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Book Review: "Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days" by Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp -- Published by The Monacelli Press

Book Review: "Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days" by Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp -- Published by The Monacelli Press

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Published by Bill Gusky
A letter to Theo
A letter to Theo

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Bill Gusky on Nov 20, 2010
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03/23/2011

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Book Review: Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days by Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp

-Published by The Monacelli Press Bill Gusky

My dear Theo, In reply to your question about the greatest disadvantage to being dead and famous, I’d probably have to identify the frequent floggings as the answer. It seems that complete and total strangers can’t resist dragging me from the grave every few years and wailing away now that I’ve bit the big one. “Let’s see how much more gold we can squeeze from the old boy.” I suppose I wouldn’t mind it so much if more people were truly interested in the real me. But as we’ve discussed, more often than not it’s some contrived caricature of Vincent they want to know more about, some sort of pathetic insane misunderstood genius. What is it about this cartoon character that people can’t resist? It’s like that worthless yellow sponge creature that lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the ocean, all outline and no substance. Even the outlines are without
Bill Gusky Book Review: Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days 1

value. Very rarely does anyone ever get it right. Picasso understood me well, as did Matisse and some of the Fauves. Kirk Douglas had not a clue. As for Don McLean, let it be said that he doesn’t want to meet me in a dark alley anytime soon. My stomach churns to this day from all the grave-spinning caused by his worthless ballad. Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp seem most assuredly to have a clue, if their book Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days is any indication. It’s one of the few times I’ve noticed the authors of a mainstream publication attempt to straighten accounts for me and set things right. As an example allow me to submit these quotes from the introduction: Van Gogh has often been presented to us as poor, sick, insane, depresssed, alcoholic, and hotheaded. He has usually been portrayed as an antisocial and isolated individual, as a violent misfit, filled with rage and easily carried away, who sold only one painting in his lifetime because his work was despised and misunderstood. He died a martyr, sacrificed at the altar of the ignorance of his contemporaries. ... In reality, Vincent van Gogh was a complex, intelligent, and sophisticated artist... He was a longtime student of the techniques of drawing, consulted texts on perspective, and kept himself abreast of the latest artistic developments of his time. He could afford to do all this because he was not in a position of financial difficulty... This cultivated bourgeois was not mad, far from it. He was obstinate, uncompromising, drawn to the extreme in everything he undertook. He had an impossible character, an innate and stubborn sense of perseverence, and he was utterly indifferent to what other people might think or say... Van Gogh was neither misunderstood nor ignored by his contemporaries. ... ...the privileged few who were able to view his work... were filled with enthusiasm for the dazzling work before their eyes... Finally, (he) did not sell just one painting in his lifetime. ... Theo, do you want to know what the greatest disgrace of a misleading caricature is? It doesn't smell. There’s no sweat, no anxiety. Those last days come back to me in memory as an aromatic melange, coffee, tobacco, liquors and sweats of all kinds: tobacco sweat, alcohol sweat, garlic sweat. The rancid alfalfa sweat of the stable man as distinct from the half-franc-perfume sweat of the Avenue Dimanche whore, as distinct from the hot summer morning old-laundry sweat steamed into overworn bed sheets. The clean glisten of exhilaration at a perfect creative moment,

Bill Gusky

Book Review: Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days

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fresh as dew. The acrid drenching shivering perspiration just after trigger-pull. Van Gogh in Auvers returns some of the sweat to those days as only a skilled and relentless historian’s best research and estimation could possibly perform. I can feel it in the writing, which seems to break down those weeks at times practically day by day. Its humidity steams in the section about you, Brother Theo, your tragic ending, and of your wife and son and their struggles and successes, all excellently documented with family photographs. I can also feel that sweat in the crisp, bright and sweeping photographs of my paintings that devour the generous pages of this intelligent volume. In many of these images I can feel every stroke again. And where did the authors find this dizzying selection of artworks? Some of these paintings I’d almost forgotten about entirely. These two authors have done the work of an army of detectives to scrounge some truly obscure canvases out of collections from around the world. Had I not already known what I’d been up to, this book would have done a thorough job of informing me. That being said, I don’t understand the presence of a little reproduction of one of my letters to you, Theo. It’s slipped into the pages almost as an afterthought, not up to the quality of the rest of the book. When I hold it to my ear I can almost hear a meeting in which some middle manager forcefeeds this half-baked inclusion to the exhausted authors. Had it been Monacelli Press's intention to make a gimmicky coffee table book they’d have done better to use a rubber severed ear. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy a truly gimmicky send-up. Maybe that’s where the Don McLean types get it wrong; they don’t carry their caricatures to bombastically entertaining extremes. I’d venture a few dozen francs for a book in which I wear a backwards baseball cap and low-slung trousers, and ride a skateboard through southern France spitting hip-hop rhymes while committing canvas crimes -- and that’s a cartoon that’s at least as good as the pathetic, insane, misunderstood genius. Wouldn’t you agree, Theo? Thankfully, Van Gogh in Auvers is above all that, a rare book that for once adds to and clarifies the discourse rather than simply sitting on it or, worse yet, sending it even further astray. With that in mind, and fake letter notwithstanding, I hereby award the book Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days four and three-quarters out of five glasses of absinthe for outstanding research, spectacular photo-illustrations, excellent peripheral and contextual information, and, over all, for being a shining example of what a flogged-to-kingdom-come artist really wants to see in yet another book about himself. That’s all from me, Theo. Time to begin resting up for the next flogging. PEACE OUT Vincent

Bill Gusky

Book Review: Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days

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