Van Gogh was one of those names learned at primary school that did not sound as a primary class usually read it; our best efforts usually sounded like the English name “Gough”, we never quite mustered Dutch gutturals. It is odd that he remained in the memory, long after kings and queens and inventors and explorers and soldiers and missionaries have faded beyond recall, this Dutch painter clings on.
Perhaps it was the striking colours of his pictures that impressed his name on a young mind, wouldn’t our class teacher have frowned if we had spread our sheet of paper with great strokes of vivid brightness? Perhaps it was the odd things he painted. There were flowers we might have seen, and sunflowers the like of which we had never seen, and unexpected things. There was a picture of a kitchen chair; it would have been baffling to a country primary school mind why anyone would have painted a picture of a chair. The oddest picture was of a man with a bandage tied around his head; this was the artist after he had cut off his ear. Why would anyone cut off their ear and then paint themselves? It was too much to take in.
Don McClean, he of “American Pie” fame, helped understanding. His song “Vincent” captured a sense of van Gogh’s colour, and a sense of his pain. “Starry, starry night” conjures oranges and yellows, but also dark blues and deep blackness.
We travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise in search of Vincent. This was classic Impressionist country, a place of light and celebration, and the village provided subjects for a series of van Gogh’s paintings. However, those who delighted in water lilies and poppies and picnics and dancers (and amply proportioned nudes), tended to shy away from the dark things. The grimness of Parisian slums, the poverty of rural peasants, these seem another world from Monet and Renoir and their friends. Perhaps the darkness of van Gogh’s suffering was also beyond the understanding of those who viewed the world with such optimism.
A century on, and it is Monet who finished his days at a ripe old age at Giverny, and van Gogh who died tragically young in Auvers, both in the countryside outside of Paris, who now command the world’s highest prices – their paintings selling for tens of millions.
Not desiring to see the room where Vincent fatally wounded himself we walked through the village and out to the fields beyond. The cemetery is now part of a van Gogh trail, but the graves of Vincent and his brother Theo seem as sad as the days on which they were buried: Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 and beside him Theodore van Gogh 1857-1891. Perhaps no primary school teacher could ever have captured the sadness of such a life; perhaps it was the unexplained that made Vincent remain in the mind some forty years on.