Михаил Гольдентул

Страна : США

Публикуюсь на сайте Proza.ru c 2014, до этого в газете Новое Русское слово (США), а еще до этого в Литературной Газете в отделе Рога и Копыта.

Country : USA

Отрывок из биографии “Ван Гог как Иисус Христос или сущность подсулнуха“

On the Way to Van Gogh 

 I went to Amsterdam with the sole purpose of seeing Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Not an unusual trip for me. I had taken  many such trips. I went to Athens for example, just to see the Parthenon, or to Paris, for the Mona Lisa. 

 At the ticket office in the Rijksmuseum I asked about a daily pass and they gladly sold me one for an entire month to all the  museums in Amsterdam for next to nothing.  

It was God’s will that I visit Amsterdam. In addition to the Rijksmuseum, I also visited the Van Gogh Museum every day. It was  only there strangely enough, that I began to understand Van Gogh, although I had seen his works so many times before in the  Musee d’Orsay, and in the Louvre and in the Hermitage, and in the Pushkin Museum, and in the London National Gallery, and  in the Metropolitan museum. 

Try to come up with your own list of ten greatest artists. Now run it by the internet. Van Gogh is in the top five along with Da  Vinci, Buonarroti, Rafael, Rembrandt and Picasso. There is something (I struggled to find the right word: unfathomable,  incredible) beyond our comprehension. There are thousands of articles and books, films and even an opera devoted to this  question: Gregory Frid “Letters of Van Gogh”. 

 Van Gogh has been on my mind for a long time, starting with the work of Leonid Volynsky (organizer of the rescue of the  Dresden Art Gallery after the end of the Second World War) “A House in the Sunshine”, then the film with Kirk Douglas and  also the biography by Henri Perruchot – outstanding French writer, philosopher, and art historian and biographer .   But a shot went off in my head standing near “Sunflowers” at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. And the museum itself  had an impact. The Van Gogh Museum!!!! Who else has such a museum? I have been to Rembrandt House Museum, also in  Amsterdam at Jodenbreestraat 4. But that’s where Rembrandt lived. There is no comparison. The Van Gogh Museum in  Amsterdam is not a house museum where Van Gogh lived. No. The Yellow House in Arles? It was bombed to the ground in  1944. The Saint Remy asylum with bars on the windows? The hut in Borinage, where he slept in a straw bed? Or the dunes  where he spent the night with Sien?

“In my own country I’m in a distant land” 

 (Francois Villon) 

 Van Gogh isn’t your typical genius. For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. But it doesn’t occur to us that Christ was above  all a genius. But with Christ there comes a paradox. For Christ’s followers he is more than a genius, he is God. Everyone else  doesn’t care. They are clueless that he, simply as a person, was a genius. 

 Van Gogh was a genius already as a child, but was not recognized as such until after his death. But Christ was also spoken  of with sarcasm and distrust – who’s this upstart carpenter’s son? And he too was not understood until after long after his death.  Only his apostles understood him, and not even completely. 

 Anyway, after the shot in my head in Amsterdam, I attempted to understand Van Gogh or at least come close to  understanding him. 

 Personality and art are interminably connected for all people of art. Art is an imprint of character. But Van Gogh is a special  case – his personality is completely intertwined with his art. “Just like with Christ”, it suddenly occurred to me. (Ernest Renan  shows this clearly, presenting him as a real living person.) It is a unique case of the complete merging of character and art. It is  impossible to understand Van Gogh’s art without considering his character.  

Here are the components of his personality: 

  • His deep religiosity instilled in him from childhood, and his knowledge of the Bible, having a literal influence on his  behavior and perception of the world.  
  • His genius – Improbable energy and persistence (like an icebreaker), a critical mind. A strong inherent ability and  passionate desire to paint and draw.  
  • Learnedness: He studied a lot and read even more, possessing extensive knowledge. 
  • Obsessiveness approaching pathology. 

