VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1891) ABSTRACTION AND POPULISM .THE ARCHITECT OF COLOUR IN POST IMPRESSIONIST FRANCE AND HOLLAND. BY LAURENCE HUMPHRIES

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Vincent van Gogh revolutionised painting during the period known as post impressionism. His use of colour he developed while studying the great masters and he would develop the thickening of the palette to show how paint could be used by applying a palette  knife. His use of colour took up most of his time.

“His examination of colour so completely preoccupied him for weeks on end that in his letters whole pages were covered in complete colours”. [1].

Most of his painting concentrated on the working class in areas in France and Holland. His paintings of peasants and other workers show intimately the work of the working class . “Van Gogh was convinced that the peasants of Brabant should be his main motif ,A peasant painter among peasants”. [2].

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” An almost monochrome palette allowed him to concentrate on the effects of light and shade while the peasant genre satisfied his demand that art serve the people”. [3]. What Van Gogh wanted to do was help the poor and the wretched as he saw , he devoted his art to the service of the working class. ” Van Gogh  now decided to go and help poor people directly .He  took a job as a lay (unqualified ) preacher in the Boinage a poor coal mining region on the border between France and Belgium. working conditions in the mines were dangerous and the miners families had barely enough money for food and clothes. Van Gogh’s heart went out to the people”. [4].

In the potato  Eaters one of his iconic paintings he shows the harsh reality of life for many working people in the 19th Century. “Van  Gogh wanted to show the harsh reality of peasant life. I have tried to emphasise that these people eating their potatoes in the lamplight have dug the earth with these very hands they put in the dish”. [5]. “These Farmers he observed were exceedingly ugly and repulsive making them all true to life, they are so expressive that they have become the true icons of art”. [6].

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Van Gogh worked very hard and he had a very close relationship to his brother always requesting monies when he was not working. He attempted to give himself up to painting which at time brought in very little money. “He worked with wild determination producing landscapes , still lives and portraits of the peasants of Nvenen Weavers and loons , spinners and peasants planting potatoes “. [7].

Van Gogh would be attracted by Socialist Philosophy particularly the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon .”He was particularly impressed by the prints of the socialist -romantic artists notably Jean Francois Millet who was to remain an important inspiration for Van Gogh throughout his Life”. [8].

The influence of the great French Realist Gustave Courbet resonated with Van Gogh who studied his paintings very closely. “During the previous year he had already stated that colour itself expresses something and he had been able to use Gustave Courbet’s portraits to study how colour could be employed as a vehicle for expression”. [9].

Meyer Schapiro the great Marxist  American Abstract Art Historian in 1969 commented on the importance of Van Gogh on his paintings of outdoor life in France and Holland. “They are distinguished on the contrary by their openness and outdoor quality , their subjects are for the most part plain people , or rather it is not a particular trait that makes them worth portraying but their humanity alone”. [10].

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Many commentators have suggested that both Georges Seurat and Van Gogh were interested in portraiture and were the last to paint in this style. “Both artists (Seurat and Van Gogh) accepted the validity of the genre of portraiture they were among the last modern painters to do so, but expanded its parameters and range of effect through a science of Chrom -Luminarism” .[11].

Van Gogh revolutionary approach to art showed how he was able to depict social classes and particularly the culture of peasants and proletarians. ” To explore social ranks and classes to depict the life and culture of peasants and proletarians to construct an art that is at once a expression of his or her community and to represent a beautiful dream of utopia , these are among the subjects of Van Gogh’s mature art”. [12].

His representation of Working class life among peasants and workers is reflected in the number of drawings that Van Gogh made in this period. “Van Gogh preceded at this time to explore working class life and Labour in a group of over 50 single figure drawings of men and women”. [13].

“The artists perception of the workers  is revealed in a letter from 1880 , the miners and weavers still constitute a race apart from other Labourers and Artisans and I feel great sympathy for them”. [14].

Politically Van Gogh’s views always sided with the working class , he supported the early forms of Socialism represented by Saint-Simon and Fourier who supported the various strikes and industrial unrest that broke out in early Capitalist France and Holland . “His political views are revealed in a letter to his brother Theo “I do not think it is exaggerated to be pessimistic about the various strikes. they will certainly   prove not to have been useless. The Labourer  against the Bourgeois is just as justifiable as was the third estate against the other two hundred years ago. “. [15]. Here Van Gogh is echoing the great French painters who preceded him Gustave Courbet the communard and Jacques Louis David the French revolutionary.

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It is clear that Van Gogh’s support for working class revolution and improvement in their conditions shows his Anti capitalist attitude. “More broadly still Van Gogh must be understood as one of the many artists , writers and Philosophers of the 19th century who shared an attitude of romantic Anti -capitalism”. [16].

” For Van Gogh as for so  many of his fellow avant-gardists the old classical order was dead but the new modern one could not be born , the goal of creating an art at once radically democratic and completely modern would remain a dream for at least another two generations”. [17].

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In this analysis of Van Gogh I have shown a much more rounded figure of Van Gogh as a truly revolutionary painter who with Toulouse Lautrec and Seurat and Signac would point the way to abstraction and a different form of Modernism which would emerge with Cezanne and the Cubists.

“As much as Seurat and Van Gogh created an art of antimony ,traditionalist and Revolutionary. Van Gogh succeeded in breaking down the Barriers between popular and elite art. A summary of the life and art of Van Gogh is thus also a summary of the contradictions of Modernism and especially of the simultaneous charmed path and bewitched ground of abstraction”. [18].

FOOTNOTES

1)  VAN GOGH ISABEL KUHL PG41

2)   IBID              PG 72

3)   IBID               PG 84

4)  VAN GOGH ARTISTS IN THE WORLD PRESTEL PG 9

5)  IBID                PG 12

6)  VAN GOGH MASTERS OF ART PG 38

7)   IBID                 PG 20

8)   IBID                  PG 32

9)   IBID                  PG 38

10)  IBID                 PG 152

11) 19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL REVIEW PG. 341

12)  IBID                 PG 343

13)  IBID                 PG 345

14)  IBID                  PG 345

15)  IBID                  PG 348

16)  IBID                   PG 348

17)   IBID                   PG 355

18)   IBID                   PG 355

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