Vincent Van Gogh Exhibition

It was beautiful and I’m glad I went. It was my second trip to the National Gallery of Victoria. The first was a number of years ago, my first ever interstate talk. I was not paid for the trip but my expenses were covered and I was so tremendously excited to be there. I was also so star struck and in culture shock. I grew up poor and have generally had little money. I was put up in a hotel and that was my first experience of it. I felt awed and excited and confused about all the things it was assumed I would just ‘know’. I was actually bouncing between backpackers at the time and had no stable accomodation. I finished the last artwork for my talk 15 minutes before I left for the airport, and had to negotiate a suicidal crisis with a family member that afternoon. I’ll never forget the talk though, I received a standing ovation and so many hugs I went and hid in the toilets until everyone went away to the next presentation! I’m working on a talk at the moment and reminding myself as I care for Rose who is sick and deal with my usual anxiety and imposter syndrome that I’ve never done any of my work from that mythical place of life being easy. I’ve given talks while homeless, run groups about being queer before being out in my own life, navigated intense caring responsibilities and part time study at university. None of it lowers my competence, it is in fact the massive experiential education I’ve built my skills upon. It’s just left some scars in the form of anxiety and pressure and very high expectations of myself.

Back in Melbourne for that interstate talk, someone kindly paid for a ticket for me to see an exhibition of the Masters at the gallery the next day. I was stunned by how beautiful these works were in person, how vibrant compared to the flat photographs and prints I knew. I thought I knew the art but I’d never really seen it. I had a strange conversation with the kind person about what constituted ‘real art’. They contended that art needs an audience before it can be art. I thought of my box of ink paintings and my journals of poems and felt in my bones they were real art whether anyone else ever loved them – or even saw them. What else could they be? They helped keep me alive.

I was ambivalent about going to see this exhibition. I like Van Gogh. I am a Romantic at heart and there are few artists with more romance about them. He was generally disregarded at the Art school I studied at. As were most of the artists I most admire and revere. As was my own work at times.

I remember once, when I was 17, speaking to a poet who had an English degree. He hated my favourite poets, and hated the way I was using the word ‘poet’ to mean not a wordsmith but someone who looked at the world differently, lived more deeply, felt more passionately. He was not cruel but perhaps a little vain and insecure. He told me that he’d thought the way I did once and knew better since university. He told me Tennyson, whom I loved, was “hardly a world-class poet”. He’s the reason I did not go on to study English. I valued the way I saw the world, and I did not want it taught out of me, certainly not to have it replaced by the empty pomposity of the learned academic. I wanted to still love Tennyson.

I don’t use the word ‘poet’ in that way anymore, although it does apply to some poets, and some people. We use the word ‘artist’ like this a lot in our culture, to mean not someone with technical skill in the application of paint or some other medium, or the communication of ideas or disruption of culture, but as a romantic notion of being more truly alive, creative, attuned to something different, greater, sadder, more truly human. Some artists were like this. Van Gogh was stranger than the memory of him holds. Some artists are not at all this way. Creativity and being alive is not the province of those who learn to sculpt any more than those who learn to garden, or plumbing, or looking after cattle. Everything has a language and we all learn to attune to some and are deaf to others. Some of us are more alive than others, however we spend our days.

I am only now beginning to see where my art lives, what language it speaks. To understand that it is the money and glitter of exhibitions I find so alienating, and that the art I love is almost always narrative in nature. There is a poetry in it, a story it is part of. Vincent’s works are so deeply embedded in his pain and failure. The exhibition tracked his hopes as he explored different styles and mediums, trying to find something that would sell. The plea for more paint. The images painted of the gardens in the asylum.

I once spent three weeks wanting a tube of paint from the local news agency. I was incredibly broke at the time, rent and bills consumed every dollar I had. The paint was purple and it cost $3. I yearned for it and finally bought it. When I got it home it was barely useable. The pigment had separated from the binder. Being acrylic it was possible to partly remix it, but the binder had thickened and it was very poor quality. I was so disappointed and too anxious to return it to the newsagent. It had probably been on their shelves for many years.

So much of what we think of as the spendid, divine talent of artists is simply practice, access to good teachers, and money. The ability to reproduce scenery, capture a portrait, or express an idea can be little more than trickery. Illusions of flowing cloth represented in stone. Pigments smeared into each other to mimic clouds. There doesn’t have to be any soul to it at all. And some with great soul, with deep heart, have no obsession with light or colour or paint or theatre or any of what we think of as creative pursuits. They spent their days trying to recreate the DNA of extinct frogs, or raising children, or sewing clothes.

