This summer the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is displaying to the public a selection of the famous letters written by the painter Vincent Van Gogh. The exhibition, called “The Necessity of Writing”, will run until October 6th. Visitors will also have a chance to look behind the scenes at the work currently underway on an important new annotated and multilingual edition of the complete correspondence of one of the most intense and inspiring artists of all times.
The correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the richest records anywhere of an artist’s creative and spiritual pilgrimage. Vincent’s letters (nearly a thousand have been preserved) are ranked among the world’s classics. They have been transcribed, translated and published in many different languages and editions around the world. Yet until now there has never been a truly complete and authentic edition of the letters.
Most of the letters are in the possession of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Together with the Constantijn Huygens Institute for Text Editions and Intellectual History in the Hague, the museum has embarked on its most ambitious publishing project ever: a new and complete publication of all the letters written by and to Vincent, in the original language (Vincent wrote chiefly in Dutch and later in French) as well as in an English translation with annotations. It is a scholar’s dream come true, but the publication is also expected to have interesting spin-offs for the broader public.
Most of Vincent’s letters were written to his brother and closest friend, the Paris art dealer Theo Van Gogh (1857-1891). The two men died within six months of each other. Theo’s young widow Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger was responsible for the first transcription and publication of the letters in 1914. Later anthologies of the letters relied heavily on this early edition, even though there were errors in the transcriptions and Jo Bonger had ommitted certain references in order to protect family members and friends who were still alive at the time. The current project, which will take several more years to complete, will try to be as faithful to the originals as possible, and researchers are even trying to locate or reconstruct lost letters. Extensive annotations will be provided, to help modern readers understand the many references that Vincent and his friends make to the art and literature and events of their day.
Words And Pictures
The letters written by Vincent are a kind of self-portrait in writing of a painter for whom words must have been nearly as important as images for conveying his insights and struggles. Vincent was supported financially by his brother Theo, so in many of the written exchanges between them there is talk of money and practical matters like paint supplies, but the letters are full of expressive reflections about the painter’s aspirations for art and for fellow humanity, complete with accompanying sketches. The correspondence also includes Vincent’s first sermon, delivered in England in October 1876 at a time when he still hoped to become a lay preacher. “Theo”, he proudly writes, “last Sunday your brother preached for the first time in God’s house.” Even later, when he is a painter, the letters retain a certain religious zeal:
“The more wasted and sick I become, a broken pitcher, the more I may also become a creative artist in this great renaissance of art of which we speak. …Eternally continuing art, and this renaissance this green shoot sprung from the roots of the old sawn-off trunk, these are matters so spiritual that we can’t help but feel rather melancholy when we reflect that we could have created life for less than the cost of creating art.”
For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl