I had no idea Don McLean sang anything other than American Pie. I was so proud of myself when I learned all the words to that song. I still don't know what some of them mean, but I do know what they are! But the song about Vincent is a typical McLean – soft-spoken, poignant and long.
I love the video Jamie inserted. Rolling through Vincent's work with that song is what we call today a "multi-sensory" experience. You can see the clear evolution of his work. I wonder if I see the sadness in his work because I know his history.
He was such a sad person. Is it possible that his sadness drove his tremendous talent? Or was he sad because he couldn't capture what he wanted to say with his paint? Although we look at his work and say "genius", is it possible that he would reject our adulation of him? Or worse, would someone see the pain and insist that he go on some anti-depressant? Would that destroy his genius? Would he be just another paint-by-numbers artist?
I particularly love the way Vincent used the color yellow. He used a lot of it, and in many different types of paintings – portraits, landscapes, fanciful night scenes. But always, I get a sense he was using yellow to push back the darkness that hovered nearby. When I was a little girl and it was time to color at school, I would often take a yellow crayon and cover the page. I loved the brightness that it became and how it made me feel bright and cheerful too.
Vincent's portraits and paintings of individuals are filled with such dignity. Even the baby has a solemn look in its eyes. Is it possible that these people who were sitting for portraits had some glimpse of the sadness in him?
Finally, the painting of the people going to church makes me sad. So much of religion in his time was formalized, ritualized and rigid. There was no room for people who would not or could not conform. In his own town, was there no one who would extend the love to him that he so desperately needed? On the other hand, I have been touched by the suicide of a loved one, and I have learned that when a person is in that kind of depression, it is very, very difficult to reach them. The very chemicals in their brain that drive the depression also drive them to reject help or even perceive the need for help.
A young man I knew and dated for one golden summer took his own life at age 22. He was a carpenter, but his soul was one of an artist and he had drawn and painted all his life. He had a severe learning disability due to too much oxygen in an incubator when he was a preemie. The manifestation of that in him was that he was functionally illiterate – he could not read and write beyond a very basic level. His parents had insisted that he needed to become a tradesman so he'd be able to support himself. He did, and put his artwork aside. When I met him that golden summer and saw his drawings I insisted that we needed to go to Ft. Worth to the Kimball Art Museum. We did and I watched his face come alive. We spent the rest of the summer boating and playing and he drew and painted.
I left for law school in the fall and about a month later got one of the worst phone calls of my life. I've often wondered whether taking him to the Art Museum was a kind or unkind thing. I, of course, felt terrible guilt. But a good friend called me when she heard and told me that the semester she had missed when we were in college was because she had tried to end her life, and had been hospitalized as a result. She said, "unless you struggle with clinical depression, you will never understand how deep the hole is, and how hard it is to get out. There is nothing you could have done to make that climb for him."
I haven't read Dear Theo, but now I'm inspired to do so. Thank you Jamie for helping me to think outside myself.