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Painting by Van Gogh

Sorrowful yet always rejoicing

Newsletter: May 2022

Dear web friend

Greetings again as I prepare to draw back the curtain and let the life of Vincent van Gogh flood in. I’m leading a retreat on his life in the summer, and if you’d like details you can find them here:

Starry, starry night: A spiritual walk with Vincent Van Gogh

I first became fascinated by the man when my daughter had to do a school project on him. I think we can be sure I spent longer on the assignment than she did; and have continued with it, in one way or another, for the next however many years.

He could paint a wheatfield and a sunflower; but was not easy socially. The painter Émile Bernard described his ‘lively gestures, perky step and with his everlasting pipe, canvas, engraving or sketch. He was vehement in speech, interminable in explaining and developing his ideas, but not very ready to argue.’

Another painter, AS Hartrick, recalls him ‘glancing back over his shoulder, and hissing through his teeth’ while ‘pouring out sentences in Dutch, French and English.’

He definitely ‘dressed down’, going for the peasant image. When working for Goupil, the art dealers, in his early twenties, he was a businessman with a top hat and a shining example of Dutch cleanliness. Can you imagine? But this trait was lost, never to return, when he went to work among the poor of the Borinage, a mining district in Belgium. I suspect this change in identity was also about leaving behind his cold formal upbringing in a pastor’s home where he never felt worthy. He always signed his pictures ‘Vincent’ – there was never the family name ‘Van Gogh’.

He taught in England for a while in Ramsgate and Isleworth; they were not schools that would pass any Oftsed inspections, and there’s something both tragic and hilarious about his earnest accounts of these times. And then, of course, he went to impressionist Paris and discovered colour for the first time; and subsequently travelled south to Arles, and discovered light for the first time.

There were so many transformative adventures for Vincent, but he was always dependent on his brother Theo for money. And he wasn’t the easiest sibling. ‘It’s a pity Vincent is his own worst enemy,’ wrote Theo. ‘For he makes life difficult not only for others but also himself.’

Gauguin, who shared the Yellow House with him for a while, echoed these thoughts: ‘It appears there are two different beings in him: the one marvellously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other, selfish and heartless.’ Vincent’s dream of an artistic community in Arles could never happen because it was a dream he was at war with. He was unable to hold himself kindly and so would be quite unable to hold others in such a manner.

I could go on about Vincent but, for your sake, must exercise discipline. If you would like to get to know him better, however, I wrote a book called Conversations with Vincent Van Gogh. Using only his own words, drawn from his many letters, I turn it into a conversation. I feel it’s the most successful in the series and a good way to meet the man and his remarkable life… should you wish to.

Conversations with Vincent Van Gogh

He died on my birthday, two days after shooting himself in the head. And maybe that’s the saddest link I’ll ever write, because I’d like to finish this letter with… my birthday.

I’m 65 this July, and to celebrate the arrival of my pensionable years (should I make it there) I’m going to run a marathon on behalf of Ukraine. The money will go to support work among newly arrived Ukrainians in Seaford. My local church, St Peter’s, is at the heart of a number of local projects.

If you feel able to sponsor my exhausting struggle, thank you. It would be a birthday gift for me and practical help for people’s whose lives have been turned upside down by a steroid-filled control freak. I’m aiming for £3,000 – and we have £50 so far, which is a start. Here’s the link – and thank you, whatever you decide. You’ve probably already been generous to the cause in other ways, so feel free to ignore my request.

Simon Parke’s Marathon

I was actually very struck recently by a student talking about her response to events in Ukraine and I blogged about her here. I suppose we’re all wondering what we can do. She reduced the studio to silence.

A stupid candle?

As ever, thank you for being there. Concerning himself, Vincent would often say that he was ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’, a phrase I like. At his funeral, his coffin was covered in yellow roses. ‘It was his favourite colour, if you remember,’ writes Bernard. ‘The symbol of light he dreamed in our hearts.’

Toulouse Lautrec, whom he knew in Paris, was sad to miss the event. ‘You know what a friend he was to me and how eager he was to demonstrate his affection.’

Like us, Vincent had so many sides to himself. And in his letters to Theo, he always finished with the line, ‘A handshake in thought!’ And so today, that’s how I finish this letter to you. Wherever you are, and however you are, a handshake in thought to you!

Simon x

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