julian barnes on van gogh

Barn02_3715_01Julian Barnes at The London Review of Books:

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South). Yet there are always continuities in even the most style-changing of artists. Van Gogh’s subject matter, after all, remained much the same: the soil, and those who tend it; the poor, and their stubborn heroism. His aesthetic credo did not change either: he wanted an art for everyone, which might be complicated in means but simple to appreciate, an art that uplifted and consoled. And so even his conversion to colour had a logic to it. In his youth, reacting against the stolid piety and conformity of the Dutch Reformed Church, he had lurched not into atheism but its opposite, evangelism. His notion of working as a priest among the downtrodden was to end no more successfully than most of his other youthful schemes; but the fundamentalist, all-or-nothing streak in human beings, once aroused, never entirely goes away. So the striving painter who, in the most successful of his schemes, took himself off to Arles, first working alone, then alongside Gauguin, then alone again, then in the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy, was continuous with that violently principled younger man: he had grown up to become an evangelist for colour.

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