The daemonic discipline of Vincent van Gogh
The mythic potency of a life that is veritably (or literally) possessed by a daemonic creative force is beautifully and terrifyingly illustrated by the life, work, death, and legacy of Vincent van Gogh. So is the fact that a deliberate dedication to channeling this force through a discipline of strict technical training can result in artistic miracles, even as the merciless irruptions of the daemon’s uncompromising desires can contribute to the eventual upending of a person’s stability and sanity. As Dan Simmons writes in his essay about creativity and the daemon, “the true daemon dwelling in the Condition of Fire is an agent of transmutation, changing the poet or writer forever, creating Yeats’s ‘new personality’, a personality that is an opposing self, transforming the daemon into an energy in league with the writer’s most destructive muse, bringing forth a self-devouring force … The admission of the daemon itself into yourself…will take a terrible toll.”
This 2009 Smithsonian article on the exhibition “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night,” which was put on by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, offers a focused glimpse into van Gogh’s personal living-out of these realities. The author is New Mexico artist and writer Paul Trachtman.
When he took up drawing and painting, his originality offended his teachers. One student later described the scene at the Antwerp Academy where van Gogh enrolled: “On that day the pupils had to paint two wrestlers, who were posed on the platform, stripped to the waist. Van Gogh started painting feverishly, furiously, with a rapidity that stupefied his fellow students. He laid on his paint so thickly that his colors literally dripped from his canvas on to the floor.” He was promptly kicked out of the class.
But alone in a studio or in the fields, van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with painstaking thoroughness. He copied and recopied lessons from a standard academic treatise on drawing until he could draw like the old masters, before letting his own vision loose in paint. Although he knew he needed the utmost technical skill, he confessed to an artist friend that he aimed to paint with such “expressive force” that people would say, “I have no technique.”
… Among the artist’s last efforts was the tumultuous Wheatfield with Crows, in which dark and light, near and far, joy and anguish, all seem bound together in a frenzy of paint that can only be called apocalyptic. Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting it and died two days later. He was buried in a graveyard next to the field.
… [I]t was to the night sky, and to the stars, that van Gogh often looked for solace. The problems of painting night scenes on the spot held more than a technical interest and challenge for him. When he looked at the night sky, he wrote to Theo in August 1888, he saw “the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite.” When you are well, he went on, “you must be able to live on a piece of bread while you are working all day, and have enough strength to smoke and drink your glass in the evening … And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is almost enchanted after all.”
… In his last letter to Theo, found on the artist at his death, he had written: “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it, and my reason has half foundered because of it.”
— Paul Trachtman, “Van Gogh’s Night Visions,” Smithsonian magazine, January 2009