Sunday, July 02, 2006

They nevertheless deserved to be admired

Pilgrimage to an art temple in Amsterdam Sudheendra Kulkarni Indian Express : Sunday, June 04, 2006
During my school years in a small town in Karnataka, I worked as a volunteer in a public library after school hours. It was my earliest introduction to the world of books. Kannada being my mother tongue, and also the medium of study, most of the books I read were from the rich treasure of Kannada literature. And nobody had so much of a mind-expanding influence on me as Shivram Karanth, a multi-faceted literary personality and later a Jnanpith laureate. As I write these lines from Amsterdam, after spending a whole day at the Van Gogh Museum, one book of Karanth that I recall is his travelogue titled Apoorva Paschim (The Unique West).
I have been revisiting it in my mind repeatedly after visiting the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Louvre, Versailles and Rodin Museum in Paris and countless manifestations of art in the monuments and buildings during my extended stay in Europe. In this book, Karanth describes the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe with unrestrained admiration. He was especially impressed by how European countries tried to preserve their heritage during the two catastrophic World Wars. Apart from kindling my imagination about the beauty of distant Europe, what Karanth did was make me understand an important truth: even though one may dislike the West’s colonial powers for what they did to countries like India, they nevertheless deserved to be admired for all that was good and noble in them.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of Europe’s many noble gifts to mankind. His name had left no impression on me in my school days. But he was to be a major discovery in my rebellious growing-up years in college—and the discovery has not ended yet. I never tried my hand at art, but like most young people radicalised by socialist ideals, I was gripped by questions—and answers—about art’s place in life, and its impact on society and politics. And Van Gogh, though he never advocated any ideology, became an inspiration to raise these questions and find answers.
What drew me to him was the book Lust for Life, based on hundreds of letter that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, who was both his benefactor and his unsuccessful art dealer. In my solitary hours, I experienced an indescribable connectedness with his paintings. This befriending of the Dutch artist created an intense desire to see the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which houses the largest collection of his paintings (over 200), drawings and his letters. Hence, last week’s visit was in some ways a pilgrimage to a temple of art.
The use of the word ‘temple’ is deliberate. Van Gogh’s art is spiritual. If prayer or worship means a way of reverential reaching out to the Higher Power that has created this universe, and whose inter-connected attributes have been described by Indian rishis as ‘‘Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’’ (Truth, Divnity, Beauty), then Van Gogh’s paintings have the power to draw the viewer into a spiritual journey. (He writes in a letter to Theo, ‘‘A feeling, even a keen one, for the beauties of nature is not the same thing as a religious feeling, though I think these stand in close relation to one another.’’)
Maybe the beauty of his paintings lies in the power of his colours, or in his almost disorderly brushstroke which has got uniquely identified with him. But the more you watch, the more you realise that it is not any external aspect that has drawn you in. Rather, it is the purity and sublime nature of his art. It is his love for life, but also his agonies in life. It is his paintings’ ability to make us aware of how our own existence and the society we live in have lost the self-elevating harmony with nature, and how this could be at the root of much of our sorrow, our unhappiness with ourselves, our conflicts and our dehumanisation.
For an artist who posthumously became almost a cult figure in the art world, Van Gogh lived a life of poverty, neglect and, in his later years, ill-health. This partly explains his compassion for and solidarity with the poor. He found that honesty and true religious values were more deeply rooted in peasants and workers than in ‘‘the civilised people in cities’’. One of his famous paintings is Potato Eaters, about which he writes to his brother, ‘‘...I have tried to emphasise that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour, and how they have honestly earned their food.’’
The Peasants’ Churchyard, another prized work in the museum, shows a rural church in ruins (perhaps Van Gogh’s way of bemoaning the decline of Christianity in Europe) surrounded by a graveyard bearing crosses. ‘‘I wanted to express,’’ he writes in another letter to his brother, ‘‘how these ruins show that for ages peasants have been laid to rest in the very fields which they dug up when alive. I wanted to express what a simple thing death and burial is, just as simple as the falling of autumn leaf—just a bit of earth dug up, a wooden cross...And now these ruins tell me how a faith and a religion mouldered away—strongly founded though they were—but how the life and death of the peasants forever remain the same...Religions pass away, God remains.’’
Sorrow and death are recurring themes in Van Gogh, just as serene tranquillity and springtime renewal of life are. The blue sky he painted has the soothing effect of a mother’s or a lover’s hand. At other times, it is transformed into the tempestuous swirling of clouds and stars. In each case, it mirrors infinity, and the artist’s search for the mystery of transient human existence.
Institutionalised religion troubled Van Gogh. But the life of Christ remained his ideal. To a fellow painter he writes: ‘‘Christ alone—of all the philosphers—has affirmed, as a principled certainty, eternal life, the infinity of time, the nothingness of death, the necessity and raison d’etre of serenity and devotion. He lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as colour, working in living flesh.’’
In the world of art today, the meaning and magic of art are often obscured by constant money talk. The legacy that Van Gogh has left, however, cannot be measured by the tens of millions of dollars that each of his paintings fetch—and there are very few that get sold at all. Rather it is to be measured by the love and popular acclaim that he has won all over the world, by the good feelings and good thoughts that he sows among generation after generation of art lovers. No wonder, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam attracts more than a million visitors each year. ‘‘My need to serve the people, arising from a religious calling, has now become a strong desire to leave a certain souvenir to humankind in the form of drawings and paintings,’’ he wrote in one of his letters, two years before he shot himself.
As I came out of the beautifully designed museum, with a bagful of Van Gogh souvenirs purchased at the gift shop, my eyes were drawn to a line, engraved in large letters in dozens of different languages, at the entrance. It read: ‘‘Go to the museum as often as you can—Van Gogh, 1883.’’ To me it meant, ‘‘Go to Temples of Art as often as you can.’’ write to

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