Thursday, October 08, 2015

Painting Like A Child

October 8, 2015
   To those who think Vincent van Gogh could not draw well, check out this early portrait:

Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of A Man." (1886-87)

     As you can see, Vincent obviously had talent. He clearly knew how to do a proper portrait. When I first saw this painting, I thought it was by Degas, that's how good it is. But van Gogh wanted more. He, and his fellow Impressionists were "repelled by the dogmatic inflexibility of the official custodians of art" and were seeking new ways to draw and paint. One of their stated goals was to "paint like a child." Gauguin actually said this. Later, Picasso said something like, "it took me a lifetime to learn to paint like a child." One of the main reasons for this was the photograph, which when you think about it, was an early form of technology usurping human effort. A bigtime disruptor. Prior to the rise of photography, the artist owned visual representations of life. But that game was rapidly being taken over by the camera, the machine. And by the 1880s all the artists were clamoring to find a new way to  paint so they could differentiate themselves from a photograph. They were literally running away from photographs!

   So Vincent goes south (figuratively and literally) to find a new way to paint and by the time he stumbles back to Auvers in 1889, his portraits look like this:

Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" (1890)

   As you can clearly see, this is definitely in the zone of painting like a child. It's not one of my favorite van Gogh paintings because it goes too far into the child zone, i.e. abstraction, but who am I to judge? This painting recently sold to a private collector (who didn't want his name known) for 185 million Euros (that's $200 million bucks American).

   In the Twentieth Century art got even more "childish" and as more people became educated to the van Gogh story, everyone became over-sensitized (in my opinion) to images that didn't look like "art." They (we) were afraid they might be missing the next van Gogh. In the eighties, in particular, you have galleries and buyers snapping up artists who showed absolutely no skill at art (in the traditional sense) but the buyers were afraid they were going to miss the next van Gogh.

   Fast forward to our trip to Montmarte two weeks ago to find the apartment at 54 Rue Lepic where Vincent lived for a time with his brother Theo. On top of the hill in Montmarte are a couple streets of cozy shops overrun by a swarm of "artists" who accost all the tourists, they encounter, demanding, really, to allow them to do a "portrait." I especially stood out with my cowboy hat and I found myself fending off dozens of them with a gruff "No thanks." But, late in the day, as the girls were shopping for shoes, this one female artist (okay, she was cute) got in under my defenses by walking up to me and saying, "Oh, look at this cowboy, I'm going to practice on him," and she started to sketch without my permission. I should have told her to go take a hike but I didn't. As she continued to draw, her fellow "artists" came up and looked over her shoulder, assuring me I was going to love what she was doing. I thought to myself, well maybe she is the next van Gogh. Who knows?

   $20 later she showed me the results:

The next van Gogh?

"Art is whatever you can get away with."
—Old Masters Saying

The Passing of A True Friend

October 8, 2015
   It was a year ago today, we lost a fast and true friend:

The last photo I took of Charles Richard Waters.

    This was taken at a Mexican food restaurant in Kingman, where we all met after the funeral for his brother-in-law, Joe Lopez. We made big plans that day to get together in Henderson in the coming months, but it never happened. The book project, "The 66 Kid" happened (which Charlie edited) and then he got too sick from the chemo and then, before I knew it, he was gone.

   When we were in France two weeks ago, we (the Harshbergers and Kathy) toasted him on several ocassions. Thought of him more than once, as we walked by the spot near the Notre Dame where Charlie and I posed with berets on to send to Steve Burford, who was enamored of the "The Seine," a Hootenany song the Burf insisted on singing in our rock band, The Exits.

Linda, BBB, Kathy and Charles in Paris, 2010 at our favorite basement cafe when I had to abridge his infamous nickname "No Way Charlie" to "Charles Way," because he not only showed up in France but said yes to almost everything we wanted to do.

   Here's the six of us at Morro Bay, California after Deena's wedding.

   He was one of the best things to ever come out of Kingman, Arizona. Miss the boy.

