we are all a van gogh

over the next few days, I was left to my own devices while all the working folk attended to their day jobs.  and by “own devices,” I really mean that I was sleeping in til noon and then trying to figure out how to do something with my day so that I didn’t feel like a waste of a human that evening when sam or jenna got home and inevitably asked me “so what’d ya do today?!”

night watch
rembrandt’s “night watch”

I made sure I went and saw the rijks museum, named after the brilliant and famous rembrandt.  A massive place with lots to see, I budgeted about 3 hours but could only handle about 2, as I often start getting claustrophobic or severely annoyed when I’m around museum tourists too long.  Or just people.  People in general can really chap my ass too.  After finally making my way to rembrandt’s “night watch” masterpiece, I made a quick double check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything of grave importance and then quickly got the hell out of there.  (it’s a great museum though, and I do recommend it for anyone out there looking for a useful way to kill a few hours taking in fine art.  Don’t take my cantankerousness to suggest otherwise)

I exited out the museum into the beautiful park that lay just behind it.  It was a very nice day out. The plan on the day had been to double down on museums and hit the van gogh building once I was done with the rijks, but now I wasn’t sure if I could stomach another couple hours of jockeying with idiots squaring up their cameras to take a photo of a piece of art they could easily google later at home to point to and say “look, I saw this!”   I seriously don’t get it.  Also, one of my biggest gnaw-at-the-inside-of-my-brain-as-i-slowly-lose-my-sanity things in life is when people are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them.  I call these people “Darwin defiers,” and museums seem to be a safe haven for them.  This is how they defy Darwin.  Because if they weren’t all hiding in museums all the time, they would have all been hit by buses or eaten by bears in the real world by now and we wouldn’t have to complain about them in blogs.

Anyway, travel guilt eventually got the best of me and I got up from my seat in the green grass in the park and forced myself to go sprint thru the van gogh museum so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about it later.  I walked around the corner and entered the museum.

The van gogh museum is the coolest museum I’ve ever been in.

I’ve never really been a big visual art kinda guy, as it relates to painting and drawing.  I get it.  I know why other people are, but I just really haven’t been struck by a painting before and been moved emotionally as I often am with music or film.  It just doesn’t speak to me on my wavelength.  I don’t know if that’s an ignorance thing or a generational thing, but it’s something.

The van gogh museum, for the most part, is arranged in a 4 story upwards funnel where you circle around a floor and then walk up to the next and repeat, with each floor representing a season of van gogh’s work in a chronological fashion.  this provides a very intricate and I think unprecedented window into a truly genius mind.

There is a theory out there, popularized in recent years by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “the tipping point,” also referenced by Macklemore in one of his songs, that claims that you need about 10,000 hours at something in order to truly master it. And when I say “master,” I mean you have arrived at a point in whatever you are doing where you are completely in control of what you are doing, you need no assistance, you are creating, and at this point, people may start to refer to you as “a genius.”  Think bill gates programming, miles davis playing jazz, bo Jackson playing sports, Donald trump being an asshole… you know, those levels of greatness.

And this is what is crazy to me about Vincent van gogh.  There’s almost no way that he put in 10,000 hours before he became a genius and posthumously stamped his place in the art world over the next 200 years, becoming an icon and a part of every art history book on the planet.  The man  had never studied art and didn’t decide to paint until he was 27.  27. He also spent his 1st two years learning about other styles and studying the craft before venturing down his own creative path.  And he did this with absolutely no success the entire time.  Nobody would buy his paintings. No one paid any attention to him.  The only person that believed in him was his brother, who funded vincent’s work and often housed him when nothing else was falling into place for him.  And then he killed himself at 34.

First of all, it takes huge balls to just walk away from whatever it is that you’re doing at 27, especially at a time when that very well may be more than 50% of your life that has passed (life expectancy is much longer now than it was in the 1800s), even if you weren’t doing anything cool before.  And then to go do “art?”    ummmm, wat?

most guys don’t need much in life.  They want a girl to think they are awesome, they want to get laid from time to time from said girl who thinks they are awesome, they want to watch sports and drink beer, and they want to be at least marginally good at one or two things that make them happy and that other people appreciate.  And they also want a couple buddies to do these things with or talk about them with while drinking said beers.