Vincent doesn’t alienate me because he also knew obsession and poverty and failure. His story overshadows his art at times. The exhibition was intensely crowded. We waited in mazes that thinned and became so tight I could barely get Poppy’s stroller through our lane. The first room opened into an auditorium, and David Wenham voiced Vincent, reading letters to his brother Theo. The letters are like poetry, dripping with his hopefulness and sadness and his deep connection to the places he painted. I sat at the back and nursed Poppy to sleepiness, then strapped her milky and drowsy onto my back. We passed prints, plucked from Vincent’s massive collection as examples of the work he collected and wallpapered his studio with. Someone frets behind me that Poppy is leaning back too far and may fall. Another man complains loudly that the prints are not even genuine art! Just replications. I investigate several very closely. They are genuine prints. The strangeness of the crowd is as much part of the experience as the art on the walls. Much patience is needed to view the art, and the pathway is not linear but splits and branches. If you want to see all the works you must retrace steps and double back. There’s a commitment needed.

“One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful. What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don’t believe I’m aiming too high. I want to make drawing that move some people… I would like express not something sentimentally melancholic but deep sorrow. In short, I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly.”

Vincent’s works themselves are grouped by season, starting with his favourite, Autumn. The explanations and stories about the works are placed on plaques at their feet. The crowds stand in front of the plaques to see the art on the walls. Children cluster in front of them, reading notes intended for them to engage the art. The oil paintings have large crowds. The sketches are often void of people. I am patient and visit every work. Poppy sleeps on my back.

The clouds are so intensely white they glow. I don’t know if he was using lead white and this is the cause, or technical skill, or the lighting in the exhibition, but it is memorable, an effect totally lost in all reproductions I’ve seen. Theo encourages him to paint with more colour and vibrancy. Almost all of Autumn is terribly shadowed and dim. Beautiful, but sad and dark and unpopular works.

Poppy wakes in Spring. I’m particularly drawn to this painting of wildflowers. The blue background is such a beautiful colour, so like his skies. The poppies are so vibrant. I buy a print of it to take home to Rose. I am moving my art prints out of our lounge room to make space for our family photos. I don’t know where I will hang this one, but it will be a lovely memory of Poppy’s first exhibition. Poppies are part of our family story in so many ways.

There’s so much sadness there. Twice I cry, standing pressed in the crowds with my baby sleeping at my back. Incongruous in the bright lights. I step away into corners and write notes on my phone, capturing reflections. I am learning to do that again, reaching back for the thing that is more vital to me than breath. Gasping back to some kind of life.

One person said to another – how sad that he died so young, we could have had so many more beautiful paintings. Another that it was a disappointment, too many obscure works and not enough well known ones. Many complain about the crowds. Their feelings and faces and opinions press in around me like water. I stand there with tears on my face, feeling cut open.

Exhibitions usually terrify me or leave me cold. They are a shrine to success and money and brilliance. I feel small, bewildered, outraged within them. The art feels dead and trapped as butterflies pinned to a board. I hate the way they make me feel so empty. I have been investigating this for years, why I feel the way I do. I have felt embarrassed and ashamed of my reaction. It’s assumed that as an artist, I love art and exhibitions and connect with them. Art school was a painful miserable trek from one horrible exhibition to another. I was delighted to attend the first exhibition I felt some kind of connection with during that time – The Black Rose by Trent Parke. Afterwards the tutors complained about it over coffee. I told them I loved it. One said it was “art for the lowest common denominator”. They derided the very thing I celebrated – that it make some kind of sense to people who attended, that it spoke to me in some way.

How embarrassing to love Vincent. More than that, to cry over his works, his sad stories and poetry about walking in the fields and trying to paint the orchard blossoms before they fell from the trees. How very Anne of Green Gabels of me.