"A true friend is someone who knows all your faults and likes you anyway."
—Old Vaquero Saying

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Van Gogh by The Numbers: Read 'Em And Weep

October 7, 2015
   Interesting that no one to my knowledge has attempted to illustrate Vincent van Gogh's mutilated ear. He evidently made no effort to cover it and several who saw it at Auvers claimed it looked like a "gorilla's ear." And that it looked "mangled." Of course, he didn't cut off the entire year, but sliced off the lower half, at an angle. Here is my first attempt to capture this weird deformity:

Daily Whip Out: "Vincent's Eerie Half-Ear"

Van Gogh By The Numbers

1,300 number of known drawings

850 number of known paintings

800 number of letters to family members that survive (Vincent regularly burned Theo's letters after   reading them).

1 number of paintings sold ("Red Vineyards at Arles," 1888)

23 number of places he lived, including 3 different places in England, 10 places in Holland, 6 places in Belgium and 4 in France.

4 number of languages he spoke: Dutch, German, English and French.

93 number of publications by 1973 that had attempted to diagnose van Gogh's illness; 13 suggested schizophrenia, 13 predicted epilepsy, 5 proposed both. Others pointed to alcohol, absynthe and syphilis. Some chose a combo of all the above. Today the popular culprits seem to be a bi-polar condition with "temporal lobe epilepsy." And the syphilis and the alcohol—and absynthe—exacerbated everything else.

10 number of years he actually attempted to be an artist.

37 his age when he died.

200 million dollars, the price paid for one painting, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," 1890.

Daily Whip Out: "Van Gogh By the Numbers"

Read 'em and weep
   Tragic numbers. Too sad, but then that's why he is an icon and legend. Take out the cutting off of the ear and would he be as big a deal? Nope. Take out his tragic death? Nope. Take out the fact that the world hated his paintings at the time? Nope. It all plays together to form what Ingo Walther recognized as "the staggering simplicity of his paintings."

"My pictures are of no value; though of course they cost me a very great deal, at times even my blood and my brain."
—Vincent van Gogh

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

To Be Or Not to Be van Gogh

October 6, 2015
   The first person I remember accusing me of painting like van Gogh was this guy:

BBB with Buck Taylor at the last Festival of The West (2013).

  I believe his actual comment was "you are the van Gogh of Western art." Perhaps he meant I don't draw very good, but I took it as a complement. And speaking of drawing good, I believe Vincent gets a bad rap on his draftsmanship (one critic claims part of Vincents attraction is his "amateurish" drawing skills that make him accessible to the average person). I do think he stripped everything down to the basics, and some of the paintings look a bit cartoonish, but I don't buy that he couldn't draw well. Van Gogh could do very accurate renderings when he chose to do them, but what he really wanted to do was capture emotion and the way to do that is to paint fiercely and quickly, details be damned.

   I'm not trying to be like van Gogh, or paint like him, I'm trying to learn from him. How did he break new ground? How did he get past the academics of drawing and painting as it had been done for the previous 500 years?

"Do not follow me. Seek what I sought."
—Old Masters Saying

  For one thing, he had tremendous passion for his subjects. Add to that a restlessness and indefatigable wonder that led to "storms of zeal" and you get an inkling of his enduring appeal (and why I like him so). His "inexplicable fierceness" transformed him into a fanatic. That, of course, had a downside. Almost everyone dismissed his art as "the work of a madman." One critic described his distorted forms and shocking colors as the "product of a sick mind."

   Van Gogh also had a very strong work ethic, starting out on the road at 5 a.m. with his canvas, tubes of paint, brushes, on his back, wandering far and wide, in the wind and rain, painting all day until sunset. He did this in a fury of intent. Those who knew him said he even read the newspaper "in a fury."

Daily Whip Out: "He Even Read The Newspaper 'In A Fury'"

   He also had a deep nostalgia for the past. For that alone, I admire him and relate to his efforts more than most other painters. He thought earlier eras were better, and more pure than his own. Ditto.

