Monday, December 31, 2012

Going Out with Van Gogh

"I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort- and disappointment and perseverance."       Vincent Van Gogh



About a month ago, Annie and I went to the Becoming Van Gogh show at the Denver Art Museum. I really liked it. So, for 2012, I will go out with a post on what I took away from the experience.* Unfortunately, the show's website doesn't have many pictures of the paintings. So to see what I am talking about, you really should go. Really. 

A caveat- I am not an art critic or art professional (duh). And, some personal biases- since Van Gogh's paintings are are very popular, and therefore somewhat scarce (as in, not every museum has a bunch of 'em), I just wasn't a huge fan. I'd seen Sunflowers and Starry Nights, and heard the insipid Elton John song. Meh. 

In any event, my comments here, what I want to go out with, have to do with creativity. And on that front, I was very impressed. "Becoming Van Gogh" provides (reinforces?) some observations on creativity that I think apply beyond art. 

#1 Even Geniuses Suck. Vincent was only an artist for 10 years (1880-90). I never knew that. And his work sucked through much of this period. OK, maybe it is fairer to say it sucked in the beginning, and was unremarkable during many of these years. He painted "visual sermons"- basically a dark palette, heavy figures, toiling for God's greater glory. If I saw these in an old attic, I would not have picked them up. But for the name, they would not be notable. His notebooks reveal his frustration with his work, and his work reveals nothing of what would come in just a few years. So, just think how it might feel to be Van Gogh, before "Becoming Van Gogh." In 1882, he said "success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures." He said this long before he had any success with his art. So he sucked, but he was optimistic. Perhaps you may have felt that way at some point in your life? One is often optimistic when you start; you suck and you are naive, so you get better as you work, and you don't really know how you compare to others who don't suck. 

#2 It Takes Others. At some point, however, you do start seeing others who don't suck. How you react to them makes a big difference. Do you reject them, or learn from them? When Vincent moved to Paris in 1886, he took up with another young artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. The two friends were assigned the seats reserved for "weaker students" at drawing classes (this also seems to be a common theme among some creative people, sitting in the back row, being put in the "slow" section, but I digress).  While in Paris, he began to borrow from what he saw others doing: Japanese art and the neo-impressionists. As the show's curators put it: "brilliantly, he combined these two seemingly incompatible approaches...Van Gogh surprised perhaps even himself as he created something utterly new." Perhaps it is confirmation bias on my part, but this recombinant approach fits so well with studies of how innovation happens. Besides Toulouse-Lautrec, he also befriended Gaugin in 1887. In Van Gogh's words: "For the great doesn't happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together." Imagine, how it might feel, to be hanging out with renegades, those painters in Paris who exhibited their paintings in small restaurants, and rarely sold anything. Before they became Van Gogh (or Gaugin, or Monet). 

#3 Breakthroughs Happen Unpredictably. What was so amazing to me about this show was how one gets to see, in effect, the fossil record of an explosion of creativity ... learn, practice, struggle, suck... Explode! This was not linear. In one year, starting late in 1887... it all changed. His art blossomed and he became the artist he is famous for being. This seems similar to what happens in biology and society as well. In retrospect, we can see patterns, but breakthroughs are difficult to predict. Van Gogh wasn't a child prodigy. He wasn't an award winning artist. He didn't go to the fancy schools. And then he became one of the most famous artists of all time. And it was so short. A year later, he cuts off his ear and by mid 1889 he is in an asylum, dying of a self inflicted gunshot in 1890. He became Van Gogh, and then he was gone.

#4 Is There a Correlation Between Madness and Creativity? It was interesting that the show did not discuss Van Gogh's mental state in any detail. Perhaps because so much has been written on the topic, and it is all speculation. Not so long ago, I wrote about Small Batch Madness, and quoted Aristotle: "no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness." Van Gogh had more than his share of madness, and it appears to correlate with the time of his greatest excellence. It makes me wonder, is creativity found along the path to madness? Is creativity about seeing the world differently than everyone else, but in a lesser degree than those who are "mad"? 

I don't know. So I will leave you with my favorite Vincent quote from the show's entry gallery: "I'll start with small things." Wise words. I wish you the best for 2013!
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* if you are one of my newer bleeps, and wondering what the hell Van Gogh has to do with the BOP, please reread the intro to my blog. 

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