RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Van Gogh’s best work rose from his inner, mental conflict

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

I just finished the flower-flattening tome called “Van Gogh: The Life” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It was 868 pages and so riveting I read the book in two weeks.
From his days as an itinerant evangelist to his isolation in an asylum near Saint Remy, Saint-Paul-De Mausole, van Gogh struggled with more demons than Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He is an object lesson in perspiration over inspiration. He certainly didn’t spring from the womb painting masterpieces. For decades, without direction or attaboys from any quarter, he kept at his art. It was a very slow go.
Even when van Gogh reached his artistic peak, he didn’t know it.
Vincent van Gogh, for a dramatic instance, considered “Starry Night” a failure.
Last fall I visited the French hospital where van Gogh painted many of his most famous canvases. Saint Paul was as peaceful and beautiful now as then. The part not dedicated as a van Gogh museum remains a mental hospital. I could see why a seriously ill Vincent was loath to leave.
“For the first time in his career as an artist, he could draw and paint unmolested and unmocked,” the authors said of the serene place. Outside the gates, the fragile van Gogh was doomed.
Art critics and neighbors called him a madman, said his vibrant colors came from a sick mind. Street urchins followed him, jeering and throwing rocks. With the exception of his brother Theo, Vincent’s family pretty much concurred with his many detractors. And at times Theo was on the fence.
Vincent himself admitted to being “a fanatic” about his beliefs.
Van Gogh’s story, told exhaustively in this wonderful new book, raises the familiar question: Must a great artist be a little nuts?
One bright Colorado night not so long ago, I was walking along a street of galleries and shops. The Art Walk, they call it. In one cooperative gallery, I stopped to admire a hand-pulled print called “Meditation.” A gorgeous young woman is reclining, swirls of blue and gold tangling with her long hair.
Just beneath the arresting print sat the artist, another beautiful woman. Marian Busey has taught art, worked with stage scenery, illustration and marionettes. She’s been making some kind of art all of her life.
Now she specializes in limited edition prints of paintings that have a dreamy, ethereal quality. We talked about her efforts; the artist was passionate, calm, fun and inspirational. I bought her print.
Marian Busey will be 100 in March.
It is sad how some have to suffer more for their art than others. Imagine if van Gogh had been able to enjoy his success, to sit and discuss his artistic visions with an appreciative public, to live to the age of 100 and see his paintings vault to iconic status. If only there had been a pill, a wife, a friend to ease his pain at least a little.
Artists are not exempt from the truism that life is not fair. Not for geniuses, not for the rest of us. The trick for most is to keep at it, whatever “it” is, ignoring the jeers and hearing the cheers.
Most of us won’t paint masterpieces from the isolation of a mental hospital or anywhere else. But we can carry on with our chores on days we don’t feel so great. That’s the van Gogh spirit that even the artist himself could not recognize.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.