Van Gogh
"The Potato Eaters", 1885, Van Gogh. Photo: reproduction

Gabriel San Martin*

NOn the 5th of February, writer and art critic Rodrigo Naves published his new book: Van Gogh: Salvation through Painting (Publisher However). Despite the fact that the Dutch painter has been a much-discussed artist for over a century, Naves is capable of presenting another view of the painter's work.

If the quality of the canvases by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was repeatedly attributed to the artist's difficulties and psychic problems, Naves is convinced of a different interpretation. For the critic, more than representing the difficulties of his life or victimizing himself, the painter had as his motive the creation of compositions linked to an attempt at salvation through work. The Dutch have always been closely linked to the Calvinist religion – a doctrine that emerged from the Protestant Reformation in the XNUMXth century – and for this reason, according to Naves, the “destiny of his life rests on endless work, a condemnation, therefore, that someone trained in the Calvinist morality would at the same time be a hope of salvation.

In this sense, this interview aims to discuss some interesting points in his new book and on certain issues related to art criticism today. Read below:

Gabriel San Martin – What led you to write a book about Van Gogh these days?

Rodrigo Naves – It has a side, shall we say, a little random and a little misunderstood. In 2017, Luiz Schwarcz, from Companhia das Letras, asked me to make books that were based on my Art History course. I evaluated it badly, because I was already 63 years old, more or less, and I don't have the best health. But I accepted. Then I wrote the text by Van Gogh, because not only is he one of the artists I like the most, but the text was already more worked on, although I had to find the notes. Did a good job.

GSM – It seems to me that the central thesis of the book is to establish a direct link between the admiration that Calvinists have for the work and the work of Van Gogh, right? So that he sought to create a possibility of salvation through painting. So I would like you, in your own words, to give a brief explanation of this thesis that you present in the book.

EI think this: yes, this question is very central and, let's say, I can see work on the surface of Van Gogh's canvases. Because, usually, if I take a bottle of Coke, for example, the work is hidden. Be it any industrial object, a nail clipper, your glasses…  I mean, it's industrial work, in general, because it's not rude and doesn't reveal the existence of human intervention. And, in the case of Van Gogh, because of this very thick use of paint – what is called, in the jargon, dough –, the brushstroke is simultaneously the attempt at figuration of something, be it a face, a haystack, a sunflower… So that, because it is very thick, it creates a tension between figuration and being a yellow, blue, etc. So it has to do with this Calvinist notion of work, of work as a kind of praise, a kind of glorification of God. A work that does not imply reward, wealth or prosperity, but rather a certain education of the senses, a concentration on aspects of the sensitive world that would not be more on the side of vice than of virtue, a discipline that is very decisive for this Protestant denomination.

I believe that in Lutheranism, which is the first Protestant branch, things are not so radical. So much so that in Max Weber's book, A Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism, is Calvinism. He [Van Gogh] comes from a family very connected to Calvinism, his father was a pastor and his grandfather, if I'm not mistaken, was a theologian of Calvinism. Both in some letters and in the themes he uses, this issue of the work regime is very strong. For example, in the last stage, around the time when he really starts to paint professionally, at the end of 1864, in a small village, he paints the famous potato eaters. So, the themes are also closely linked to agricultural and peasant work, which has changed a lot with machines and mechanization, but it was the most rustic work, in which the relationship with the land is close. And he lives, if I'm not mistaken, more than a week with that family [of The Potato Eaters] to, finally, better incorporate the gestures, the type of work. An indicator of this issue is also that the great love of painting for him was Jean-François Millet, who is the painter of the peasants. And he has four or five works that are copies, copies in style, in which he builds on themes similar to those of Millet. So, in various aspects, cultural and religious or his own training, this issue was decisive.

Van Gogh
The book cover. Photo: However Publisher

GSM – Still in this sense, you comment a lot throughout the book about how Van Gogh's work was reduced to his situation as a person who suffered a lot. Do you think that, not wanting to establish a hierarchy, there is an even greater force in this impetus of work at the expense of this impetus of suffering in his work?

That he had psychic sufferings to a more terrible or less terrible degree seems to me indisputable. He also had serious problems with alcoholism. Then people make diagnoses in Van Gogh according to what psychiatry is changing. So, it was once schizophrenia, now it is bipolar disorder, it is also said that he had epilepsy... mistake, Lust for Life, by a writer named Irving Stone, who later gives rise to the Vincente Minnelli film, eagerness to live, in which Van Gogh is Kirk Douglas and Gauguin is Anthony Quinn. Both the book and the movie were bestsellers and blockbusters. Thus, this legend became very popular, because it has a series of questions that, later, when the investigations were deepened, even put in question the suicide of Van Gogh. Two German researchers researched the police archives of Arles (France), which said that it was not him who cut off the piece of Van Gogh's ear, but Gauguin. So, it turns out that, of course, you have the letters and the works, which, in short, only gained prestige and recognition over the years.

Now, what may also be decisive for Van Gogh to make the leap is his trip to Paris. He had already been to Paris, when he worked in the gallery, half-Monday, of some distant relatives. When he returned, in 1886, he was shy, not very sociable, but he approached that Peter, a dealer in artistic material, and there he met Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Pissarro. Pissarro is going to be the most important guy, who had already been for Cézanne and Gauguin, for Van Gogh's introduction to the discontinuous brushstroke of Impressionism and all that.

