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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The letters of Van Gogh

Once a great artist (literary/musical/visual) dies the interior life of that artist, that which produced the magic of their art, effectively dies with them. All that is left then is the hard evidence of their life: the art, the letters, the photographs. Like a paint-splattered imprint from a stencil these artifacts can help piece together the moments and memories that, when filtered through that artist's specific mind, created the masterpieces we know and love today.

I've lately begun to despair a bit for my generation's general lack of hard evidence. Most of our lives we exist in a virtual world of e-mail, jpgs, mp3s, and websites all of which can be erased with one swift gesture. Think of the e-mails I wrote during college, much of which I would very much like to peruse today, yet all of them were lost when I left college and the University of Michigan shut down my e-mail account. Now, I'm not equating myself to a Hemingway or Steinbeck or Tolkein, but imagine if there was this 5 year gap in hard evidence from any of those author's lives. What if all we had were the books themselves? Wouldn't we be missing a huge amount of information about their interior lives during one the most formidable parts of their careers?*

It occurred to me recently that for many of the artists who will emerge from my generation and afterwards the only evidence of their interior life will be that which was published or mass produced, for everything else (their e-mails, websites, AIM convos) will likely be erased. It seems strange to me then that future artists may die even more unknown than those of the past. Future Van Gogh's may literally die amid a cloud of confusion, half-truths, and outright misrepresentations as historians are left a disjointed and ambiguous electronic "papertrail" to piece together.

Fortunatelty for us the real Vincent Van Gogh left about 1000 letters and sketches and musings behind for us to read and discuss. And you can see those letters here. Much thanks to the folks at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for making these public and free.

*This line of reasoning has lead me to wondering whether I should start writing more letters to people. When I become a famous and admired author, it would probably be wise to have as many of my brilliant ruminations on paper as possible. I mean, imagine Da Vinci's reputation without all those awesome skethes.


Mister Booze said...

I too have thought about this problem. There are a few answers. One, we take more photographs and videos than any other time in history. Our visual legacy is secure. Two is that while email correspondence might be ephemeral, and texts even moreso, maybe that is a good thing. Think of all the embarassing emails that were written and mercifully your grandkids will never read. Three, thanks to blogs more people are keeping a journal than ever before. And unless you erase them they stay up forever. Plus there is always the way back machine chronicling the Internet; warts and all

The Crow said...

Interesting stuff, James. I agree with you completely about our video legacy, although with the proliferation of Youtube and whatnot there is so much being made that it is possible even videos could become as ephemeral as texts and emails. I don't bemoan that emails are easily dismissed, but there is a lack of thoughtfulness that goes into general correspondance these days which could lead to modern artists not being well understood to future scholars. If all you had of Picasso was a bunch of hastily shot off emails, a blog which he updated infrequently with movie reviews, and a lot of videos of him wasted with friends, it might be difficult for historians to piece together what his life was really like.

Mister Booze said...

Maybe. Maybe it would give you an even better idea what his life was like? "Oh that Van Gogh was an angry drunk who appreciated Michael Bay films and hanging out at the park with hobos" might be something you wouldn't know from correspondence but the internets can reveal. Who knows? I like the letter writing idea but maybe they will shut down the post office? Or maybe you can start a letter writing trend that will save the post office? Stuff to ponder...

The Crow said...

I'm going to start writing you letters. For posterity.