So for Vincent van gogh to decide halfway into his perceived adulthood “yeah, now I’m gonna paint!”  to me is beyond comprehension. It’s like when a wealthy family sends their son to Harvard to be a lawyer and he then tells them that he has decided to major in philosophy.  Those thanksgivings are never fun.

Anyway, back to van gogh. He struggled and failed mightily, making no money, not even being able to sell his paintings in what I would compare to modern day flea markets, but worked tirelessly to hone his craft and shape his own style. And he was very prolific, painting more and more the better he got.  Eventually, in the last 6 months of his life, he was churning out a painting a day, and these are all now considered priceless masterpieces.  In fact, the style he is famous for, the impressionist style with the magnificent colors and the blurry, dreamy style that we know him for didn’t really start rounding into form until his last 2 years.  That’s how patiently devoted he was.

These impressions slowly made their way onto me as I slowly navigated my way from floor to floor, watching the styles evolve and trying to put myself where Vincent was during each period of his life.  I started to realize that i identify with him, in many ways. It was a weird feeling for me, as I always thought historic art was kinda boring stuff. Stuff you were forced to learn in high school in college as filler, that would never have an impact on your life.  But here I was.  And finally, I got to the section of the museum where he really came into his own.  His paintings were declaratively showing themselves to the world, as if to say “this is what I am doing and I don’t care if the rest of you tell me that this shit,” each work was a statement.

And then I had my first real “art moment.”  It was similar to my moment before in the airport.  I came upon one of his self portraits.  Van gogh used to paint himself because he couldn’t afford to pay models to sit in for him (these days you just paint using a picture of something, but remember that this wasn’t something people had back then.  The artist was creating the picture).  I stared into his eyes and I felt like I could see his soul.  I could see the hope, I could see the pain, I could see the determination, I could see the futility.  I could see it all.  I took a step back and had to take a deep breath.  My eyes were watering a little.  The greens and blues, yellows and oranges were screaming at me and I couldn’t process them.  I must have stood in front of that painting for at least 10 minutes before moving on, completely hypnotized.

“tree roots” – van gogh’s final painting

I looked to the left, searching for the next work of art to move on to and admire, but there was nothing there.  A few feet further was a giftshop.  The exhibit was over, the collection complete.  I felt cheated.  I was only just now starting to understand him, understand art, and he was gone, leaving nothing behind him but a trail of beautiful breadcrumbs that slowly told his story without needing so much as a word. Just these simple paintings.

 

 

I find encouragement in his story.  Not in the part how he died.  How he slowly deteriorated mentally, tormented by his seeming failures and whatever else was going on in his life, eventually taking his own life by shooting himself in the chest and bleeding out for the next two days under his brother’s care.  That’s the tragic part.  The encouraging part isn’t even what it is that Vincent van gogh accomplished with the volume of his work.  The encouraging part is that he stood up and decided to change what he was doing with his life.  He found a purpose, even if it made sense to no one else.  And he didn’t just become amazing.  He studied.  He worked at it.  He vigorously trained and committed and struggled. But eventually, he was amazing.

It’s encouraging because I think there is a little van gogh in us all.  We all have the ability to do something amazing, we just have to realize our potential, and then chase it down.  Whether that is being a devoted husband or father, or mother or wife, starting your own business, writing a novel or a song, or just realizing that you’re in the wrong career and quitting to go travel the world.  Everyone’s life deserves something amazing in it, but it’s up to you to go find it.

———–

today’s song is from the new shakey graves album that just came out last week, “and the war came.”  solid album from top to bottom, this guy was already getting really hyped from his sxsw performance this year, he will undoubtedly blow up the radio and the internet for the next year.  enjoy the song, it’s the lead track from the album…

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