Naifeh and Smith: Van Gogh: The Life

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Van Gogh: The Life
(2011, Random House, 953 pages)

Naifeh and Smith, who attracted considerable attention for their Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, have returned with their meticulously researched biography of Vincent Van Gogh. The product of some ten years of research and writing, Van Gogh: The Life is a fascinating, fluidly-written work that draws extensively on Vincent’s voluminous correspondence and that of his family and friends, as well as the huge critical bibliography that has accumulated around the artist and his work over the years. Surprisingly, as beloved as Van Gogh’s work has become, there hasn’t been a detailed biography written about him in many years. So thorough was Naifeh’s and Smith’s documentation that their over 28,000 footnotes wouldn’t fit into the printed volume, and are instead collected at a remarkable website.

The Van Goghs were Protestants living in the largely Catholic town of Zundert, in the south of the Netherlands near the border with Belgium. Anna and Theodorus (or Dorus) had seven children, of whom Vincent was the second. (Following the lead of Naifeh and Smith, I refer to Vincent by his first name, which in his case seems oddly appropriate.) It was a very literate household, and Vincent became particularly known for his extensive reading. But he was also an unruly and ill-tempered child, and spent much of his time out of doors, observing nature. His brother Theo, four years younger than Vincent and in most respects his opposite in character, nevertheless became Vincent’s closest friend, and remained so through both their lives.

Ever solitary and perpetually rebellious, at eleven Vincent was sent to the first in a series of boarding schools, which only increased his sense of isolation. At sixteen Vincent went to work for his uncle Cent, a renowned (and rich) dealer in art prints, at The Hague. This was where Vincent really took an active interest in art, exploring galleries and reading books. But his loneliness and waywardness still haunted him, leading to his being exiled to work at another of his uncle’s establishments, a warehouse in London. From there he was transferred to Paris. Resentful, he grew estranged from everyone in his family as they started to question his mental health (there was a history of mental illness in the Van Gogh family, including confinements and a suicide). Vincent found some consolation in authors like Heine, Goethe, and a particular favorite, Hans Christian Andersen. But just as quickly Vincent rejected all those readings and embraced the Bible and Thomas à Kempis, imposing on himself an almost monastic life as he increasingly identified his sufferings with those of Jesus. Read more

Sunday Salon 2-26-12

As my attention was all over the map this week, it seems like a good idea to break up today’s Salon into three parts: books, music, and films.

Books – I am around 75% done with my review of Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. With luck it will be appearing, supplemented by some images of Van Gogh’s work, in the next day or two. Otherwise I’m in the middle of three books right now. Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen, a birthday gift from last year that I’m finally getting to, documents Hansen’s long trip across the island of Borneo, one of the first such trips by a Westerner. Also, inspired by the Van Gogh biography, I’m reading L’oeuvre (The Masterpiece) by Émile Zola. One of Van Gogh’s favorite authors, Zola was well versed in the world of art, and an early champion of the Impressionists. In L’oeuvre our hero is painter Claude Lantier, who though fictional embodies some of the traits, and lives through some of the events in the life, of artists Zola knew well, like Manet and Cezanne. Lastly, I’m continuing my long project of reading Catherine Russell’s The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, using her work as a guide as I very unsystematically work my way through viewing Naruse’s great films.

Music – Last night I had the rare opportunity to hear a concert featuring all five of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas for cello and piano, performed by two wonderful musicians on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno, Dmitri Atapine and Adela Hyeyeon Park. The works handily encapsulate many of the traits of Beethoven’s three periods of composition. The two sonatas of Op. 5 (apparently the first works for the combination of cello and piano in history), with their impetuosity and surprising, sometimes playful harmonic and tempo changes, already sound distinctively like Beethoven as they take off from the standard musical language of the late eighteenth century. Op. 69, from that amazing burst of creativity in the years 1804 to 1808, is yet another distinctive and perfect product of Beethoven’s middle period. I had always found the two late sonatas of Op. 102 a bit cryptic and elusive. But whether it was the expressivity of Atapine’s and Park’s playing, or maybe just an evolution of my ears, these two actually made the strongest impression last night. The fugal last movement of Op. 102/2 is still puzzling to me, but Atapine’s description in his program notes of how only the “heavy artillery of Baroque control and strict procedures can reconquer the world of order” in the work makes a lot of sense, especially after the adventures of the long preceding slow movement, in which the music often feels like its about to topple over some kind of precipice. Atapine and Park brought an energy and edginess that suited the music perfectly, and though the concert was long, it was gripping throughout.

