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Immersed in Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh is now recognized as one of the greatest painters in world history. He’s become the archetypal undiscovered genius, although much of the mythology surrounding him is ambiguous at best. There definitely is a Rashomon effect going on regarding the difficulties in Vincent’s life. Many theories suggest that much of what we think we know about Vincent is wrong.

Did he really only sell one painting during his lifetime, or do references in a letter from his art dealer brother Theo indicate other sales?

Did Vincent really cut off his own ear, or just the lobe?

Was it even Vincent who severed the ear - or was it done by his roommate, painter Paul Gauguin, during a fight?

Did Vincent really commit suicide by awkwardly shooting himself in the abdomen – or was he actually selflessly covering up an accidental shooting committed by some careless local boys?

The dramatic myths can get in the way of appreciating the actual accomplishments of Van Gogh.

Before becoming a committed artist, Vincent had tried a variety of careers: art dealing, teaching, working as a clerk in a bookstore. He tried becoming a minister, as his father had been but failed the academic courses needed.

In 1879 Vincent became a missionary in an impoverished Belgian coal-mining district. There Van Gogh took his mission so seriously he gave away almost everything he owned, and lived in poverty and squalor. He was dismissed from his post by the Dutch Reformed Church for going too far. “They think I’m a madman because I wanted to be a true Christian. They turned me out like a dog, saying that I was causing a scandal,” Vincent reportedly said.

Only then did Van Gogh turn to painting as a career. He was 27 years old. Vincent was a serious artist for less than a decade, from 1880 until his death in 1889. What he accomplished in that brief time is stunning.

In the early 2000s, I had a brief encounter with a roomful of Van Gogh paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I thought I knew these paintings, having seen them in reproduction so many times. I was wrong. It’s one of the magical aspects of art: the unique presence of the original. Pictures in books or on the internet can’t capture it. It was inspiring to see the size of them, the rich colors, the thickness of the paint, to have the knowledge this exact object was made by the hands of one particular man - and probably in one quick session! There’s nothing else like the real thing.

Just like the notorious stories could distract from the true achievements of this painter, there is another distraction making the rounds now.

My social media has been inundated with ads for an immersive Van Gogh exhibit. It seems there are several traveling shows going on now doing similar things. Digital technology will fill auditorium spaces with Vincent’s imagery, using trillions of pixels to make the pictures swirl around the viewer in 360-degree splendor.

I bet it’s entertaining and beautiful. But I can’t help but feel it has nothing to do with what real art makes you experience – especially the art of a master like Vincent. That kind of art is fascinating without needing a giant scale and special effects. It is slow and contemplative.

Vincent’s own words suggest he saw art as another way to serve, in a personal, intimate way. “An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men,” Vincent stated, doubtlessly remembering his own struggles to become a pastor.

Real art, while it can have grandeur, speaks to us with the still small voice of holiness. I’m afraid that crucial element will be obscured by all the bells and whistles. You can go on a Van Gogh equivalent of a theme park ride, and have fun, and not know the love which made him so special.

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