by Michael Howell
How are we to understand the Wheatfield with Crows1 by Vincent Van Gogh? Or, for that matter, how are we to understand any painting?
As Heidegger has pointed out, “On the usual view the work arises out of and by means of the activity of the artist.”2 Rather than shun the ‘usual’ view in favor of a more ‘original’ approach, let us follow the path which this ‘naive’ or ‘natural’ reflection opens up and see for ourselves whether or not an inquiry into the “activity of the artist” does indeed lead to an understanding of the painting itself. Let us begin, then, by asking what it might mean to understand the Wheatfield with Crows as arising “out of and by means of” Vincent’s “activity”.
We might take this to mean that the meaning of the work is to be found in the ‘intentions’ of the man who ‘produced’ it. What could be more natural when confronted with the product of a man’s activity whose meaning escapes us, than to turn to that man and ask, “What did you mean by that?” This implies, however, in the ordinary sense, that the painter knows what he is doing, that the meaning of the painting is somehow ‘in his head’ before being put down upon the canvas. Vincent himself, however, would probably be the first to object to such an understanding of his work. In one sense, to be sure, we may say that Vincent went out that day with the intention of painting a wheatfield, just as at other times, he went out with the intention of painting olive trees or peasants. But we have completely overlooked the struggle involved in his painting if we think that he knew in advance explicitly and definitely, what such a ‘project’ might entail; as though, for instance, to paint a wheatfield was simply to apply the laws of perspective in order to reproduce a valid representation of what he saw.
No, Vincent approached the wheatfield less like the man who knows than like the man who has everything to learn. We must take him seriously when, albeit with respect to another one of his paintings he says, “I do not know myself how I paint it.”3
My brush stroke has no system at all. I hit the canvas with irregular touches of the brush which I leave as they are. Patches of thickly laid on color, spots of canvas left uncovered, here and there portions left absolutely unfinished, repetitions, savageries. I am inclined to think that the result is so disquieting and irritating as to be a godsend to those people who have fixed, preconceived ideas about technique. 4
But what does this mean? That it is useless to try to understand such “savageries?” That the Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent is roughly equivalent to the formula of Dostoievsky’s Underground Man: 2+2=5? Is this painting something we will never understand precisely because it was meant to defy our understanding?
Anyone familiar with Vincent’s life would readily deny such intentions. Far from hiding in some basement and issuing whimsical canvases designed purposely to defy any understanding as proof of his radical individuality, Vincent, on the contrary and like any other painter worth his salt, painted with the hope of being understood. It pained him deeply, while working on the streets of Antwerp, for example, that people showed such a lack of understanding of his work, to the point of spitting tobacco juice upon his canvases.
Many people, faced with the apparently “irrational” aspects of Vincent’s activity, that is, that he did not know himself what he was doing, suggest that precisely because of this we should consider his paintings as arising, not so much from his ‘ideas’ about art, as from his ‘feelings;’ suggesting that perhaps what Vincent really wanted from people was not ‘understanding’ so much as ‘sympathy.’ Indeed, Vincent himself often seems to suggest as much. “As for me,” he once wrote his brother, “if I could find some people who I could talk to about art, who felt for it, and wanted to feel for it – I should gain an enormous advantage in my work – I should feel more myself, I should be more myself.”5
Certainly one cannot stand long before the Wheatfield with Crows without feeling a certain solitude and abandonment. Should we say then that the painting is a reproduction of Vincent’s ‘feelings?’ Surely we must agree with him that, “one who wants sentiment in his work must first of all feel it himself and live with his heart.”6
But, to repeat the question, does this mean that we can understand the work as a representation of Vincent’s feelings? If we are not to fall back on the notion that he painted a ‘thought’ or an ‘idea’ of his emotions that he had ‘in his head’ at the time, we seem constrained to admit a method of representation which would communicate, not sensible ‘ideas’ from one ‘understanding’ being to another, but brute ‘feelings’ from one ’emotional’ being to another. What we have in the painting then is not some ‘idea’ to be ‘re-cognized’ but a brute ‘feeling’ to be ‘felt again.’