Life Catastrophes and Substitution Mechanisms  

Substitution Mechanism (sublimation), a phenomenon discovered or introduced by Freud – is one of the defense  mechanisms representing a subconscious exchange of one forbidden or practically unachievable goal for another,  permissible and more accessible, which can at least partially satisfy the actual need. No one has experienced that to  the same degree as Van Gogh. 

  • A broken family at an early age (compensated by: his brother Theo, and an appreciation of nature (reading,  painting). 
  • Unrequited love (compensated by: religious activity) 
  • Losing his job (compensated by: religious activity, perfecting his artistic skill: drawing and painting). • Banishment from religious activity (compensated by: art and letter writing) 

In compiling his personality, I put his religiosity first. This is not an empty claim. His religiosity had the deepest  influence on his life, hence the title of this book. 

At first, I did not notice the hidden danger of this nomination, namely of the author’s unwitting claim of a knowledge of  Christ, i.e. an equal knowledge of both sides of the equation. 

Van Gogh can be understood through research (reading his letters for example). Christ, however, cannot be  understood by scientific method. One can be a theologian yet not understand Christ, but the scientific method does  not work here. Christ ultimately is only understood spiritually. (If this is even at all explainable.) 

Anyway, after such considerations, I suddenly discovered that Van Gogh too can only be understood spiritually. No  scientific method is applicable. So I decided to leave the title as it was, though I cannot offer anything other than  traditional research as a method. Spiritual enlightenment is up to the reader. 

Part 3 

Chronology 1 

 “Warmly welcomed, always turned away”. 

 (Ballade “I Die of Thirst beside the Fountain” – François Villon)

 Van Gogh’s father and grandfather were both Protestant ministers, while his mother was from a book selling family, “Royal  Book Binders”. She was an epileptic, a family condition, also prone to a bad temper and had a penchant for writing letters. She  also had artistic talent. Some of her watercolors remain. Vincent inherited all of this. 

 He also had an uncle who owned a chain of shops throughout Europe specializing in the sale of fine art. This too played a  role. The first-born son Vincent died and our Van Gogh replaced him both in name and parental expectations, which he failed to  meet at first (because of his peculiar character). He was stubborn, with a remarkably determined face. And this initial  replacement continued throughout his life. One substitution followed another. I mentioned that in the previous chapter, in the list  of his substitutions. 

 He was a stubborn child, a constant source of annoyance for his parents and relatives. He didn’t talk much and was more  interested in nature than people. He started drawing at an early age. 

HE DREW AND READ CONTINUOUSLY – HIS TWO CHILDHOOD PASSIONS. There is a mistaken notion the Van Gogh  began drawing unexpectedly ten years before his death. He drew as a child and continued all his life. 

He behaved the same way in school as he did at home, so his father took him out of school. Vincent took after his mother,  while his calm brother Theo was more like his father. Four years his senior, the experienced and knowledgeable Vincent  educated his brother.  

Vincent’s genius sought ways to apply his untamed forces – nature, the Bible, reading, drawing, sparks of anger, rejection of  the surrounding banality. 

The present-day liberal humane system of upbringing and education requires special positive treatment and particular attention  to all sorts of “unusual” children. But not in the days of Van Gogh. He became a source of disappointment, subject to cold  treatment. Moreover, he was often punished.  

And what about it? Maybe this is worth following with time spent on a million “unusual” children. One of them might very well turn out to be Pushkin, Einstein or Van Gogh.  

As a result of all these difficulties, he was sent away to school. 

THIS WAS HIS FIRST SERIOUS LIFE’S BLOW. It was painful to leave home. 

Regardless of this, he did well at school. But then again, he had good instructors. He mastered three foreign languages there,  German, French and English, speaking them as well as his native Dutch.  

Drawing instruction was also thorough, coinciding with his aspirations and talent. 

