Vincent van Gogh, Four Cut Sunflowers, 1887. Scan obtained from the wonderful Carol Gerten’s Fine Art.

A while back I made my way through Irving Stone’s 1935 fictionalised biography of Vincent van Gogh – presented in fiction form, but based on Stone’s first-hand research and meetings with the people in van Gogh’s life. I daresay that is a one of the most palatable, readable forms of biography possible, especially for one who doesn’t much like biographies. This was no doubt one of the reasons that I actually picked up Lust for Life in the first place: as a casual appreciator of fine art I am fond of a few paintings by van Gogh (check out his stunning Four Cut Sunflowers above) but not a massive fan of his work. (Another reason was that I was completely blown away by The Agony and The Ecstasy – Stone’s equivalent biography for Michelangelo – when I read it years ago.)

I hate to say that Lust for Life demystified van Gogh for me. It did, but it’s just so darn cliché to say so! He seems to be a remarkable man first and foremost, and that makes him more endearing to me than he could ever be by being a great artist. (More on this another time.) Genius burned, to be sure, but he had to work on his craft – really work at it, like ordinary folks – and was plagued not just by the naysayers (who are unavoidable, I suppose) but by his own insecurities about his artistic ability. How refreshing to see, metaphorically speaking, a painfully earnest, socially awkward, religious-then-overtaken-by-a-higher-calling, communist-then-reminded-of-his-higher-calling, fellow, with feeling for human creatures – especially the simplest and humblest of them. As opposed to (say) a sophisticated, literary-verging-on-the pretentious, obnoxiously self-confident Artist who is supremely self-conscious not just of being an Artist but also of being a Great one.

Theo sent… the admonition to work hard and not become a mediocre artist. To this advice Vincent replied, ‘I shall do what I can, but mediocre in its simple signification I do not despise at all. And one certainly does not rise above that mark by despising what is mediocre. But what you say about hard work is certainly right.’

With regards to the actual art, Irving Stone perceives the most salient quality in van Gogh’s work to be a sense of the life and energy bursting from his subjects (be they trees or people), a sense of inherent ‘power’, conveyed by decisive brush strokes, thickly-laid paints and vibrant colours. I actually found this to be quite insightful, from the perspective of someone who has not studied art, whether in general or van Gogh’s in particular.

And learning about what van Gogh did in his lifetime – his stints in Paris, in Arles, in Provence, in the sanitarium; the people he met (the Potato-Eaters, the peasants wherever he went, Gauguin and various Impressionists) – imbues disparate works of art with a collective narrative quality. It’s strange. You do hear that good art stands on its own, but sometimes the art is better-appreciated, improved even, by some knowledge of the artist. I’ve found this to be true for popular music too. Anyway, this simply means that Lust for Life is a good read that also ups my enjoyment of something else. And that makes it cool in my book.