Reflections on Van Gogh’s Place Memories
The relations between landscape and memory structure the work of Dutch nineteenth century painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) in ways that contradict the typical modernist accounts of his significance as an artist who is so emblematic of certain populist ideas about landscape and the self, I want to use this art historical case-study as a way in to wider reflections occasioned by this project of contemporary practices.
Starting with van Gogh
Following the early twentieth century German appropriation of van Gogh fuelled by Julius Meier-Graefe’s charged writings on the artist as man of passionate longing, van Gogh has been often understood as a painter driven by inner compulsion to ‘express’ his personality in a direct painterly relation with the material world around him. In love with the sun, the wheat, the cypress, the billowing sky, van Gogh appears to Meier-Graefe as a painter of heroic struggles in and against nature.
All great works of art are trophies of victorious struggle, even those restrained and tranquil pieces before which one bows down as before the clandestine splendour of gentle flowers. In every flower glimmers a mysterious quality of soul, which, despite all filth and a thousand natural dangers, unfurls from the fruitful earth in the form of a blossom. In van Gogh’s work of the Aries period, the struggle rages more fiercely, occasionally with deafening clamour.1
In a scene in Vincente Minelli’s (MGM, 1955-6) cinematic rendering of Irving Stone’s fantasy biography Lust for Life (1935), van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Aries at night in the still wintry February of 1888. In the morning, groggy with sleep, van Gogh is shown opening his shuttered windows onto a blazing spring scene of natural abundance. His eye is drawn out from the gloomy interior to the joyous (and clearly unseasonal) scene of blossom-laden orchards whose frothy boughs are hypnotically filmed by a panning camera. An almost imperceptible dissolve transforms the fabricated scene the camera is photographing into van Gogh’s painterly rendering of pink and white orchards a la japonaise. In this cinematic version of a charged expressionist realism, seeing and painting are rendered synonymous. The slippage from (apparently immediate) perception to (unmediated) representation is presented as direct.The work of painting, the mediation of cultural practice, the technologies of pictorial and painterly representation, the acquired knowledge of tropes or conventions as well as techniques and materialities, are occluded. It is as if the painter is merely a set of hungry eyes that serve as open portals for the external world to enter in order for that outside world to re-emerge, only emotionally supercharged by its subjective passage, as painted landscape.This is the fiction of naive realism.
At the same time, however the expressionist thesis suggests that the relations between what the painter sees and what he (sic) paints is, in fact, the direct expression of his ‘inner vision’, of an internal, psychological landscape to which the viewer gains empathetic access via its externalised form as painted scene.2
Thus the landscape becomes a form of subjective, but indirect, self-portraiture.
Both within art history, and beyond in the international popular imagination, van Gogh appears as an emblem of the modern artist. As a result of this embedded, iconic representation of unmediated art-making as the mere record of a visual drinking-in of a given world, refashioned internally by the signature imprint of individual subjectivity, visible in the paint marks and colour choices, we must examine critically what is being repressed in Minelli’s image of the painter’s relation to the world about the complex relations of landscape and memory.
