Naifeh and Smith’s Vincent van Gogh lecture at the Met

Letters to Theo, Vincent Van Gogh

Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
2011-2012 Season

Vincent van Gogh
Presented by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

Attending the lecture, Vincent van Gogh, presented by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, in conjunction with the recent publication of their daunting and controversial biography on the artist (Vincent van Gogh: A Life), was an awesome experience. And I do mean awesome in the true sense of the word, as it was both impressive and daunting. I was in the final stages of my 70-page Masters thesis, pitying my labors, when Naifeh and Smith took the stage at announced the completion of their ten year long project and over one thousand page long book, with 600 plus pages of notes. Goodbye, violins.

In the graciously lit auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the authors, following an introduction by the unbelievably eloquent Susan Alyson Stein (Curator of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Contemporary, and Modern Art at the Met), spoke sincerely and humbly. They were not standing behind a podium, but seated in two comfortable chairs that turned slightly inward to each other, with a coffee table in front of them on which they could rest a glass of water and their notes. Behind them, the massive screen illustrated various van Gogh artworks and ephemera. It created more of a round-table discussion vibe rather than a lecture. They began with mentioning their nervousness at speaking in front of a room full of the world’s van Gogh scholars and furthermore having this lecture be the first of their tour (which went on to various smaller institutions across the country). They got a chuckle out of the flattered audience. Another chuckle arose when they told us they met at Harvard, where they were both studying law, and realized that neither one of them wanted to become a lawyer. Thus they set out to pursue what they loved: art and writing.

There is an attorney-esque aspect to their work, though, as they choose to take somewhat of an investigative approach. Not mentioned in this lecture, their (Pulitzer-prize winning) 1989 Jackson Pollack biography (Jackson Pollack: An American Saga) was based on more than 2,000 interviews with 850 people. With a similar strategy, they read each and every (and there are over 900) van Gogh letter. Their new biography has been revolutionary in that is suggests and argues for an alternate ending to van Gogh’s death as we know it. Since, scholars have come forward, agreeing with Naifeh and Smith that the story as it has been accepted for so many years, doesn’t quite add up.

Not dwelling on this, or giving away their ending, the authors instead focus their lecture on what led them to write about van Gogh. It is a valid point, as there has been so much written already, and so many (as I was not aware until this lecture) who have spent their lives dedicated to “van Gogh studies.” They spoke about the world’s fascination with van Gogh, and our astonishing appreciation of his paintings. He is beloved unlike any other artist. What is it that we are drawn to, the myth? The insanity? The death? What they seemed sure of is that van Gogh was able to express something of what it is like to be human. Coming out of a near-death surgery, one of the authors mentioned this moment, which happened to be just before they had finished the book, where he just opened his eyes and saw everything before him in such an intensity, as if it could be the last time he would see it. He thought that van Gogh captured this feeling; how in something as simple as a branch from an almond tree there is such an emotional response. Vincent, they said, had a strong belief that what you see on the canvas is what is in the artist’s head. Thus, to study van Gogh, one must read the letters.

They had the help of someone who created a database of their 100,000+ notecards on the letters, and with this digital program, were able to do in ten years what would have otherwise taken thirty. This database, or at least a similar one is now available via the van Gogh Museum’s website. They are broken down meticulously, by period, by place, by correspondent, and by those including sketches. (http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let001/letter.html) (There is a complicated searching method for which the museum has created a tutorial, but in my opinion if you just click on any one of them you will be blown away if not moved to tears by the artist’s outpours to his brother Theo.)

Naifeh and Smith argue, and make a valid point, that our letters to our family members are not always truthful and should not be read as journal entries. (Think, being in college, spending money on god-knows-what and asking mom and dad for more, assuring them that you are doing well and have joined campus community outreach club.) Theo was much like a father figure to Vincent, and he was overly dependant on him. The authors touched on van Gogh’s viscosity, his need to get extremely and smotheringly close to people, and the resulting alienation, which made it hard for him to be a part of an artistic movement, but also made him the great painter he was. They talked about his temporal lobe epilepsy, which during an episode rendered the artist unable to paint. And just as the audience was hooked and wanting the rest of the story, and their conclusions on his suicide/murder, the lecture came to an end with an announcement about autographed copies being available.  Thus we shall all have to read the book!