A symbolic figure of modern art, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) liberated color in painting. Through it, he attempted to capture the essence of beings and of things, to translate emotion and intuitions, without the commitments to verisimilitude that dominated the academic art world of his time. His extensive work – unrecognized during his lifetime – and tragic and intense existence have, for decades, attracted studies on the most diverse of fields. The close to 900 letters that he wrote were preserved and have made up the most important documental source about his life and his process of creation. Ceifar, Semear – A Correspondência de Van Gogh [To Harvest, to Seed – the Correspondence of Van Gogh], by Luciana Bertini Godoy (Annablume/FAPESP, 2002, 274 pages), considers the letters as a parallel work of art, whose examination illuminates aspects of the life, the art and the imagination of the painter.
Luciana Bertini’s interest in the Dutch painter dates from 1992, when she began her project of scientific initiation. Currently, she is preparing her doctorate thesis at the Study Laboratory into Art Psychology (Lapa) – supervised by professor João A. Frayze-Pereira, at the Psychology Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP). The thesis will deal with the self-image of Van Gogh, which can be sketched out from his letters, the object of the first treatment in To Harvest, to Seed. The madness is one of the main elements that identified the painter, to the point of being converted into a stereotype. “The association between art and madness makes insufficient an exclusively pathological approach to the disturbance”, asserts Luciana.
The researcher chose 262 letters, which deal with an innovative point of view in the domain of psychology. Refusing the visions of psychoanalysis and of psychiatry – which strengthen the numerous studies about the painter, more concerned in giving a diagnosis for his madness -, the author chose an unprecedented focal point, that of the psychology of art. This view point tends to understand the artist by taking into account his manner of seeing the world – his subjectivity – and the world itself, which is participating in the configuration of this subjectivity. Van Gogh is considered within his physical environment, in the historical reality of his time, which had a specific group of moral and cultural values.
Luciana is not searching for a reply to the question of madness, preferring to give value to the multiplicity of the determinations, considering “legitimate all of the paths and dead ends taken by Van Gogh, without the necessity of giving to them reasons, explanations, dissections that transform the artist into what we want him to have been, into something different than what he was, according to the limits that our lack of understanding allows us to perceive”, she notes. What makes the interpretation of the artist’s madness difficult as an evasion of himself “is the lucidity that he reveals in his self-questioning, the precision and the obsession that guide and construct his work, which constantly appear in his writings”, she observes.
During the carrying out of the study, the researcher began to realize that in the analyses done up until now, the letters give legitimacy to the convictions of researchers with regards to the painter, without being a starting point for investigations. “The complexity of the letters and his contradictory character allows one to validate any theory chosen a priori”, she attests. The systematic examination of the letters led her to isolate three main themes, which appear with regular frequency: life, art and illness. Each one of them includes some sub-themes. Organized, starting from these cutouts, the material is an instrument of reflection about the configuration of the auto-image of the artist, a task currently on course.
The existential dramas of the painter cannot be understood out with his era. Luciana shows that Van Gogh was a modern artist with romantic traits – present in his passion, in theway which he lived his life, the manner in which he is inserted in the world, which moves him and at the same time shakes him. This passion appears in the visceral employment to which he submitted himself to artistic work and to other activities that he carried out, such as, for example, being a Protestant pastor. The links of the painter with modernism appears in his apprehension of his position in the face of the world, in the compromise with political, social and cultural transformations. The letter in which he commented on one of his most famous paintings, The Potato Eaters (1885), makes the conscience that he had on painting it very clear, combining esthetical innovation and social criticism.
For the researcher, his life does not explain the work. “The relation between them is more complex than a mere relationship of cause and effect. This is my line of research throughout the text: to maintain the complexity, the puzzle”, she says. Van Gogh believed that the difficulties confronted by him were a result of his condition of being an artist, difficult to carry. “He had put forward the idea that the life of an artist was incompatible with that which he called “true life”: to marry and to start a family. The idea that, in Van Gogh, illness was placed at the service of art, relating it to the autonomy of his art, with the mistake of understanding him beginning with his madness”, she states. “On the contrary, with the idea of madness, isolation and sacrifice are possible attributes to a determined identity of the artist – the modern artist – totally assumed by Van Gogh.”
To Harvest, to Seed – The Correspondence of Van Gogh (nº 00/13887-3); Modality Publication assistance; Author Luciana Bertini Godoy – University of São Paulo; Investment R$ 4,200.00