Minelli’s undoubtedly intelligent but ideologically framed representation of van Gogh as landscape painter is as much at odds with the actual conditions of the untutored Dutchman’s historical art practice as it is at odds with the later and still effectively modernist accounts of early modernism (1870-1907). Modernist discourse contains many of the cultural stereotypes that impede the continuing research into and practice of the engagement with land, environment, and the metaphors of innerscapes of memory and subjectivity that continue to engage contemporary artists in many forms and formats. So unpicking van Gogh’s mythological status may re-open some useful, and not merely art historical, space for our rethinking these terms,
A largely formalist, technical or phenomenological reading of early modernist engagement with landscape as the visual site/sight of the scintillating materialities of natural forms in movement and of natural forces like light and colour has dominated modernist art historical interpretation of landscape painting since Impressionism became fixed in art historical interpretations.3 The early twentieth century American modernist stress on largely formal interpretations was itself a reaction against the initially expressionist, symbolist and subjectivist framing of van Gogh in particular and other leading landscape practioners such as Cezanne and Gauguin at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps only now, as the hold of these two paradigms of twentieth century art discourse: formalism and expressionism, have been challenged by serious consideration of philosophical concepts of time and memory, themselves critical elements of later nineteenth century philosophical thought and psychology (Bergson and Freud to name but two theorists), can we re-investigate what might be said of the phenomenon of landscape painting as such an engaging artistic project in the second half of the nineteenth century.That engagement left a legacy that has, however; been marginalised by art history in the seesawing of cultural interest in urban mentalities or more purely formal articulations of the city’s other space and place.The re-reading of this ur-moment of modernist engagement with landscape may have interesting repercussions for current practices that struggle against historicist views of art historical lineages and critical categorisations.Thus the unfinished business of what was being explored in later nineteenth century engagements with painting and the land, countryside, coast, tourism, colonies,’elsewhere’, Utopias can be freed from its apparent untimeliness, to re-engage with pressing issues of our moment about the very real, and often dangerous questions of belonging, nationalism, location, and roots, versus more complex and imaginative understandings of displacement, exile, migration, re-location, cosmopolitanism, de-territorialisation and so forth.The confusion between the imaginative potential of a sense of space, place, and what I call the contingency of location and the ideological abuse of constructions of earth/soil as nationalism and at worst fascism, is present in so many current debates that we might well be able to pose a renewed strategic interest in what the traditions and currents of engagement with ‘landscape’ may enable us to think about.To reflect upon human relations to landscape and environment in terms of both situatedness/dislocation and any future of sustainability of human live and its ecological environments requires that we wrench new meanings from the uses and abuses of the work of artists who placed landscape so centrally in the development of modern culture.
A bit of art historical memory
We are accustomed to telling art history students that in the middle of the nineteenth century a major historic and ideological shift from narrative, historical or mythological painting took place, elevating the genres such as portraiture, landscape and genre itself (scenes of everyday life) that the academic hierarchy registered amongst the lower; less technically challenging and intellectually important. This shift is performed – in both senses of the word – in Gustave Courbet‘s programmatic position painting,The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory of Seven years of my Artistic Life (1855, Paris, Musee d’Orsay). On a truly monumental canvas that rivalled the grand scale of the historical tableau [comma out]? that was at the pinnacle of the academic hierarchy, usually reserved for allegorical or historical subjects, the provincially-born artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) displayed the worlds he, the artist, alone conjoins and interprets. On the left are arrayed the types of social and political history, worlds of power and poverty, war and religion, exploitation and suffering: a hunter; a revolutionary veteran, a musician, a beggar; a rabbi, a poor Irish woman with suckling babe and so on.4 On the right, are portraits of patrons, poets, lovers and members of the Parisian bourgeois intelligentsia who supported and befriended the artist? Courbet, however, positions himself, the actively creating artist, at the centre of the monumental painting, flanked by an undressed model. Her discarded garments lie visibly nearby to locate both her contemporaneity and her status as co-worker in this place of artistic production, as yet unneeded. She stands as both the sign of the real world of work from which art is made and the promise of a feminine figuration in and of the world. So often does a feminine figuration inhabit the bosky scenes of landscape that the evocation of the maternal and its association with the generative earth, the foundations of life and its continuing containment, always haunt the practice.5 Finally, an alert young boy stands to the artist’s left, and gazes upon the magic that the painter is performing on the canvas that is now at the centre of this allegory of the modern world.6
What interests me is that, in choosing to produce a representation whose purpose is at once to incorporate and to displace both history painting and portraiture, Courbet presents himself as a painter at work on a landscape. However predictable it seems given his later preoccupation with this genre, this gesture here remains immensely strategic and historically significant, always calling to the viewer to make new sense of its central proposition.7
It is not, however, any landscape. It is not a landscape as was even then the subject of annual contest in the Salons where classicising scenes derived from the models of seventeenth century landscape painters Poussin or Claude Lorraine often of the Roman compagna (the countryside around the classical and Renaissance city) studied by prize winning students who had won scholarships to the city and countryside of academic art’ s sources (Rome) vied with the emergent Romantic school of a new generation of French painters, painting in the grand, ancient and newly touristified forest of Fontainebleau.8 Rousseau, Dupre, Daubigny and others who would form the Barbizon School made a major shift in choosing to paint a local, French landscape, in its national, feudal, or more recently embourgeoised forms as the site of leisure, travel and recreation: holidaying away from the city and recreating the exhausted urban self in contact with the timeless nature of geology and forestry.