But if we really did ‘feel again’ all Vincent’s loneliness and abandonment before the wheatfield, wouldn’t we also kill ourselves a few weeks after viewing it, just as Vincent did after painting it? Before running off half-cocked, however, let us quickly admit that no matter how we answer, or sidestep answering this question, our own suicide would not prove or disprove the theory of art as communication of emotions. If you or I, either one, were to kill ourselves two weeks after viewing the painting, it would be as difficult to relate that death to the viewing as it is to relate Vincent’s death directly to the painting of it.
In order not to get bogged down by the problems involved in verifying such a thesis, let me simply admit, along with others, that I do feel a certain loneliness and abandonment upon viewing this painting. But I must also admit that, given only this feeling, I am still hard put to say I have understood the painting. Strictly speaking, nothing has been understood. I have simply stood before the painting and ‘felt again’ all the loneliness and abandonment which Vincent felt before the whearfield, provided, of course, that I have even felt that much.
Certainly by the time he paints the Wheatfield with Crows Vincent has admitted openly that his “reason has half-foundered.”7 “And it’s a fact,” he wrote his brother, “that since my disease, when I am in the fields I am overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness to such a horrible extent that I shy away from going out.”8
But how then do we understand the Wheatfield with Crows? As one of the last pieces of work produced by a man whose career careens towards madness? Have we comprehended the menaing of the painting by understanding the tumultuous wheatfield as the ‘symbol’ of the violent emotional eruption of a man standing on the brink of madness, about to lose his grip on the world?
It has been argued that while Vincent’s early paintings show a certain logic in their stylistic development, the later paintings, especially the last ones, are best understood in relation to the above mentioned “disease.” But can we really say we have understood the painting if we turn to Vincent, as Cezanne reportedly once did, and simply say, “Sir, you paint like a madman!”9 No, we really haven’t understood anything yet, not Vincent, not Cezanne (who was also called a madman), and least of all, perhaps, have we understood the painting. If we really see nothing in this painting but the wild gesticulation of a drowning man, we would still have to understand how a man might drown on dry land, that is, we would still have to understand that “madness.” As the scandalous history of psychoanalysis shows, however, understanding madness is no easy matter.
Our own attempt to understand the painting has led me to acknowledge a feeling of loneliness and abandonment upon viewing it. In order to understand that ‘feeling,’ we have related it, as Vincent did, to his disease. But how are we to understand that disease?
Dr. Peyron, director of the hospital at St. Remy, and Dr. Felix Rey, at the hospital in Arles, both treated Vincent personally and both diagnosed his disease as epilepsy. A little medical research shows, however, that at the time epilepsy was a very broad term indeed, and it is generally agreed that, judging from the recorded symptoms, Vincent probably was not suffering from what we call epilepsy today, that is, a chronic disease of the nervous system causing convulsions.
Thus the very refinement of the term in modern medicine led Jaspers to conduct the first psychoanalysis of Vincent post mortem.10 While he hedges on the notion that Vincent’s last paintings should be seem not as ‘works of art’ so much as ‘symptoms’ of a disease, Jaspers strongly suggests that whatever artistic value the paintings might have is best determined through an understanding of the disease. The Wheatfield with Crows, then, perhaps more than any of his other painting, might be said to exhibit a form of schizophrenia which, if not exactly the cause of the painting, is at least the necessary condition for such a work.
Thus schizophrenia, defined as the “disintegration of the inhibitions of the normal adult,” when “viewed intellectually,” shows itself, on the positive side, as a liberating force, a “loosening up process” which “allowed for the onset of a period of productivity which was previously precluded.”
Earlier there was a constructive scaffolding which informed all movement, which now progressively fades. The paintings have an inadequate effect, details appear by chance. Sometimes the lack of discipline virtually extends to smearing without a sense of form. This represents energy without content, or doubt and terror without expression. No longer are there any new ‘conceptual formulations.’ 11
As Minkowska points out though (in 1932), “the profound comprehension with which Jaspers, among others, speaks of van Gogh is by itself an argument against the diagnosis of schizophrenia.”12 But he doubts the diagnosis mainly because, as Jaspers also admits, he “finds no trace of such typical schizophrenic traits as dissociation, disintegration of the personality, or autism.”13
“And one may note,” as Hedenberg does (in 1937), “that what in general is considered characteristic of schizophrenic art, if one may speak of this as art, is precisely its rigidity, angularity, and inertia…”14
Rather than view Vincent’s madness as an “atypical for of schizophrenia,” Minkowska suggests that we understand it as a typical form of “psychic epilepsy” — as opposed to the more ‘physical’ kind, I suppose.