Now compare writing of Ernest Renan about Christ: 

“His distinctive character revealed itself very early. Legend delights to show him even from his infancy in revolt against paternal  authority, and departing from the common way to fulfil his vocation. It is certain, at least, that he cared little for the relations of  kinship. His family do not seem to have loved him, and at times he seems to have been hard towards them. Jesus, like all men  exclusively preoccupied by an idea, came to think little of the ties of blood. The bond of thought is the only one that natures of  this kind recognize. “Behold my mother and my brethren,” said he, in extending his hand towards his disciples; “he who does  the will of my Father, he is my brother and my sister.” The simple people did not understand the matter thus, and one day a  woman passing near him cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which gave thee suck!” But he said,  “Yea, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” Soon, in his bold revolt against nature, he went still  further, and we shall see him trampling under foot everything that is human — blood, love, and country — and only keeping soul  and heart for the idea which presented itself to him as the absolute form of goodness and truth”. 

Van Gogh surely read this and took it all in. He often mentions Ernest Renan’s “Life of Jesus” in his letters. 


Not everyone in his family was indifferent to him. Any reader knows he was friends with his brother Theo. They were friends as  boys and swore to help each other, and this supported Vincent a lot.  

They lived surrounded by nature and, as the author Anton Neumayr wrote: “lack of human compassion was compensated by  the beauty of nature”. 

Everyone is captivated by the beauty of nature, scarlet-colored leaves and scarlet sunsets. They never grow tired of taking  pictures and writing poetry. 

But TRUE LOVE FOR THE BEAUTY OF NATURE is a rare thing. Mozart, for instance, was indifferent to nature.  The beauty of nature was suddenly revealed to the public by the impressionists. Depicted in Botticelli’s Primavera are around 500 different flowers and plants. Who else in that period did that? He was a true lover of nature. He perceived nature in a  special way. Venus in his painting also emerges from the sea.  

There is only a handful of famous artists who expressed a love for nature in their work.  

Although there are thousands of landscape artists, I would divide all that they painted into three categories – LIFELIKE,  BEAUTIFUL and GENIUS. 

I have my own, personal list: Camille Corot, the impressionists, incomparable among whom is Claude Monet, also Berthe  Morisot often ignored but worthy of glory and attention, Van Gogh, Levitan, Shishkin and Winslow Homer. Let’s take a closer  look at the landscape artists I just listed. There is a lot to discover. Van Gogh, however, occupies a special place. He doesn’t  fit any of the categories because he was one with nature, for him it was something beyond love. The sense of beauty he  wanted to express reached the point of inflicting bodily harm on himself.  

His letters are full of adoration for the beauty of nature. 

“My dear Theo, Feeling, even a fine feeling, for the beauties of nature isn’t the same as religious feeling, although I believe that  the two are closely connected. The same is true of a feeling for art. Don’t give in to that too much either. Hold fast especially to  your love for the firm [of the Paris’ art dealers Goupil & C0, where both brothers worked – Vincent started in 1869 and Theo in  1873 MG] and for your work.. ..Nearly everyone has a feeling for nature, some more than others, but there are few who feel  that God is a spirit, and that they must worship Him in spirit and in truth. Pa is one of the few, Ma too, and also Uncle Vincent, I  believe”. 

I’d have liked to go on that walk to De Vink.7 I walk here as much as I can, but I’m very busy. It’s  absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city). There are lilacs and hawthorns and laburnums &c.  blossoming in all the gardens, and the chestnut trees are magnificent. 

If one truly loves nature one finds beauty everywhere. Yet I sometimes yearn so much for Holland, and  especially Helvoirt. 

Part 4 

Chronology – continued

Photograph of Vincent at about age 18 (1871) Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam (Actually he was 23-24 years old at this time) 

At age 16 he went to work in the family business Goupil & Cie, well-known in The Hague. He really enjoyed the art world,  visiting exhibitions, galleries and museums. He also read a lot about art.  

When he was 19, while on vacation in Oisterwejk, where 15-year-old Theo studied, an important event occurred. There they  formed an intellectual bond which lasted for 18 years. (When I wrote the number 18, I was struck by the horrendously short  time allotted to them and how much they accomplished.)  

Upon returning to The Hague, Vincent began writing to his brother. A year later at age 16 Theo also started working for Goupil  & Cie in Brussels. 