To still love Tennyson, Owen, Slessor. My walls have Waterhouse on them because the Lady of Shallot was the first painting I fell in love with, down at the Brickwork markets some kindly person with a little poetry in their soul saw me entranced by her and told me the story behind the artwork and I was smitten. The love remains although I now know her image is on a thousand walls. Ophelia joined her. Turner, who someone once told me was the equivalent of ‘hitting a canvas with a sock full of paint’ spell bound me at the local gallery. My tastes are populist, inelegant, unsophisticated. Leunig, who my drawing tutor told me ‘cannot even draw’, I discovered at 14 in a second hand bookshop on a trip to Victoria and fell in love, standing in the door way in tears. I spent a weeks income to buy the book. I was the only person in the poor suburbs to have hired Hamlet from the local video store in 10 years. On my 5th hire they simply gave me the movie and told me to keep it. Roman Polanski’s four hour version, true to the original play word for word. I used to know the entire play by heart. Shakespeare alongside Vincent. Literary and artistic greats alongside the popular and unknown. All united by a common theme – they speak to me of what it is to be human. Not only the successful or the masterful speak of that. The amateurs, the failures, the madmen, the women, the boy who tags his name on the railway fence because claiming some small place in this world is what is keeping him alive this week – all speak of what it is to be human, while some of the ‘great masters’ say nothing at all in a language I can understand, and trying to understand them just makes my heart feel sick and lonely.

Some artists embrace me. Tim Burton’s simple sketches from school and college that have years later been given such fantastic life made me feel not alienated but included. Amanda Palmer who considers all her fans fellow artists. Generally I avoid exhibitions because I feel cold inside and can’t make art for weeks afterwards. Studios have the opposite effect. If exhibitions are all dead butterflies, in studios they are still spilling across the skies and I see the artists soul and delight in the creation and possibility of art.

Romantics can be dismal artists at times. We are so bound by the story and so dazed by the halo that we struggle to see the art itself, to see shrewdly like an art dealer or pragmatically like an apprentice. In every exhibition that showcases success I am haunted by all the failures and art unseen hidden in the wings of the pantomime. There are a million Vincent’s out there, there’s the tragic thing. A million people who are trying to live with passion and soul who feel invisible and who’s work is not valued. I know what that feels like and their voices call to me within the glitter, their shadow lies cold across my soul.

I am learning what it is I need to do to feel more comfortable with showing not just my vulnerability, but my skills and successes and the answer is the same as it’s always been – authenticity. I learned long ago that sharing my successes was risky, that showing my skills and acing tests cost me friends and I have been lonely to the point of despair. Growing older I have been the reverse of ‘public’ and ‘professional’, hiding success and showcasing distress. They meet in the middle, sides of the same coin. The things I am reluctant to speak of cast shadows of their own. It is easier for me to admit to anguish than write a bio or resume that shows how amazing I am. Yet these things are also true and also in their own way, vulnerable and difficult to speak of. I never give an art exhibition that tells one story. I choose a theme and then I explore it from many angles, anguish is displayed next to whimsy, the bizarre alongside the beautiful. I am learning how to show competence in a way that still feels human, to talk about my successes in the same breathe as my pain.

I once gave my first interstate talk, unpaid and far from home, my heart heavy with fear and responsibility, my artwork hurried. It spoke to people and they came to me afterwards to touch me, to tell me their stories with tears in their eyes, to press scraps of paper with their thanks scrawled on them into my hands. It was an overflowing beyond anything I had experienced and the intensity both overwhelmed me and thrilled me. To connect with people like this, to touch on pain, shame, hope, and bring us back to a place where it is safe to be human – it was the most frightening and joyful act of creation. It is still that for me! Holding a space to be human is the heart of all my work, my art, my relationships, the through-line that connects so many disparate projects and ventures.

Vincent’s humanity is so very evident in his work, both his skill and his vulnerability. The loneliness and yearning and bewildered failures alongside the deep connection to life. He suffered and yet he was also moved by life in ways that many of us are not, sensitive to things we can no longer feel. We pity and envy him, the man who painted the gardens of the asylum. Success is a strange thing, it draws us in like fish to a light, but it also burns and alienates us. We are attracted to it and yearn for it at the same time as it sucks us dry and makes us hate ourselves. Failure is confronting, disgusting, frightening, yet also strangely comforting, a kind of brotherhood. So we thronged through the exhibition and look for ourselves in the paint and inks. Is there beauty here? If we never reach the heights of success, is there still value in our work, and meaning in our lives? Such questions to ask of dead artists. Most us walked past an artist busking at the door, reproducing Sunflowers on a large canvas. I don’t know what his name was but it was not Vincent so we asked no questions of him. My tutors hated that Vincent had become a romantic myth. I find our attraction to his story curiously beautiful. Our culture is not often kind to failures or even much to artists. Yet we stood in lines patiently to crush before his work. All of us, like Vincent, looking for something, drawn to something.

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