Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2018

At Eternity’s Gate; Lust for Life

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Last week, after watching a press screening of Julian Schnabel’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh titled “At Eternity’s Gate”, I was so struck by its divergence from the memories I had of Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 identically themed “Lust for Life” that it struck me as worth writing about the two in tandem. While I have grave reservations about Schnabel’s politics and aesthetics, I can recommend his film that is playing in theaters everywhere that are marketed to middle-brow tastes, the kind of audience that listens to NPR and votes Democratic. These are the sorts of screeners I get from publicists throughout November to coincide with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December, the “good”, Oscar-worthy films that Harvey Weinstein used to produce until he got exposed as a serial rapist.

Willem Dafoe is superb as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate” even though at 63 he can hardly evoke the almost post-adolescent angst of the artist who died at the age of 37. Like Willem Dafoe, Kirk Douglas not only bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” but was only 3 years older than the artist at the time of his death. Since “Lust for Life”, as the title implies, emphasizes turbulence, Douglas was just the sort of actor who could bring that vision of Van Gogh to life. In Minnelli’s adaptation of the Irving Stone novel, Van Gogh’s life was a succession of crises that finally became too much to bear.

Stone’s work faced the same obstacles as Van Gogh’s paintings that never sold in his lifetime. It was rejected by 17 publishers until its debut in 1934. Stone was not particularly known for his politics but did take the trouble to write a novel in 1947 based on the marriage of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate who had no use for socialism. The title was “Adversary in the House”, an allusion to her.

However, there must have been just enough politics in “Lust for Life” for screenwriter Norman Corwin to feature in his script. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film depicts Van Gogh as a lay priest in a coal-mining village in the region of Borinage who immerses himself into the daily life of super-exploited workers. As a hobby, he makes drawings of the miners and their families as a kind of homage to the people in need of what Marx called an opiate.

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  1. (Thanks to Michael Yates for painstakingly putting together this from a cut and paste job on the Kindle version of Berger’s “Portraits”.)

    FOR AN ANIMAL its natural environment and habitat are a given; for man, despite the faith of the empiricists, empiricists, reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held – I am tempted to say salvaged. One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.

    All modern artists have thought of their innovations as offering a closer approach to reality, as a way of making reality more evident. It is here, and only here, that the modern artist and revolutionary have sometimes found themselves side by side, both inspired by the idea of pulling down the screen of clichés, clichés which have increasingly become unprecedentedly trivial and egotistical.

    Yet many such artists have reduced what they found beyond the screen, to suit their own talent and social position as artists. When this has happened they have justified themselves with one of the dozen variants of the theory of art for art’s sake. They say: Reality is art. They hope to extract an artistic profit from reality. Of no one is this less true than Van Gogh.

    One knows from his letters how intensely he was aware of the screen. His whole life story is one of an endless yearning for reality. Colours, the Mediterranean climate, the sun, were for him vehicles going towards this reality; they were never objects of longing in themselves. This yearning was intensified by the crises he suffered when he felt that he was failing to salvage any reality at all. Whether these crises are today diagnosed as being schizophrenic or epileptic changes nothing; their content, as distinct from their pathology, was a vision of reality consuming itself like a phoenix.

    One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work. He saw the physical reality of labour as being, simultaneously, a necessity, an injustice, and the essence of humanity throughout history. The artist’s creative act was for him only one among many such acts. He believed that reality could best be approached through work, precisely because reality itself was a form of production.

    His paintings speak of this more clearly than do words. Their so-called clumsiness, the gestures with which he drew with pigment upon the canvas, the gestures (invisible today but imaginable) with which he chose and mixed his colours on the palette, all the gestures with which he handled and manufactured the stuff of the painted image, are analogous to the activity of the existence of what he is painting. His paintings imitate the active existence existence – the labour of being – of what they depict.

    A chair, a bed, a pair of boots. His act of painting them was far nearer than that of any other painter to the carpenter’s or the shoemaker’s act of making them. He brings together the elements of the product – legs, crossbars, back, seat – sole, uppers, tongue, heel – as though he too were fitting them together, joining them, and as if this being joined constituted their reality.

    Before a landscape this same process was far more complicated and mysterious, yet it followed the same principle. If one imagines God creating the world from earth and water, from clay, his way of handling it to make a tree or a cornfield might well resemble the way that Van Gogh handled paint when he painted a tree or cornfield. He was human, there was nothing divine about him. If, however, one thinks of the creation of the world, one can imagine the act only through the visual evidence, here and now, of the energy of the forces in play. And to these energies, Van Gogh was terribly attuned.

    When he painted a small pear tree in flower, the act of the sap rising, of the bud forming, the bud breaking, the flower opening, the styles thrusting out, the stigmas become sticky, these acts were all present for him in the act of painting. When he painted a road, the roadmakers were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labour of existence; and this labour, recognised as such, was what constituted reality for him. When he painted his own face, he painted the production of his destiny, past and future, rather as palmists believe they can read such a production in the lines of the hand. His contemporaries, who considered him abnormal, were not all as stupid as is now assumed. He painted compulsively – no other painter was ever compelled in a comparable way.

    And his compulsion? It was to bring the two acts of production – that of the canvas and that of the reality depicted – ever closer and closer. This compulsion derived not from an idea about art – this is why it never occurred to him to profit from reality – but from an overwhelming feeling of empathy. ‘I admire the bull, the eagle, and man with such an intense adoration, that it will certainly prevent me from ever becoming an ambitious person.’