How then do we understand the Wheatfield with Crows?
…there is a heavy and menacing sky which weighs down upon the earth as if wishing to crush it. The field of wheat moves tumultuously, as if wishing to escape the embrace of the hostile force watching over it. It makes a deperate effort to raise itself towards the sky, but the descending black crows accentuate further the imminence of the destruction, the fall, the annihilation. Everything is engulfed in the inevitable shock. All resistance is useless. Van Gogh himself put an end to his life and his work.
On this supreme note, the work of art and the psychosis become mingled; the latter, far from constituting exclusively a destructive factor heightens still more the opposition of the two movements (i.e. of elevation and fall) which, at all times, compete with one another in the creative spirit of van Gogh. Without a doubt, in Wheatfield with Crows, the artist has given striking symbolic expression to opposing inner forces. In our own more prosaic manner, we can say that these two movements, one of elevation and one of fall, form the structural base of epileptic manifestations, just as the two polarities form the base of the epileptoid constitution.15
Without pursuing the history of this post mortem psychoanalysis any further,16 let us take note of the problems involved in the psychologization of a work of art. Whether we take Vincent as an “atypical schizophrenic,” as Jaspers does, as a “psychic epileptic,” as Minkowska suggests, or simply as a “psychopath” in general, as G. Kraus does, because, “as a child he already was ‘strange,’ and his many abnormal characteristics (such as “hyper emotionality”) regularly brought him into conflicts with his surroundings and produced serious difficulties in his life,”17 still, we must be very careful about reducing, not only the meaning of the painting, but the meaning of the ‘illness’ to the “inner Tragedy of the artist.”18
Despite all the differing and even opposing diagnoses, surely we will all admit along with Kraus that, “there does exist general agreement that he was given to extremes and that his personality was characterized by many contradictions.”19 Without a doubt, there was something ‘wrong’ with Vincent. As his brother once confided to his sister, after living with Vincent in Paris for awhile, “It is as if he had two persons in him — one marvelously gifted, delicate and tender, the other egotistical and hard-hearted. They present themselves in turn, so that one hears him talk first in one way, then in the other, and this always with arguments which are now all for, now all against the same point. It is a pity that he is his own worst enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but for himself.”20
Notwithstanding the kernel of truth contained in these analyses of Vincent’s ‘personal’ problems, we should remain cautious about the restrictions imposed in the psychologization of a work of art or an illness. In reducing the meaning of the painting to the “inner tragedy of the artist” we have overlooked a greal deal concerning the obvious socio-cultural value of the work. While Vincent himself sometimes spoke of his illnes as being “more or less my own fault,”21 on the other hand, even more frequently, he was disposed to look for the meaning of his madenss ‘outside’ himself.
“Do not fear,” he once wrote his brother, “that I shall ever of my own will rush to dizzy heights. Unfortunately, we are subject to the circumstances and the maladies of our time.”22
And what were the “circumstances and the maladies of the time?” Well, the painters in particular, who had depended for generations and generations upon one patron or another to give support and direction to their work, were finding themselves (literally) out on the streets — alone, isolated, and abandoned; a postition shared (if we may use the term only half ironically) by many another “person out of work,”23 as Vincent came to call them.
Following the Dutch war for independence from Spain, with,
…the greater part of the nobility either taking sides with Spain or remaining neutral, the power finally passed into the hands of the bourgoisie. This meant that the traditional support-structure of art was destroyed, for unlike the aristocracy, middle class people were not used to acting as patrons — nor did they have the intention of doing so. In general painters could no longer work on commission. Now they had to work for a free market, first painting the pictures and afterward selling them.24
Far from being set free from the domination of ‘the patron,’ being thrown into the free market actually meant something more like pleasing the new patron — but one who refuses to pay in advance and has very poor taste, to boot. The triumph of the free market was, as Zola put it, a “triomphe de mediocrite, de la nullite, de la absurdite.”
