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Van Gogh's Capacity to Surprise

VAN GOGH: HIS LIFE AND HIS ART. By David Sweetman, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 391 pp., $30 VINCENT VAN GOGH: PAINTINGS. By Evert van Uitert, Louis van Tilborgh, & Sjraar van Heugten DRAWINGS. By Johannes van der Wolk, Ronald Pickvance, & E.B.F. Pey, New York: Rizzoli, 292 pp., & 336 pp., $90 (vols. 1&2)

BROWSING through the splendid catalogs from the Rijksmuseum, based on a show mounted for the centenary of van Gogh's death, or reading David Sweetman's biography, one can't escape feeling grateful to Vincent van Gogh. The myth of the tortured genius aside - Sweetman helps us put it aside - van Gogh simply seems one of the most joyous of painters. This joy seems to burst forth from the objects in his paintings.

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The story of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is anything but happy in the conventional sense. Sweetman, well-known in Britain for his television documentaries on the fine arts, carefully relates the ups and downs of the man, while making occasional sallies into art criticism. Van Gogh wrote many articulate letters, and Sweetman likes to quote him when he can to nail down an interpretation, but this is not the main contribution of his book.

In order to revise our image of van Gogh, Sweetman details his wanderings, his several early careers, his complex, difficult relationships within his family, and his various physical problems. Like many a 19th-century artist, van Gogh drank a lot of absinthe; like many, he had syphilis. His bad diet was unique, and originally self-imposed as a kind of asceticism as well as a gesture of sympathy with the poor coal miners among whom he worked early in his life. He also worked himself extremely hard; his total oeuvre, revealed in part in the catalogs published by Rizzoli, was produced in only a decade.

Sweetman is very good on the early truncated careers of van Gogh, which included a disappointing spell in the family art business, a brief job in a book shop, and, perhaps more importantly, the years when religion was van Gogh's calling. Vincent did well in school, but stopped abruptly when he was 15; Sweetman suggests this may indicate the first of those manic-depressive episodes that would later become more dangerous and perhaps led to his suicide.

Van Gogh's profound interest in the Bible and his equally profound sympathy for the poor compelled him to become an evangelical somewhat at odds with his father's liberal Christianity. His merging of his life with the poor of the mining area of Boringe alarmed officials of the church; he was told to stop. Sweetman writes: ``One could only bring people to God by representing the pattern of bourgeois values to which they could aspire. Vincent with his newly acquired loathing of the rich, his total identification with the impoverished miners, his uncontrollable urge to live in imitation of Christ, was repugnant'' to church officials.

When van Gogh had to stop attending to the poor, he felt rejected by God, says Sweetman. His subsequent life among artists, artistes, and prostitutes in Paris underlines such a possibility. But if van Gogh's formative years were spent with the Word rather than with paint - he gradually, and painfully, taught himself to draw and paint - the Word may have proved a durable, even unobtrusive ``subliminal'' companion to the painter.

True, van Gogh would later criticize a young artist for using traditional Christian symbolism. Sweetman himself becomes impatient with van Gogh when he was exploring the world of color oil paints in Paris. ``What happened to the burning desire to make art of and for the people?'' he asks rhetorically. He also quotes the letter to van Gogh's sister Wil (it dates from his last troubled period) where the artist sounds the roll call of his masters: ``Oh Millet! Millet! how he painted humanity and that Something on High which is familiar and yet solemn. And then to think in our time that that man wept when he started painting, that Giotto and Angelico painted on their knees - Delacrois so full of grief and feeling ... nearly smiling.''

Sweetman is always careful to separate fable from known fact. Whether van Gogh did in fact attack Gauguin with the razor with which he would soon chop his own ear may never be known, but from the rich detail of Sweetman's biography, and the overwhelming evidence of the works themselves, van Gogh too painted ``on his knees, full of grief and feeling, nearly smiling.'' Van Gogh, too, painted ``humanity and that Something on High which is familiar and yet solemn.'' If, as Sweetman shows, Vincent and his brother Theo were two sides of one artistic personality (Sweetman portrays Theo as a professional art dealer who always sought to care for and represent his unpopular brother), it was of course Vincent who triumphed in art.

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In his greatest works he reveals the joy of created things in a way that is intuitively theological. Perhaps that is why he appeals at a time when the ``death of God'' has become a clich'e. Even when reproduced thousands of times, van Gogh's art retains a capacity to surprise us. Sweetman's van Gogh speaks to our age and beyond.

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