The canvas on the easel at the centre of Courbet’s machine is a representation of Courbet’s own region of the the Doubs in the Jura, in South West France, near his home towns of Flagey and Ornans. PetraTen-Doesschate Chu underlines the significance of the Doubs region for Courbet’s life and work, documenting his constant returns to his natal region, his considerable and carefully tended landowning in the region and his brief membership of a local society aimed at improving the local economic conditions through judicious scientific improvements, based on proper study of the geology, botany and water systems of the region. Publications promoted an idea of the dynamic processes of evolution in landscape itself and in the human interaction with it. She argues that:
Courbet’s concept of landscape as a continuously changing presence subject to evolutionary processes of nature and the progressive history of mankind determined not only his selection of landscape motifs but also his unique procedure and painting technique.9
The painting on the easel thus brings into view and art Courbet’s natal space and childhood environment that had no art historical or cultural privilege to justify its selection.10 The painting is not Paris where the painting exercise is clearly set.Thus, its central positioning signifies a reclamation of a lower genre of painting by placing its small and intimate scale at the centre of a vast machine – whose existence demonstrates that Courbet is capable of such sustained multi-figured composition. But it also signifies a shift within even the genre of landscape. It will not be enhanced and academically guaranteed by representing some local Parisian model in the guise of a nude nymph or goddess to elevate the materiality of the world to intellectual or aesthetic significance by transposition into ideal time and space. The painting Courbet places in his real allegory is of rocks, trees, water that have no significance in the broader field of a formerly shared elite cullture.They have meaning for him because they have associations that are intrinsically private or at best local and familial. They involved the known and the remembered that precisely conjugates particular and even personal connection and collective, regional, differentiated and social meanings.
As important is the manner in which Courbet has rendered these signs of locality, using a transgressive array of bold painting methods and utensils to achieve a new kind of visual equation between the management of paint and the geology, fluidity and substance of that other world his painting is not reproducing but representing in painted paraphrase (his own term). The palette knife is used to create its own kind of sheer rock and crusted surfaces that might echo but hardly depict the rocky cliffs and gaping caves of the porous limestone of this dramatic region.Thus the paint is used to explore the possible material correlations of that substance and that which it does not attempt to describe in carefully fashioned illusion, but to invoke through indirect, self-advertising physical correspondence and implied effects that can only be garnered through the immediate experience before the painted surface as its own materiality and visual adventure.
Thus something profound has happened that will take many decades to be worked through by painters following this bold gesture. Courbet’s painting remodels the relations between the signified and the process of signification that will now suspend itself between its own materiality and its capacity to suggest what it is not without deception.
Finally, this central vignette of artist representing himself as painter painting a small landscape introduces a structure that will unfold throughout the next half century of European painting to allow a kind of reflexivity that will be a hall mark of modernism. How does the artist signify a concept of the novel formulation of that identity as a singular and also symptomatic subjectivity of modernity? This is, therefore, no simple self-portrait, the artist seeing him/herself as such. The painting is named an allegory; that is to say, it is an ‘other’ speaking of a relation to the world in which a novel definition of both the artist and of subjectivity in general is being adumbrated through a propositional painting about painting, practice and its worlds. The land that Courbet paints himself painting is a home-land, a regional birthplace; it serves as an index of a localisation of identity that relativises subjectivity according to class, regionality, difference traversed with sexuality and sexual difference. It is also a self-defining placing that is a means of both differentiation and of an identity, premissed on belonging to somewhere precisely when I am not there to be enfolded undifferentiatedly into its physical encompass or social community. Displacement, if not exile, reveals memory in its cleft as the thread along which the meaning of such image making will be strung.Thus the painting of place here implies precisely the opposite of a blood and soil nationalism precisely because memory is premissed on distance and difference.