   On the other hand, his parents would not allow their children to read the cowboy-and-Indian stories coming out of America in the 1870s. They deemed them as "too rousing" for a proper upbringing. Given where this story is headed, that is a dark and ironic foreshadowing.

   His own family described him as "obstinate," "unruly," "hard to deal with," "a queer one," "a difficult temper," and with "strange manners." Even the family maid weighed in: she criticized him as "troublesome" and "contrary," and branded him as "the least pleasant" of the Van Gogh children.

   Is there any wonder why I love the guy?

"I am a fanatic!"
—Vincent van Gogh

Monday, October 05, 2015

What Did The Killer of Van Gogh Look Like?

October 5, 2015
   So, what did the 16-year-old punk and Buffalo Bill wannabe, Rene Secretan, actually look like? The Louvre in Paris found a sketch, done by van Gogh, which is a crude, quick sketch of a young kid (possibly too young) with a big hat on. The authors of "Van Gogh The Life," ran it with this caption, "head of a Boy with Broad-Brimmed Hat (probably Rene Secretan)."

 I have my doubts, but I have utilized that sketch to build on a possible likeness:

Rare BBB faux-tintype of Rene Secretan

Thanks to research by Gay Mathis, here is the provenance on the pistol that surfaced: In the 1950s, a rusty revolver was discovered buried in a field just behind the Château d’Auvers, where Van Gogh is said to have shot himself. An examination suggested that it had been in the soil for 60 to 80 years. The gun was discovered close to the Chemin des BerthelĂ©es, the spot painted by Dr Gachet’s son in 1904, in a picture he entitled Auvers, the area where Vincent committed suicide. The revolver was found just beyond the low farmhouses in the centre of the painting.

That would be this scene with the Expert from Auvers pointing at the murder site.

   This actually makes some sense. That Rene buried the pistol, or hid it near the shooting site as the boys fled the scene.

   Good to be back in my studio working. One of the depressing observations from the trip is the fact that you really don't see anyone reading newspapers like you used to in the old days, say 2005, or so. This realization led to this:

Daily Whip Out: "Folding Newspapers"

"Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know."
—Pema Chodron

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Demise of The Redheaded Madman

October 3, 2015
    Got home last night after traveling more than 12,000 miles on my quest to find the truth about the demise of the The Redheaded Madman. Got up this morning with my head chocked full of van Gogh and headed out for a walk and this is the sight that greeted me.

Ratcliff Ridge this morning at about 6 a.m.

   And this:

Old Stage Road at sunrise as the storm moves in (started raining around nine).

   I saw plenty of sky on our travels, but none compared to this. 

  Now, back to the mystery of van Gogh's death. Many versions refer to the artist shooting himself "in the chest," but Dr. Gachet's report said the bullet entered his abdomen just "below the ribs." That is not a chest wound and actually supports the theory that Vincent was shot in an accidental way by someone else. Who shoots themselves in the side? Add to that the police report that the shot was fired "too far out" for Vincent to have pulled the trigger and you have a strong case—at least anecdotally—for the Buffalo Bill wannabe shooting Vincent by accident. That said, we should look at a motive for suicide and it's not hard to find one.

The Case for Suicide
   As interesting and intriguing as the suspicious events surrounding the van Gogh shooting are, there is ample evidence of a suicide motive. Vincent returned to the north of France from his incarceration in the mental institution outside San Remy, a mere three months earlier. He viewed it as a return to the north, towards his home in Holland, and he began a series of paintings he called "remembrances of the north" where he revisited scenes from his early days and transposed them to the lovely farmland around Auvers.
   As usual, he had an agenda: to woo his brother into leaving Paris and moving to Auvers Sur Oise where they could create the family he has been lacking since before his move to Arles. He has been exiled even from his fellow exiles (Gauguin, et al) and he is, once again, alone in a strange town,  But this time it's different. Theo is having financial troubles, wants to quit his job where he feels unappreciated, and their baby (named for Vincent) is sick and the mother, Jo, is stressed when van Gogh comes by train to visit, he sees all this and realizes the worst: he is a burden to his brother. He feels trapped. What can he do to help? 