“What sometimes makes me sad is this:” wrote Vincent, “formerly when I started, I used to think ‘If only I made so or so much progress, I shall get a job somewhere, and I shall be on a straight road and find my way through life.’ But now something else occurs, and I fear, or rather expect, instead of a job, a kind of jail.”25
The ‘price’ for not pandering to decadent tastes was dear — and for many painters besides Vincent. But the painters were not the only ones feeling ‘alienated,’ that is, the old term for schizophrenic, or, as we have put it here, ‘lonely, isolated, and abandoned.’ Vincent himself ran into the same problem as a salesman in the art business even before he took up painting. As an art dealer Vincent’s ‘discriminating eye’ was already getting him into trouble. He often tried to talk his customers out of buying those “pretty pictures” which sold so well, and tried to interest them in something a little “cruder,” perhaps, but something with more feeling, more expression, more “something, I don’t know what,”26 as he was fond of quoting Rousseau. It was Vincent’s ‘educational pursuits’ in this regard, as much as it was his preoccupation with religion and his melancholy love life, which led to his dismissal from the company.
Well, — it’s the old, old story — but of course, all those departments, officious as well as official, all that bookkeeping, it’s all nonsense, and that’s not the way to do business. Doing business is surely also action — a measure of personal insight and energy. That does not count now — that is handicapped.
I think it very, very sad. In Uncle Vincent’s time they started with a few employees who were not treated nearly so arrogantly and like machines. Then there was real co-operation, then one could be in it with all one’s heart.27
There was a de-personalization of the workplace (and not only of the workplace) going on throughout Europe in Vincent’s time, that threatened to cut the ‘heart’ out of labor. The family business which had prospered immediately following the revolution was now becoming a compnay business – ruled, not by the ‘old man,’ but by some ‘executive committee.’
…but you know, I don’t agree with the general politics of the present day, because I consider them mean and carrying all the signs of decadence which will lead to a regular periwig and pigtail period! One might almost weep over what has been spoiled on every side…28
Vincent’s brother Theo, too, was feeling anxious and threatened concerning his place in the family business. It was not the influence of a ‘crazy’ brother that got him into trouble with Goupil and Co. so much as it was his own ‘discriminating eye.’ The time and effort, not to mention the money, which Theo spent in support of Impressionists was certainly not appreciated by the company at the time. When Theo wrote Vincent saying that he might leave the company and try to make it on his own, Vincent could offer no reassurance.
Well, look here, you are becoming more and more a ‘person out of work.’ You may go to England, you may go to America — it does not matter, you will be like an uprooted tree everywhere. Goupil and Co., if you come back to them, would give you the cold shoulder. For all that, one is uprooted, and the world reverses the facts and says you have uprooted yourself. The fact is — your place no longer knows you.29
Really, when I think of my own experience, when I think of how my working for some years at Goupil & Co. ended in my being drawn very strongly towards home, when I think how there followed for me an absolutley bewildering crisis, which soon left me entirely alone and how everything and everybody I had formerly relied upon changed completely and left me high and dry, when I think of these melancholy times, I am so afraid that the present will prove to be no firm ground under your feet.30
Now you talk of the emptiness you feel everywhere, it is just the very thing I feel myself.
Considering if you like the time in which we live as a great and true renaissance of art, the worm-eaten official tradition still alive, but really impotent and inactive, the new painters isolated, poor, treated like madmen, and because of this treatment actually becoming so, at least as far as their social life is concerned.31
I am thinking of accepting my role as a madman the way Degas acted the part of a notary. But there it is, I do not think that altogether I have the strength for such a part.32
Vincent’s ‘madness,’ or better yet his ‘alienation,’ or, finally, his ‘loneliness and abandonment,’ was not simply his own. Like Nietzsche’s madman running through the streets proclaiming the death of God, Vincent’s madness, too, was in many respects simply a sign of the times.