    He was compelled to go ever closer, to approach and approach and approach. In extremis he approaches so close that the stars in the night sky became maelstroms of light, the cypress trees ganglions of living wood responding to the energy of wind and sun. There are canvases where reality dissolves him, the painter. But in hundreds of others he takes the spectator as close as any man can, while remaining intact, to that permanent process by which reality is being produced.

    Once, long ago, paintings were compared with mirrors. Van Gogh’s might be compared with lasers. They do not wait to receive, they go out to meet, and what they traverse is not so much empty space as the act of production, the production of the world. Painting after painting is a way of saying, with awe but little comfort: Dare to come this close and see how it works.

    IS IT STILL POSSIBLE to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is ‘No’. If I look at his paintings, the answer is again – for a different reason – ‘No’; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made – not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

    Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

    In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: Why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

    The myth, the films, the prices, the so-called martyrdom, the bright colours, have all played their part and amplified the global appeal of his work, but they are not at its origin. He is loved, I said to myself in front of the drawing of olive trees, because for him the act of drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at, and what he looked at during the eight years of his life as a painter (yes, only eight) belonged to everyday life.

    I can think of no other European painter whose work expresses such a stripped respect for everyday things without elevating them, in some way, without referring to salvation by way of an ideal which the things embody or serve. Chardin, de la Tour, Courbet, Monet, de Staël, Miro, Jasper Johns –to name but a few – were all magisterially sustained by pictorial ideologies, whereas he, as soon as he abandoned his first vocation as a preacher, abandoned all ideology. He became strictly existential, ideologically naked. The chair is a chair, not a throne. The boots have been worn by walking. The sunflowers are plants, not constellations. The postman delivers letters. The irises will die. And from this nakedness of his, which his contemporaries saw as naivety or madness, came his capacity to love, suddenly and at any moment, what he saw in front of him. Picking up pen or brush, he then strove to realise, to achieve that love. Lover-painter affirming the toughness of an everyday tenderness we all dream of in our better moments and instantly recognise when it is framed …

    Words, words. How is it visible in his practice? Return to the drawing. It’s in ink, drawn with a reed-pen. He made many such drawings in a single day. Sometimes, like this one, direct from nature, sometimes from one of his own paintings, which he had hung on the wall of his room whilst the paint was drying.

    Drawings like these were not so much preparatory studies as graphic hopes; they showed in a simpler way – without the complication of handling pigment – where the act of painting could hopefully lead him.

    They were maps of his love.

    What do we see? Thyme, other shrubs, limestone rocks, olive trees on a hillside, in the distance a plain, in the sky birds. He dips the pen into brown ink, watches, and marks the paper. The gestures come from his hand, his wrist, arm, shoulder, perhaps even the muscles in his neck, yet the strokes he makes on the paper are following currents of energy which are not physically his and which become visible only when he draws them. Currents of energy? The energy of a tree’s growth, of a plant’s search for light, of a branch’s need for accommodation with its neighbouring branches, of the roots of thistles and shrubs, of the weight of rocks lodged on a slope, of the sunlight, of the attraction of the shade for whatever is alive and suffers from the heat, of the Mistral from the north which has fashioned the rock strata. My list is arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is the pattern his strokes make on the paper. The pattern is like a fingerprint. Whose?

    It is a drawing which values precision – every stroke is explicit and unambiguous – yet it has totally forgotten itself in its openness to what it has met. And the meeting is so close you can’t tell whose trace is whose. A map of love indeed.

    Two years later, three months before his death, he painted a small canvas of two peasants digging the earth. He did it from memory because it refers back to the peasants he painted five years earlier in Holland and to the many homages he paid throughout his life to Millet. It is also, however, a painting whose theme is the kind of fusion we find in the drawing.

    The two men digging are painted in the same colours – potato brown, spade grey, and the faded blue of French work clothes – as the field, the sky, and the distant hills. The brushstrokes describing their limbs are identical to those which follow the dips and mounds of the field. The two men’s raised elbows become two more crests, two more hillocks, against the horizon.

    The painting is not of course declaring these men to be ‘clods of earth’, the term used by many citizens at that epoch to insult peasants. The fusion of the figures with the ground refers fiercely to the reciprocal exchange of energy that constitutes agriculture, and which explains, in the long term, why agricultural production cannot be submitted to purely economic law. It may also refer – by way of his own love and respect for peasants – to his own practice as a painter.

    During his whole short life he had to live and gamble with the risk of self-loss. The wager is visible in all the self-portraits. He looks at himself as a stranger, or as something he has stumbled upon. His portraits of others are more personal, their focus more close-up. When things went too far, and he lost himself utterly, the consequences, as the legend reminds us, were catastrophic. And this is evident too in the paintings and drawings he made at such moments. Fusion became fission. Everything crossed everything else out.

    When he won his wager – which was most of the time – the lack of contours around his identity allowed him to be extraordinarily open, allowed him to become permeated by what he was looking at. Or is that wrong? Maybe the lack of contours allowed him to lend himself, to leave and enter and permeate the other. Perhaps both processes occurred – once again as in love.

    Words. Words. Return to the drawing by the olive trees. The ruined abbey is, I think, behind us. It is a sinister place – or would be if it were not in ruins. The sun, the Mistral, lizards, cicadas, the occasional occasional hoopoe bird, are still cleaning its walls (it was dismantled during the French Revolution), still obliterating the trivia of its one-time power and insisting upon the immediate.

    As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognises the sensation – he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing – which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime – he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet – on one of which (on the paper) he will write ‘Vincent’.

    Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2018 @ 2:58 pm


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