   Well, exactly a year before, in July of 1889, a painting by his hero Millet had just sold for a record amount—a half million francs—because Millet had died. It's the old saw but a fact of life in the art world: dead artists sell better than live ones.

   He went back to Auvers and borrowed a gun from the inn keeper, hiked up the hill west of town, along the perimeter fence of the Auvers Chateau, shot himself, but botched it and walked back to his room at the inn and died two days later.

   It doesn't quite fit—the shot in the side, the angle, etc.—but it does make sense, emotionally. He does have the motive.

   For years, the pistol was never found (nor any of Vincent's art supplies which he carried with him) but about five years ago, the pistol surfaced. I don't know the details yet, but will report it when I find out.

Thanks to Gay Mathis for locating images online of the alleged pistol used in the shooting of van Gogh. Dealing with Old West weapons I am very suspect of this "find," and need to find out more about the provenance of it.

Did he? Or, didn't he?

   I was searching for a photo of Rene Secretan and, instead, found this take on why the murder of van Gogh is not sexy:

"Myth is all. Suicide makes a better sales point than death-by-yokel."

And this:

"We need closure. We need the myth of the crazy, tormented, self-destructive artist to convince us that painters, poets, and musicians are all nuts, so their larger-than-life lives can continue to offer escapism from the bourgeois armchair of our own lack of freedom. And also, paradoxically,  make us feel relieved we are not artists. In our dreams, van Gogh must commit suicide, otherwise the story doesn’t have legs."
—John Perreault, author of both quotes

As usual, this is about half-right. As Kathy put it, "John Lennon was murdered and it doesn't diminish his artistry." Touche m' lady.

"Now I think I know, what you tried to say to me and how you suffered for your sanity and how you tried to set it free.  They weren't listening, they're not listening still....perhaps they never will."
—Don McClean, "Vincent" on the American Pie album

Friday, October 02, 2015

21 Days That Shook My World

October 2, 2015
   Back from the van Gogh tour. After our Holland and Belgium hunt, we met the Ds (Dan and Darlene Harshberger) in Paris and they accompanied Kathy and i to the south of France. We ended up back in Paris where we hooked up with Mike and Phyllis Hawkins on her birthday and it was Phyllis who took this pic of us on the last night. We were on the hunt for 21 days (that shook my world). Feature to follow.

Fish La Boissonnerie at 69 Rue de Seine on the Left Bank 
where we met Mike and the birthday girl, Phyllis Hawkins,  for dinner on our last night in Paris.

   After dinner, we walked through the narrow streets and talked about riding the metro, the danger of trains after the thwarted terrorist attack several weeks ago, and the upcoming elections back home ("We'll take in refugees after the election, of course.")

Kingman compadres (and their better halves) toast one
to Charles Richard Waters in the City of Lights.

Most Poignant Moment In Amsterdam
   On our fist day in Amsterdam we were walking through the crush of tourists and locals in a popular square when we encountered two city workers in uniform straight ahead. One was gesticulating rather wildly about the work they were supposed to be doing, pointing where they should go and what they should do As he was doing this, his co-worker was taking a big toke off a joint (I kid you not). As he inhaled sharply, he shot his boss a narrow look that told me his priorities: "Yes, HYPOTHETICALLY we could be working on something."

"Work is only work if you'd rather be someplace else."
—Old Stoner Saying

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Death of An Honest Man: Vincent van Gunfighter?

