When asked to write about Vincent, I hesitated; because all I really wanted to do was meet the great man, and what chance of that? And then something happened.
As a part-time therapist, I’m often struck by how little I know about someone until I meet them. I may have information about them, but until I’ve listened to them reflect on their lives, the chemistry isn’t there and I know almost nothing. So what to do with Van Gogh who famously said of himself as an artist: ‘I’ll never signify anything important; I sense it absolutely.’
The answer came in a moment. I’ve always loved dialogue. I used to write satirical comedy for programmes like Spitting Image and Weekending. And then as a therapist, I know the power of dialogue to create something which didn’t exist before; the power of two souls meeting. So the idea was born: why not speak with Van Gogh? After all, he was a remarkable letter writer, (and a voracious reader) leaving behind a wealth of personal material. So what if I imagined a conversation with him – yet used only his authentic words?
There are many who publish imaginary conversations with characters from the past; but this usually involves them imagining their words as well, and I didn’t wish to go down that path. I feared the characters would end up sounding suspiciously like me. No, I wanted to meet the people, not mould the people; and I knew that using only their authentic words would both keep me honest and their integrity and individuality in tact; and Vincent was priceless: ‘I try to paint in such a way it looks good in a kitchen,’ he said. ‘Then sometimes I notice it looks good in a drawing room too.’ You could say that!
It was a long process, first assimilating the material and then engaging with it critically as one does in conversation. By the time I put my questions to the painter, it was as if I was meeting him face to face, and the conversation felt entirely real. Sometimes I was saddened by his stories of childhood; sometimes unsettled by his volatility or simply in awe in awe as he spoke about colour and the stars. He told me all about his favourite books and paintings, but there were awkward pauses as well.
So has the conversation idea worked? Initially, the omens were not good. Most I spoke to were quietly sceptical. Strangely, it didn’t seem to have been done before, and perhaps there was a good reason for that. ‘If it hasn’t been done, Simon, there’s probably a reason.’ But these same people have been kind enough to change their minds on reading the results, which can read like a transcript from a therapy session.
The fact is, time spent with words about someone is not the same as time spent with their actual words. No one is elusive when you listen to them, and so although I came to Van Gogh largely cold, I now know him well. I don’t know everything about him, but I understand the forces at work in his life, in the ‘making room’ of his soul. In many ways, and this is perhaps worrying, I know him better than I know myself.
Vincent has been the rawest of my conversations, and was unusual in having clashed openly with his parents. For many, parents are the ‘last battle’ which they’re unable face, but Van Gogh’s pain never allowed him this option. As he explained, ‘The harmony between father, mother and me became a chronic evil because there was misunderstanding and estrangement between us for too long. I felt a half-strange, half tiresome person.’ On another occasion, he compared the emotional distance he experienced to a young plant caught too early by the frost. It is significant that he never signed any painting ‘Van Gogh’, the family name – it was always just ‘Vincent’.
What else did I find? I was surprised to discover that one of my favourite paintings of his – ‘Starry night’ – he was unhappy with. ‘I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching for the stars that are too big,’ he said. ‘Another failure – and I have had my fill of that.’ And I also hadn’t realised he’d once been a school teacher in England, where his experiences, as with all of his life, had both their funny and tragic aspects. His love life, however, was only tragic; and what he longed for most – relationship and family – was always denied him; or perhaps denied by him self. As he reflected wearily, ‘Love always brings difficulties.’
He had much to say on mental health, the illness we now call Bi-polar and what worked for him in the mental asylum at St Remy after the ear-cutting incident in Arles. ‘There were moments of indescribable mental anguish,’ he recalled; ‘moments when the veil of time and the fatality of circumstances seemed to be quite torn apart for an instant.’
And as I say, he opened my eyes to colour which as a painter, he came to surprisingly late. It was in the sunshine of Arles in the South of France that his palette truly exploded into life. And his favourite colours? ‘Carmine and cobalt,’ he said. ‘I’m really carried away by those two colours.’
He fell out with everyone, of course; constantly contradicted himself, struggled with commercial failure and didn’t use soap often enough; but he was both riveting and endearing company. ‘And those who paint’ he told me, ‘those who can do it best, are germs of something that will continue to exist for a long time; just as long as there are eyes to enjoy something that is singularly beautiful.’
As one Amazon reviewer says: ‘Simon Parke manages the impossible here – in one slim volume, the figure of van Gogh in all his messy and glorious humanity comes alive. While Parke stands back, asks intelligent and sensitive questions, offers an occasional wry comment, and simply listens, the painter speaks about his life, family, art, beauty, love, God – in short, everything that matters. It’s a heart-breaking but inspiring story. But even if you thought you knew the story, it’s the man behind the myth that we get to know and love.’