4/4/21: At Eternity’s Gate (2018) — The Joy of Living #poetry
Van Gogh painted fast — deprived of community, which he craved, his constant urge to communicate needed release. He found that release on the canvas. Instead of communicating to whoever he was physically near — people who largely rejected him, he communicated to the future mankind, to the entire world, and to and for God. Van Gogh is often portrayed as a martyr, driven mad by society’s insensitivity and cruelty. This film, directed by the painter, Julian Schnabel, shows Van Gogh’s joy.
Society deprived itself of Van Gogh, the person not just the artist, when he was living. It was society’s loss not his. He was a lovely man. He would have to be to make such beautiful paintings. Van Gogh had everything that society needed. He was in touch with light and air and all of nature — sunflowers and human nature and himself — he merged with the subjects of his painting, at one with everything. He represented something beyond equality. He was unity with every person, place and thing that he encountered. Van Gogh was innocent of hierarchies and bureaucracies and money and ill will, because those are all unnatural things.
Van Gogh lived his life in awe — in awe of the world, in awe of all life, in awe of eternity. He was a very happy man when he was painting, and he was almost always painting. The stereotype of Van Gogh as a “tortured artist” is presented from society’s point of view, and gives society too much credit. It is society that is tormented, not Van Gogh. It is society that is driven insane by its own cruelty, not Van Gogh.
Van Gogh was engaged in what society viewed as a superfluous thing. Paintings feed, clothe or shelter no one … but Van Gogh did the essential thing … I don’t even know why I say it is the essential thing, but I know it’s true …
Artists have nervous breakdowns the way that athletes suffer injuries. No one says that an athlete lacks a lust for life when his body breaks down. The brain, heart and stomach are parts of the body as much as an ankle or knee. All intense work and play entails physical risk. Very few have the good fortune of never getting hurt. Van Gogh’s periodic psychotic episodes just came with the territory of the fulfillment of the potential of his constant inspiration.
Van Gogh was sometimes terrified by who he was, by what he did and could do. Have you ever been afraid before the big date, or the final exam, or the job interview or any other life event where you want to do your best out of love for the thing itself and for what your success would mean to you personally? Multiply that fear by a million. Anxiety is love and courage in embryo.
Van Gogh was not only ignored and abused by other people who misunderstood him. The contrary was true as well. He got just enough love and support to do what he had to do. Nature or God — same thing — furthers all that is dynamic and changing within it or Him — same thing.
When the world ignored Van Gogh, Gaugin knew his greatness. There are some people who can see reality beyond social recognition. Those people are the only ones that matter. The ones who see just based upon what they are told has value, can’t see at all. The artist can’t save such people from their self – imposed exile from life.
Once again the connection of art and spirituality surprises me and appears in my writing. Van Gogh, like Jesus, was falsely accused by ignorant people who did not understand who and what he was. Van Gogh, like Jesus, was conscious of his human weakness and his divine gift of perception.
From the script of the movie:
“Life is for sowing. the harvest is not here” Van Gogh speculating that God placed him in the wrong time, that he painted for future generations. (Me: All art speaks to the future. If it is too readily understood in the present, what good is it?)
“I paint with my qualities and faults.” (Me: What else could art be but a representation of the artist? Sorrows and joys … the joy of sorrow, the sorrow of joy … )
“Jesus said, turn your heart away from things visible and turn your gaze to things invisible.” (Me: Not everyone sees what the artist sees. Jesus is an obscure artist. He is not known for what He really is by most people to this day. Is the capacity to make and appreciate art a talent or gift, or is a matter of openness and generosity … a matter of personal character? Jesus said, “turn your heart”. Van Gogh’s life and work is testimony about what the Godly turning of the heart looks like. Artists and saints are brothers. Synonyms?)
Does art tell a story? Is the rendering of the meaning of a moment a story? I’m still wondering about that. I know this much … the moment is far more important than the story. The story is just paint. The moment is the eye of the artist and the whole of time and the world.
Van Gogh ecstatically raced into the fields so that he could start painting. Is that something to be pitied?
The movie speculates that Van Gogh was murdered and did not commit suicide. This makes sense to me. Van Gogh was too joyful to commit suicide, too full of purpose. Yes, he cut off his ear … but that was kin to self – flagellation … an outer manifestation of a kind of shame. He got over it. Van Gogh’s death was more of a crucifixion, but not exactly. Christ knew who he was dealing with … he worked with the people and knew that they would come for Him. He wanted them to … Van Gogh was oblivious to society … he was so involved with nature, he ignored mankind’s perversions of it. Van Gogh had a hyper – sensitivity to the truth, and was deaf to lies. Maybe that is why he cut off his ear — he just didn’t want to hear the falsehoods that men barbarically attacked him and all other purity with …
I am more like Gaugin than Van Gogh. Van Gogh at times wondered if his painting was any good when people said it wasn’t, but mainly knew that it was, particularly when he was in the act of making it. Gaugin never wondered if his painting was any good. He knew it was. Period. Gaugin was insulted by society and disdainful of its bureaucracies, and hierarchies. Gaugin could go be with people when it served his art. He knew how to defend himself.
There is a lot that goes into being an artist beyond the making of the art. Like anyone else, an artist has to live a practical life. He has to figure out a way to exist in the world with nature AND society. Or he becomes a human sacrifice … like Jesus or Van Gogh. Most of us are sacrifices to nature. We get sick, or injured and we die. We are sent back into the ground so that the entire cycle renews itself. The elements that made our existence possible are re -purposed into new life forms. Most of us don’t think about it much — we just deteriorate and die. We are too preoccupied living our social life to be conscious of our natural one. Jesus and Van Gogh had the opposite experience. They were so engaged with their natural lives and all of nature, that society was the thing regarded as unimportant … and thus society killed them. The movie hypothesizes that Van Gogh never spoke a word against the boys who did the assault that resulted in his death because he didn’t want to blame them. They were part of nature, and Van Gogh participated in nature, he never placed himself in opposition to it. Nature has no criminals.
Van Gogh suspected that his painting wouldn’t be recognized in his lifetime. I suspect that my writing will. Van Gogh had great hospitality for everyone that he met, and was always surprised when so many were cruel to him. I think that most people are lousy in intelligence and character, and I am always surprised when I meet someone who is smart and kind. Van Gogh believed that he would meet a community of artists and no longer be alone. I feel the same way. Artists don’t need community for their art — that they do that by themselves. They need community for the humanity. It is natural for us to want to be with people who recognize and understand us, and respect us and treat us well.
All art is the same — at eternity’s gate. All artists are different. Gaugin saw who Van Gogh was when almost no one else did. That achievement of humanity equaled his own art …
“Jesus said, turn your heart away from things visible and turn your gaze to things invisible.” This is what you and are called to do everyday, yes as artists (if that’s what you do), but more importantly as human beings. All morality and ethics, but even more — all the joy of living itself … depends on gazing at the invisible.
Now I have articulated why art is the essential thing (for artist and audience).
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas