Monday, 3 February 2014

Van Gogh: A Prophet of Light

Have a look at this picture, I'm sure you will recognise it, it's Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' painted in 1898. I've always loved this picture. The first time I ever remember seeing it, I must have been eight or nine years old. We were allowed to paint and draw at school on Tuesday afternoons, something I always looked forward to. We weren't jut allowed to draw and paint we were allowed also on occasion, to model with cardboard boxes and be creative. I don't think most parents see may see it in that light when their children arrive home with their creations of recycled junk. But no matter, art is about imagination and what cannot be denied is the power of imagination. I happen to think that imagination is one of our greatest faculties and in children it needs to be encouraged. In any case, where would humanity be without imagination to fire its inspiration and to lead us on to achievements that cynics had previously have either dismissed as pointless fantasy and time wasting? Where would we be without artists and dreamers?

As I was saying, our teacher had put a print of Van  Gogh's Starry Night on the wall and explained to us that those dramatic Catherine wheels in the night sky of  that  picture  were  really stars. She explained that this painting was an example of alternative way to see, to draw and paint and therefore depict meaning outside of the conventional ideas of what a picture should look like. Her words made a lasting impression on me, it was too me a small but significant moment in opening my mind to ideas in art that went beyond the merely conventional. Looking back, it was a revelation to me since there were no pictures on the walls inside the council house where I lived as child, let alone a Vincent Van Gogh print!

I have to say that in spite of this early teaching experience I have lived my life knowing little about art. It's true that I have made the occasional visit to local and national art galleries and seen the occasional art programme on television. But on the whole I remain largely ignorant about art and the work of the great artists, which I have to admit, is nothing to boast about at all. However, as a ministry student at Luther King House in Manchester, I was, as it were, called back into the classroom. And there I had to encounter what was termed 'Art in Theological Reflection', Art in 'Encountering and Responding to Christ', and there was even a module titled: 'When Artists, Scientists and Theologians Meet'. In theology it seems, I cannot escape the world of art and there amongst all the great artists I rediscovered albeit, much later in life, my old friend Vincent Van Gogh and his Starry Night - courtesy of a college power point projector.

The teacher on this occasion was a Baptist minister, the Reverend Dr Richard Kidd who is also the co-author of:  God and the Art of Seeing - Visual Resources for a Journey of Faith. Commenting on Vincent's Starry Night He wrote these words "Let us look at it closely, it is utterly 'Van Gogh'; all, that is but for one thing, the darkness; But he writes in the same paragraph, "Its claim to total 'Van Goghness' is fully justified however by the peculiar illumination of this night; even from the darkness an unparalleled radiance beams from this painting." I think, if you like this picture, this is indeed what draws us, the colour in the night sky, the dynamic swirling motion  of the paintwork,  and the sheer energy of light that explodes and is born out of the darkness

As a young man Van Gogh wanted to enter the church. He was initially encouraged in this ambition whilst working in England in 1876. At this time a Methodist minister, the Rev Slade Jones whom he was also lodging with, employed him and also gave him the opportunity to preach at his church. The theme for the sermon was taken from Psalm 119: 19 "I am a stranger on the earth, hide not thy commandments from me." The writer, Albert Lubin said "The sermon shows Vincent freely accepting the existence of grief, loneliness, and death, but through the vehicle of religious faith he is able to glorify them as a prerequisite for joy, acceptance and immortality."Catalysed by suffering, sorrow leads to joy, loneliness to togetherness, death to rebirth, darkness to light, and earth to heaven."

Vincent's sermon given at the Wesleyan Methodist Church Richmond on Sunday 29 October 1876 ended with a description of a painting: God Speed by George Henry Broughton (1870) Inspired by Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, Vincent recalled the picture's distant mountains, and then spoke of the distant mountains that pilgrims must arduously travel in faith. In a letter to his brother he describes this first preaching experience in the pulpit as 'emerging from a dark cave underground'. He feels as though he is emerging into the 'friendly daylight' and so, describing his first experience as a preacher, it is images of light to which he intuitively turned." Enthused and inspired he wrote "It is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I go, I shall preach the Gospel."  As we know, Van Gogh became the extraordinary lightening conductor through which his own inner turmoil would lead to a metamorphosis in which his Christian faith, and later his paintings brilliantly dreamed out on canvas would bring fame and immortalise him in the world of art.

However, Van Gogh's attempts to enter the Church were ultimately unsuccessful. He failed to pass the entrance exams for the Faculty of Theology in Amsterdam.  He  then  entered  an evangelical  school in Brussels only to be rejected after working as  a lay  preacher  amongst  the  miners  in  Belgium.  In  August 1879, he was rejected by the church, which criticised him for his 'excessive  commitment'  Whatever  Van  Gogh's'  personal  short comings, his ascetic life style as a 'lay evangelist'  and dedication  to  his  ministry,  to  the  peasant  miners,  his  praying with them and dressing their wounds cannot be denied. This was Van Gogh's testament to following the life of Christ. But in the end without the support of the Church his self-appointed missionary life could not be sustained. Moreover his own health could not withstand his own obstinacy and his self-induced privations.

Vincent Van Gogh was twenty-seven years old when he finally abandoned his attempts to become a pastor and set his sights on becoming an artist instead. But I would argue that he would never give up on his faith. For example, in 1888 he described Christ, the life of Christ by writing, "He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh. It has been said by many commentators, 'the majority even' have argued that the end of Vincent's evangelistic career was also the end of his Christianity and even the end of his belief in God. The reality is more that whilst Vincent like most people who  may have break with organised religion and its attendant hypocrisies still retain their faith and  there attachments to the Bible and hold on to that concept of the Christ figure. In a letter to his brother, Theo in 1884 he wrote, "Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its Founder was sublime"

There are critics who have dismissed Vincent's religion and art as a coping mechanism for a troubled mind and we know that Vincent   was a troubled man; we know   about his personal circumstances his bouts of melancholy his depressions, his self­ admitted insanity, the story of his cutting off of a large part of his ear with   a razor.  All of  this  point  to  a  life  of  mental suffering,  deep  feelings of   rejection,   unrequited   love,   and loneliness would (again) lead to self mutilation and death by suicide in 1890. However, the specific details of Van Gogh's illnesses are complex. Could it not be suggested that in large part, albeit at an extreme, his sufferings are representative of the universal human condition? We are all familiar with existential angst. Perhaps we should learn to recognise our own shadow side as an integral universal component. And whilst we may long for, and worship the light, we may learn that we simply cannot consign the darkness to irrelevance. Van Gogh seemed to know that darkness and suffering is the soil, the potential, out of which may spring light, life and love. Light and darkness is not a duality but a symbiotic whole in a dialectical relationship. And I find it helpful to see the twin themes of religion and art as the medium through which Vincent's own God-realisation could be expressed, a working through of the Holy Spirit leading him to artistic completeness. A prophet of light who bequeathed paintings that will be gazed at forever in awe and wonder