomena is transfigured: the material is rendered numinous.  As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

—the oil, one might justifiably imagine, that flowed from Van Gogh’s frenetic brush.

vincent_van_gogh_bedroom_in_arles_canvas_print_24Nothing was beneath his consideration.  Peasants, bars, wheat fields, orchards, boats, sunflowers, even his humble room at the asylum—for Van Gogh nearly everything signified the transcendent.  Through his enigmatic, explosive color schemes, he transposed his subjects into an emotional and often deeply spiritual key.

Yet his canvases are as much a projection of his own inner longing, one for which the artist could never produce a satisfying image.  As T.S Eliot might say, in spite of his dazzling vision and consuming efforts, Van Gogh could never realize an adequate objective correlative. For Van Gogh everything signified, but nothing was incarnate.

This artistic and spiritual frustration is apparent even in his most successful works.  His personal letters also reveal a chronic 12-vase-with-red-poppies-1886(sometimes hopeful, sometimes discouraging) self-criticism.  Van Gogh clearly knew what he was reaching for in his art; he just as clearly sensed his inability to truly grasp it. This fueled an ever-growing anguish that, combined with his frequent emotional episodes, plunged him into a final despair.  Ultimately, the cost of such longing was too much for him and he ended the agony by his own hand.

For me, Van Gogh embodies the most profound desire of the human soul.  Like Plato, Van Gogh believed that the greatest happiness was beholding the eternal beauty of which everything in the material world was but a suggestion, a beauty at once pervasive and elusive.  He employed all his skill in a Herculean effort to take hold of the divine glory.  But, as many have found, the divine glory cannot be captured, cannot be housed in anything framed by human hands.  Van Gogh’s longing drove him—and ultimately devoured him.

Vincent painfully discovered that for now we see through a glass, darkly. I only wish that he had been comforted with the good news that some day we shall see face to face. 



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