One page of a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Émile Bernard, Arles, France, March 1888 (pen and brown ink). Note the words for colors in the sketch.
It is fairly well known that Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters, mostly to his brother Theo and some to fellow artist Gauguin. However he also wrote at least 20 to a lesser-known artist, Émile Bernard, 15 years younger than Van Gogh. They had met in 1886, and Van Gogh became his mentor. Most of these letters, along with related paintings, drawings, and watercolors by both artists were the subject of an exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City: Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Emile Bernard.
From the museum’s website (which also has images of some of the letters, and translations):
Van Gogh’s letters to Bernard reveal the tenor of their relationship. Van Gogh assumed the role of an older, wiser brother, offering praise or criticism of Bernard’s paintings, drawings, and poems. At the same time the letters chronicle van Gogh’s own struggles, as he reached his artistic maturity in isolation in Arles and St. Rémy. Throughout the letters are no less than twelve sketches by van Gogh meant to provide Bernard with an idea of his work in progress, including studies related to the paintings The Langlois Bridge, Houses at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries, The Sower, and View of Arles at Sunset.
These letters discussed artistic issues of interest to them both, what was going on in the art world, with other artists, and critiques of Bernard’s work. They were written toward the end of Van Gogh’s life, when his psychological situation was nearing his final crisis of suicide in 1890.
From a letter where Van Gogh is thinking of painting a starry night:
“…just as I shall paint a green meadow studded with dandelions, but how to arrive at that? … But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, it’s just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in En ménage by J. K. Huysmans, the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendors.”
From a review in the NY Sun:
Van Gogh’s letters, like his pictures, reinforce that art is visual, expressive, and intuitive; yet they also emphasize the fact that art is ordered, logical, and rational. The making of art, like the experience of art, is a titillation of the mind no less than the senses. Van Gogh’s writings cannot explain or replace the experience of his paintings and drawings; but there is something reassuring about the power of the artist’s word when, standing before a work of his art, words fail us.
How wonderful to read Van Gogh’s expressive thoughts on art and artists, breaking down our modern stereotype of him as the crazy man; to read his neatly-written cursive, and study his impromptu sketches on the cream-colored pages. How lucky we are that Van Gogh was a letter-writer, and that these bits of paper were saved and preserved.
In our internet age, we we share our words and our images with hundreds or thousands of others via email, websites, and blogs. What do we lose by not seeing the stream-of-consciousness handwriting of the artist, but only the generic black and white of a standard font, nicely sanitized by easy editing and spell-checking, displayed on a flat white screen?
Is information immortal? Paper decays or is thrown away, whole libraries sometimes go up in flames. Virtual information is lost when a hosting company closes without notice, technology changes, or a hard-drive crashes. In whatever way we share our ideas, they germinate somewhere out there, in ways and times we cannot foresee.