Van Gogh worked initially with great zeal and interest. Due to this enthusiasm he was promoted and transferred to London (he  turned 20 in 1873). (As an historical reference, Dickens, his favorite writer, died in 1870). At the same time Gustav Dore’s  album of drawings was published, which determined his artistic direction, just as Dickens did his societal attitudes.  

Again work, museums, galleries, art shows…  

Names mentioned in letters: Rembrandt, Delacroix, Reynolds, Gainesboro, Constable, Turner and a long list of other artists.  Jean-Francois Millet left a lifelong impression on him. 


He should have stayed in the old-fashioned The Hague instead of going to London. In London he fell in love with a girl  connected somehow with his landlady. He suffered silently for an entire year, not telling her about it but finally she rejected  him.. 

He was completely unprepared for rejection.  

I was rejected without any drama at all. I was never a self-centered loaner, well-liked and didn’t know a thing about love. The thing is, Soviet upbringing did not include the notion that love is the sacred bond between a husband and wife.  

Van Gogh had not spent much time around girls since his boyhood days in school, where the lessons of little crushes and  breakups made one resistant to drama. 

He fell in love with the first girl who caught his eye with the full force of his straightforwardly stubborn personality. To her he just  looked silly and awkward. 

And as if that was not enough, she was a flirt, toying with his affections. Little did she know who she was dealing with.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. “  

In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever  hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church”  

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. 

These words from Bible, so full of restriction, are hard to imagine. I find them humorous, but Van Gogh surely did not. Van Gogh, with his dysfunctional family life, firmly believed in becoming one with his spouse, but here he was rejected.  

His direct and rigid mind, accustomed to take everything literally, could not accept that.  

It was a terrible blow, the second one after they sent him away to school. 

But what if his luck took a different turn, and he married this girl, settled down and his life followed a normal path? There would  never have been any Van Gogh.  

No way! 

Character is indelible!  

Van Gogh was lucky to have a supportive and understanding brother who was with him to the very end. He would have broken  up with any woman. They all would have left him, and he would have followed his predestined path regardless. Such minor  obstacles as a wife would not have stopped him. In any case he was loved once by a woman named Margo, but her family was  against it. She tried to poison herself and everything fell apart. 

In London at that time he began to smoke and draw (no drinking or frequenting prostitutes just yet), and his work got sloppy  (imagine how shaken he must have been). 

When his relatives found out, to their credit, they sent him to Paris for three months to distract him, thanks to the Goupil  Galleries spread all through Europe. 

What an amazing coincidence. He found himself in Paris in 1874 when the impressionists (not yet known as such) showed their  works, including the famous work of Monet, “Impression, Sunrise” (from which famous Leroy coined the term impressionists).  

And at that moment Van Gogh, the founder of Postimpressionism, came to Paris. Who would have known! Even in 1890, when Van Gogh shot himself, they still did not know that he was the founder of Postimpressionism. But Paris did not help, he returned to London. And the first thing he did was run to the one he loved, only to be rejected again. He was transferred to Paris permanently in 1875 (15 years before his death). 

But he could not break the spell of love – his indelible character prevailed. 

So, Van Gogh turned to religion, (not suddenly and not accidentally either). He carried it with him from childhood – his father  being a pastor. 

What authors was he reading? Heine, Keats, Longfellow, Victor Hugo, Elliot, Carlisle, Renan, Dickens and the Bible. (And a  multitude of others, an impressive list. But these are the most important). 

The last three are a thunderous combination. Never tried? Dickens, of course, everyone has read, (although so long ago), but  together with Renan and the Bible! Read at least the beginning of Renan’s Life of Jesus. You can find it on the internet. 

In Paris, in addition to reading, he ran headlong to exhibitions, including The Salon and the Louvre… and began to paint a lot  himself with ever-increasing zeal. As a result, he lost interest in work, concluding that “art has no worse enemy than an art  dealer”. (Just like Christ and the money-changers in the temple. Both of them overreacted). 

No surprise that he was fired from Goupil & Cie for poor work performance, regardless of his relatives/co-owners’ patronage. A third hard blow from life.


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