Van Gogh: Courage & Cunning

Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait, summer 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent
Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait, summer 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Michael Kimmelman reviews the new book Van Gogh: A Power Seething (Icons) by Julian Bell, published by New Harvest.

Kimmelman observes that "Bell has written what he describes, rightly, as an 'unmystified' and compassionate biography. It follows the encyclopedic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published in 2011, a painstaking, brilliant, almost ceaselessly downbeat account of the life that nonetheless left room for a compact, personal take like this one, by a painter-writer about a painter-writer. Bell’s sympathy for his subject abides; his prose is angelic. He outlines the life without melodrama and with just enough exasperation at Vincent’s loutish, morose, and egocentric shenanigans. The book really comes alive when Bell describes specific pictures and their mechanics. Paintings by Lautrec, he writes, are

woven together out of fine strands of color scribbled, dabbed or hatched onto a warm neutral ground—with an end result in which the weave stayed naked to the eye, so that complementary pairings such as oranges and blues electrically vibrated.

This sort of description can bring to mind how van Gogh talked about his own work."