So, from the point of view of the various modes of artistic representation, in fact Impressionism is a decisive issue for Van Gogh, although he will give the separate brushstrokes and the more luminous colors of Impressionism an almost opposite destination. He himself says that he uses color as an expression. So, it's as if he wanted to represent a landscape with the emotion he felt in front of these themes. It is not by chance that he was one of the most influential sources of the so-called first German expressionism, especially to that group called The bridge. Because, think about it with me, as much as I, when representing you, try to represent the feeling I have for you, this representation will obviously be less realistic. Therefore, when you want to approach this world that you represent through emotion, through expression, it moves further away. After all, he is tinged with that expression. And I think that this relationship, shall we say, somewhat conflicting with reality, with the social environment, etc., is born a little with him.

I cannot identify in Millet or anyone else this difficult relationship with reality, although, to be intellectually honest, Matisse was also an important influence on the expressionists. Especially the first phase of Matisse, of the wild animals (Fauvists), because of the color contrasts. But Matisse was an anguished person, despite the experience that we have in many of Matisse's works, it is one of unrestrained joy. That's more or less where I can equate these elements.

GSM – Moving on to a more personal subject of your work, there is a passage at the end of the book in which you say: “We all get old. And perhaps the most pathetic thing about this natural movement is trying to avoid it by hysterical adherence to the latest trends”. I would like to understand if, in some way, this speech has any connection with all the discussion that took place about him a few years ago regarding his possible adherence or preference for a modern art. Would you say, today, that you have definitely made your peace with contemporary art?

Look, I was really more educated in modern art. Now, most of the artists I've written about are contemporary, alive. So I don't have any, shall we say, prejudice against contemporary art. Now, I do, in relation to some values ​​that have come to measure contemporary art: market value, an ability to judge positively and do the marketing of your work... which I have nothing against when it's done right. I think one of the best contemporary artists is William Kentridge, who is a South African cartoonist. But, I think that there is a conception of drawing, of self-representation, which is in fact very enlightening. I believe that Joseph Beuys also has a broader political art, more linked to ecological art, and I love Beuys' work, it is one of the works that touches me the most.

Van Gogh
The writer and art critic Rodrigo Naves. Photo: reproduction

Now, in some cases, and they are not few, this politicization seems to be very superficial, that it is almost a contradiction in terms. That is, you use either paint, or wood, or bronze, or marble, or installation, or space almost as a raw material to express something. And I believe that this subjugation of materials, which was somehow an ideal of the humanist art of the Renaissance, it lost its meaning in the situation the world is in. So, you using any element to, as if it were a puppet that speaks, literally, is easily understandable. I don't know, there might even be a political gain. But, I can't see it, because I think it's a contradiction in terms. I may even be talking nonsense, but there is a sector, for example, of Soviet socialism that is interested, you know. That it's not just those muscular workers, those strong, healthy women. I went to Russia once and saw almost everything I could see, and there are the Soviet avant-gardes (Tatlin, Malevich, Olga Rosanova) who believed they were making political art, along with the Soviet movement, of course. This was right after Lenin's death, in 1924. But, in the end, Malevitch was arrested. Several of them, like Chagall, Kandinsky, Gabo, they leave. Now, it was an advanced art not only in the sense that it made international art move, but also in the sense that there is no moment in modern art that has as many good women artists as at that time.

So, coming back to your question, I don't have any prejudices or anything similar in relation to contemporary art. I really like the works, for example, by Agnes Martin, by Richard Serra, something by the minimalists, by several Brazilians, to give just a small example. And I wrote about almost everyone, at least everyone I was able to write. Now, I know I've been somewhat stigmatized as a formalist, "anti-contemporary" critic. Now, that's fine as long as you understand by “formalism” you privilege work. Now, unfortunately, I think that this “formalist” or “anti-contemporary” line stuck with me, and I believe it harms me. And in a practical sense, it can alienate students as well. But anyway, I have positions. I don't think every photograph has the power they think it has. It bothered me a little that almost every artist who, evidently, did installation, painting, sculpture, etc., started to take pictures. The problem is that if you don't have a certain intimacy or familiarity with your medium (in this case, it's the camera), the tendency is for you to reiterate certain extremely reprized schemas. But, anyway, I clarify that I also have nothing against photography.

GSM – There is a certain moment in the book when you say: “And there are still those who consider Roger Fry a formalist”. It seems to me that, in that sentence, you attribute a somewhat pejorative content to the word “formalism”, which I do not feel…

Today it has become a swear word. I once had a meeting with an artist and she said, "I'm not a formalist artist." I mean, and it's not. Because the work was very apprehensible, you know, you take it, put it in your pocket and never have to see it again. Now, some time ago, I read an interview with [Richard] Greenhouse where they ask him that same question, and he says, “Look, this doesn't make any sense to me. Because, very recently, formalism was a compliment and now it has become an offense, right?”. Because, in the case of Clement Greenberg (in the case of Roger Fry, I think less), it is explicit. There's a sentence where he says: "I don't care what a job means, I care what the job does." So he wants to understand how things work, and Roger Fry doesn't. In short, what he wants to do is show how impressionism has to do with the new sociability of metropolises, etc. Now, he's very light-handed, and both [Fry and Greenberg] are critical of Van Gogh. I have the impression, regarding Greenberg, that he has read a lot of Roger Fry, and both say that Van Gogh was an “incomplete” artist. Incomplete because, let's say, he was kind of crazy about not being able to control himself in order to develop the completeness of his style. Meyer Schapiro also says this, saying that he comes to look like a naive. Anyway, I think what you said, which is actually a formalism (from the Soviets, that whole thing), was a breakthrough in literary criticism. For example, Roberto Schwartz is a kind of business, with the benefit of making a very rich relationship with social reality. Now, many people already find Roberto Schwartz formalistic.


*Gabriel San Martin is an undergraduate student in Philosophy at Unicamp and a researcher in aesthetics and art theory

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