As Nietzsche put it:
The most important of recent events, that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief — already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe. To the few at least whose eye, whose suspecting glance, is strong enough and subtle enough for this drama, some sun seems to have set, some old, profound confidence seems to have changed into doubt: our old world must seem to them daily more darksome, distrustful, strange and ‘old.’ …This lengthy, vast and uninterrupted process of crumbling, destruction, ruin and overthrow which is now imminent: who has realised it sufficiently today to have to stand up as the teacher and herald of such a tremendous logic of terror, as the prophet of a period of gloom and eclipse, the like of which has probably never taken place on earth before?33
Vincent was not unaware of this “most important of recent events” as he himself put it, “…Victor Hugo says, God is an occulting lighthouse…and if this should be the case we are passing through the eclipse now.”34
But it was not only artists and philosophers who suffered under this Destiny. The “gloom” was widespread. By the turn of the last century, this “gloom” was to give rise to a new branch of medicine: psycho-analysis — following upon the heels of the hypnotists who had experienced a widespread, though fleeting, success in treating the new “malady.” The new disease was so widespread in England that Dr. Cheyne called it the “English Malady,” although Mesmer had no shortage of patients on the continent.35
Finally, then, let us turn to Dr. Gachet, the last doctor to care for Vincent before his death. Though not a painter, his private collection of painting betrays his own ‘discriminating eye’ — a few Cezanne’s and a Pisarro, for example. It was a collection of contemporary works which Vincent, too, admired. He gave Vincent the “impression of being rather eccentric, but his experience as a doctor must keep him balanced enough to combat the nervous trouble from which he certainly seems to suffer at least as seriously as I do. However, the impression I got of him was not unfavorable; when he spoke of Belgium and the days of the old painters his grief hardened face grew smiling again. I think I shall end by being friends with him.”36
It would be a mistake, it seems, to understand the portrait which Vincent finally painted of that “grief hardened face” simply as the depiction of Vincent’s own emotions. The grief rendered visible in the portrait of Dr. Gachet should not be restricted to Vincent’s ‘inner’ feelings any more than to the doctor’s. It was a grief ‘out in the world’ that they both shared and the painting of it is indeed, to use Vincent’s own words, “the heart broken expression of the times.”37
We moderns are just beginning to form the chain of a very powerful sentiment, link by link — we hardly know what we are doing…He who knows how to regard the history of man in its entirety as ‘his own history,’ feels in the immense generalization all the grief of the invalid who thinks of health, of the old man who thinks of the dream of his youth, of the lover who is robbed of his beloved, of the martyr whose ideal is destroyed, of the hero on the eve of the indecisive battle which has brought him wounds and the loss of a friend. But to bear this immense sum of grief of all kinds, to be able to bear it,…to have all this at last in one soul, and to comprise it in one feeling; — this would necessarily furnish a happiness which man has not hitherto known, — a God’s happiness.38
Without approaching the enigma of how this “immense form of grief” might tend to a “God’s happiness,” let us return to the Wheatfield with Crows now that we have at least extended the “inner tragedy of the artist” to the vast proportions of the “outer tragedy of the times.”
Are we now to understand the “imminence of the destruction, the fall, the annihilation,” which Minkowska attributed to “opposing inner forces” as arising from opposing outer forces, instead?
Let us return to Minkowska’s description once again: “…there is a heavy and menacing sky which weighs down upon the earth as if wishing to crush it. The field of wheat moves tumultuously, as if wishing to escape the embrace of the hostile force watching over it.”39
Are we now to see in this struggle between a “heavy and menacing sky” and the “tumultuous” wheat field rising up against it, the symbol of the social conflict of the times? The tumultuous wheat field symbolizing, perhaps, all the downtrodden people of the earth, the laborers and the peasants, rising up against the heavenly domination of their bourgeois oppressors?
Such an interpretation is not so far fetched as it might seem at first,40 but in the end it is as inadequate and unsatisfying as the psychological account — and for many of the same reasons. Insofar as the “forces” at work in “producing” the painting are conceived of in causal terms, then, whether these causes are ‘internal’ or ‘external’ — in both cases we have misinterpreted the ‘nature’ of the artist’s ‘motivation.’
For whether we take the painting as a psychological statement of the impending breakdown of Vincent’s personality, or as a political (socio-cultural) statement of the impending breakdown of society — in both cases we are ignoring all but the ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘threatening’ aspects of the work.
The point here is not to deny this threatening aspect of the work, that is also, the way in which it violates all traditional standards of expression and defies the decadent tastes of the day. There is a threatening or menacing aspect to the painting; and if it has taken us this long to approach the more positive aspects of the painting, well, this only echoes, in a small way, the difficulties which many, in fact most, other people experienced in appreciating Vincent’s work. At first, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, all we hear or see is the glaring violation of our sensibilities.