Film – Along with Naruse’s films, another of my ongoing projects is a chronological viewing of the films of the late Theo Angelopoulos, the outstanding Greek filmmaker who died so tragically and unexpectedly a few weeks ago while working on his new film. Coincidentally, the British company Artificial Eye has been in the process of releasing Angelopoulos’s films in a series of three boxed sets. This week I got started on them with his first three films. A marvelous debut, The Reconstruction (1970) uses the true story of a man who returns to his home village after years away working in Germany, only to be murdered by his wife and her lover, to examine the meaning and impact of the abandonment of many of Greece’s rural communities. The setting is one of the stars of this film, the town in a state of collapse but still visually gorgeous and an impressive and moving stage for the drama. In Days of ’36 (1972) an imprisoned assassin takes a member of parliament hostage. The story in outline is a relatively familiar one, and while many of Angelopoulos’s visual and storytelling trademarks are present, there seems, for me at least, to be a bit of a mismatch between story and telling here. With The Traveling Players (1975), however, we move into the realm of unmitigated masterpiece. Following a theater troupe as it presents its work all over Greece in the years from 1939 to 1952, the film boldly comments on major historical events like the Nazi occupation, the postwar role of the British, the rise of Communism, civil war, and the recovery of democracy. While I’ll admit that some of the details of Greek history went over my head, the film’s three and three-quarter hour length never seemed too long, the shifts of tone and time frame were seamless and beautifully handled, and Angelopoulos’s elliptical manner and long takes fit perfectly here.

Takanori Aiba

Takanori Aiba is a Japanese artist who, as his website phrases it, “put his mind to create three dimensional art works which combines his knowledge and experience of both maze illustrator and architect.” Using items like bonsai trees and a small statue of the Michelin Man, Aiba has created detailed little worlds that are fascinating to explore. Aiba explains: “These works make use of an aerial perspective, which like the diagram for a maze shows the whole from above (the macro view) while including minute details (the micro view). If you explore any small part of my works, you find amazing stories and some unique characters.”

Here are a couple of examples of his work. More amazing, and detailed, photos are available at the artist’s website. Thanks to The Ebert Club Newsletter for spreading the word on Mr. Aiba.

Sunday Salon 2-19-12

Hello again! I hope you’re having a wonderful Sunday, relaxing with your favorite people, pets, and books!

Probably my major accomplishment this past week was an article on the now-nonexistent Symphony No. 8 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The article was prompted by the recent performance of a couple of short sketches from what might have been Eighth. I had been aware in broad outline of the Symphony’s story for many years, but had never really looked into it. The results of my research you can now read. It is a pretty long article, but I hope it sustains interest.

Just this morning I’ve finally completed Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. I hope to have something written about it in the next several days. As I mentioned last week, I think it’s time for me to read a few books of far fewer than 1,000 pages for a change. What’s up next, I don’t know, but I’ll let you know.

My video pick for the week is Playing Shakespeare. Produced in the early 1980s for British television, Playing Shakespeare is a nine-part series dealing with various facets of Shakespeare’s art – poetic structure, antithesis, irony and ambiguity, and so on – considered from the perspective of the performing actor. Genial host John Barton, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is really erudite and insightful. Illustrating his concepts and chosen examples are actors from the RSC of that time – people like Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, and Peggy Ashcroft. Not only is the program wildly entertaining, it’s also one of the best Shakespeare classes you could take.

To whet your appetite, there are a few excerpts from the series available on YouTube. Here’s one. See you next Sunday!

Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony

Back in the olden days when I was first acquainting myself with classical music, I became somewhat obsessed with the then-new Colin Davis/Boston Symphony recording of the complete symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Right after purchasing the set, not knowing much about the music, I turned as I always do to the enclosed program notes. What I found was an interesting essay by Jack Diether, editor of “Chord and Discord,” not so much about the seven extant symphonies, but dealing with what the evolution of Sibelius’s symphonic style in those works might have led to in the legendary Eighth Symphony that no longer existed, if it ever did. This was called to mind recently as I read about a performance of some fragments from what may have been the Eighth. My interest piqued, I decided to do some proper research on this whole Eighth Symphony story.

Jean SibeliusSibelius is famous for having composed practically nothing during the last thirty years of his life, despite being one of the most acclaimed composers of his day. He completed his Seventh Symphony, Op. 105 in the first half of 1924, and his last major work, the symphonic poem Tapiola, Op. 112 in 1926. A few other, relatively minor works followed: the Masonic Ritual Music, Op. 113, collections of short pieces for solo piano and violin with piano, and the Suite for Violin and Orchestra of 1929 (which was only published as Op. 117 years after the composer’s death and wasn’t given its first performance until 1990). The Eighth Symphony was probably the last major work on which he spent any time, during what has come to be known as the “silence from Ainola” or the “silence from Järvenpää” (Ainola, or “Aino’s Land,” named after Sibelius’s wife Aino, was the Sibelius family home located in Järvenpää, a small town north of Helsinki). Read more