Vincent van Gogh
My hero: Vincent van Gogh
Saturday 5 December 2009
hen I was a child, I knew that Van Gogh was the greatest painter who had ever lived. For years he blinded me to other artists. I have learned to admire Botticelli and Caravaggio and Ivon Hitchens, but in old age I am faithful to my earliest love. What Van Gogh did is, for me, what painting is. The eye sees, the hand obeys, the spirit flows into brush strokes, the world is recreated and revealed. As a child, I knew nothing of his long apprenticeship or his madness or his failures in the market place. Nobody told me. I saw nothing mad or tragic in his vision of the natural world. I saw intensity and a world of glory.
We had prints of his work at home, one of them of the drawbridge at Langlois, which enthralled me. As a schoolgirl I bought postcards and posters, of irises and cypresses and starry nights and a yellow chair. They brought me immeasurable joy. I believed he looked into the heart of creation, with the eye of God, and what the Hubble telescope has seen confirms my belief. The glory exalted and blinded him. That is enough to make him heroic. He knew the mysteries of the cosmos.
But he was, I discovered, more than a visionary. He was a hard-working, good-hearted man, who endured illness and public neglect with stoic patience, and showed a tender gratitude to those who cared for him. I have been reading the handsomely illustrated six-volume edition of his letters, which displays his wide reading, his warm and generous admiration for his fellow artists, his forlorn but unquestioning dedication to his work. The bravery with which he attempted to handle his mania in the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole is infinitely touching. He took pleasure in copying the work of Millet, Delacroix, Courbet, Rembrandt, and writes to his brother Theo that copying "teaches, and above all, consoles". This is the humility of greatness. The paintings of this period are astounding in their originality, but the copies are also wonderful. He is, with Shakespeare, beyond praise.