October 1, 2015
   As Wyatt Earp strode the boardwalks on Allen Street and dealt faro in the Oriental Saloon, 5,000 miles to the east, a young Dutchman, age 26, made a belated decision to become an artist. The year was 1881, and while Earp had a showdown coming in the fall, and Billy the Kid had mere weeks to live, Vincent van Gogh, who himself had a mere nine years left to live, launched himself on a fiery and ultimately fatal and tragic march into the history books and immortality. That Vincent would eclipse both Earp, the Kid, and even Jesse James, in international fame is a strange note, to me, but the fact that the Wild West connected them all is the most crazy story of all.

   Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show came to Paris in 1889 to perform at the International Exposition, or Exposition Universelle as it was billed in France. This was also the festival that premiered the Eiffel Tower to the world. All of Cody's shows were sold out and everyone in Europe was suddenly crazy about the Wild West. The up and coming artist Paul Gauguin scored tickets and immediately went out and bought a Buffalo Bill hat, which appears to be a Boss of The Plains style chapeau, at least in the self-portrait of Gauguin that hangs in the Musee d"Orsay.

Paul Gauguin apes Buffalo Bill in his self-portrait

   So how does Buffalo Bill figure into the death of van Gogh? Read on.

The murder site as it appears today from the Expert's notebook. Her finger points to the plaque on the wall, near the gate, at right.

   After some searching and accosting neighbors in the subdivision at upper left in the photo, we found the site.

My van Gogh posse at the death site, including, 
from left Richard, Bud, Kathy, Dan and Darlene.


Now, a few details about the gun that killed van Gogh.

The van Gogh murder pistol

   This strange looking pistol is of the type that killed van Gogh (the Expert had a photo of the actual gun, same model, which was rusted and falling apart, but I didn't get a photo of it). In the traditional telling of the story, van Gogh borrowed the pistol from the hotel owner, Gustave Ravouix, and subsequently shot himself with it, but, according to the 2012 biography "Van Gogh The Life" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, there is credible evidence that the pistol belonged to Rene Secretan, a 16-year-old punk, rich kid who was also enamored of Buffalo Bill and went further than Gauguin, by dressing in fringed buckskins and a big hat with the brim pushed up in front. In the van Gogh biography by Naifeh and Smith, it is Secretan and possibly some of his gang who accost van Gogh on the west end of town, near the chateau of Auvers, a large estate owned by M. Gosselin, who actually lived in Paris.

   According to a renown researcher, John Rewald, who interviewed locals in the 1930s, the actual shooting was precipitated  by "young boys who shot Vincent accidentally" and that they "were reluctant to speak up for fear of being accused of murder and that Van Gogh decided to protect them and to be a martyr." This is borne out by the gendarme's (the police) question of anyone else's involvement, to which Vincent replied, "Do not accuse anyone; it is I who wanted to kill myself."

   After being knocked unconscious by the shot, Vincent allegedly awoke at sunset and walked back to the Ravoux Inn and went up to his room. When Theo arrived the next day from Paris, he found Vincent sitting up in bed smoking his pipe. Incredibly, he lived for two days before expiring.

   Here is what our esteemed gun editor, Phil Spangenberger has to say about the above pistol:

The gun in the photo is a pinfire revolver, of the Lefaucheux system. It took the metallic cartridge (below it) that had a little pin where the hammer struck to detonate the round. These were also called "Teat Fire." If it is small and not the size of a Colt Peacemaker, but more like an 1849 Pocket Colt or similar size, it looks like it might be the Belgian-made "Guardian" or "Guardian-American Model of 1878" with a folding trigger. That's about all I can tell  you at this point.
Did it shoot off Van Gogh's ear? ha ha.
—Phil Spangenberger

The Ravoux Inn in 1890 with the owner Gustave Ravoux sitting at far left. The girl in the doorway is his 13-year-old daughter Adelene, who is the source of the accepted version of Vincent's death. As she got older she retold the story, adding new and longer quotes. Not unusual for oldtimers: "every time they retell the story, they get closer to the center of the stage."

   Here is the hotel as it appears today.

The Ravoix Inn as it appears today.

"It has always seemed to me that suicide was the deed of a dishonest man."
—Vincent's favorite quote from Millet