This praxis introduces a concept of’coming from’ that, of course, only becomes meaningful when, for whatever reasons, the artist/subject is no longer there, at home. Thus the very act of painting a remembered place produces a spacing between coming from and being there, a gap into which the painting – from memory or by a return to visit the motif itself – becomes a figuration not merely of nostalgia but of desire. Desire, in its psychoanalytical sense, is precisely generated as an impossible longing for the irrecoverably lost.This is a significant distinction and it is dependent on a specific psychoanalytical theorisation of what causes desire and at what desire perpetually aims.
Desire, therefore, according to the psychoanalysts is a curious paradox created by a primordial loss/separation (of/from the maternal body, of/from the maternal gaze, of/from the loved object and of/from primary narcissistic idealisation that castration destroys) whose extremity threatens the subject. In defence against this aching void of insatiable loss itself created by the separation from the maternal body, voice, gaze and breast, and later compounded by the castrative cut that promises incorporation into culture at the price of complete renunciation of archaic objects and connections, desire is born as a demand for unconditional love that could only be provided by the lost objects whose absence, structurally, generates the desire for what becomes desirable because it is lost. So desire is theorised as an insatiable motor of human subjectivity that is lined by a loss of what remains, however, only as a memory of lost plenitude. Desire works in a gap, and only because of a gap. Fascism, we might suggest psychologically speaking, is a repudiation of the fact of loss and desire. Fascism imagines that the lost does exist and thus can be regained in itself by fetishizing the motherland, soil, and idealising the heroic instrument of return, the heroic masculine leaden Hence its dangers and perverse refusal of what Freud insisted on as adult responses through creative sublimation of loss into creative transformations.
When the becoming human subject was in any way, mostly fantasmatically attached to its primary objects, there was no sense of loss or separation to endow these objects with the particular significance they gain when they become lost objects of desire.’ What is remembered in the frame of desire was not a figure of memory until it needed to be recalled in memory by virtue not of being no longer present, but because it signifies the gap of absence. All of this, of course, is unconscious, which is why it sounds so fantastic. But memory, between unconscious not knowing that can only be symptomatically indexed by repetition and something preconscious that can be brought to mind as a melancholic ache, is a desire-lined trace that will invest something other than desire’s unconscious objects with the affects that arose archaically in relation to the subject’s primary objects of libidinal investment.Thus memory is always a memory of something defined as lost, tingeing all recall with a deeper psychological pain of absences that echo the deepen unconscious lostness of the primary home and arche-space of the subject: that is maternal rapport that we fantasmatically imagine as a space or place.Thus while sociologically and art historically landscape becomes a carrier of memory in this double relation of singular subjectivity signified by this new kind of artistic identity and a subjectivity premissed on separation and distance from actual home when artists like Courbet and as we shall see Van Gogh, both country boys leave for the city, the genre will also release into modern cultural discourse and representation a psychological haunting of less visual but no less potent associations of ‘home’ that operate at the level of modes of subjectivity called into being by landscape as its representational support.
In his study of literary tradition in The Country and the City (1975) Raymond Williams tracked this formation of an oscillating consciousness about urban and rural life that signifies a sense of a lost past, and of change as loss itself. Firstly, Williams reminds us how long-lived has been the literary trope of a lost paradise or past golden age just over the horizon of the present. Transformed by the changing historical conditions of each moment of enunciation, the repeating structure of this sense of nostalgic regret for a more perfect time and place, emerges as a psychological symptom beyond the historical explanation that none the less inflects it with class and gender as well as colonial difference.
Williams, furthermore, suggests that the loss of childhood has always haunted cultural images of a past imagined as a distant place and time but that this will be intensified by certain modern historical conditions because of the enormity of the shift of populations from predominantly agrarian societies to predominantly urban systems. Williams, therefore, plots out the novel historical inflection of the classical trope of the lost golden age in the era of industrialisation and urbanisation that incited a mass emigration from agricultural societies to new urban centres and thus materially created new sociological experiences of dislocation from childhood worlds. The art of the nineteenth century landscape modernists may be read as the art of that first generation of rural migrants to the cities who worked in a double relation to lost homes or birthplaces and to subsequent rural locations as returnees or tourists. For the first generation, painting landscape between the 1830s and 1860s, the relation between a childhood home within a countryside and its always shifting rural cultures and an adult professional life removed from it into the whirlpool of metropolitan modernity created the emotional and psychological dynamic for an artistic practice that would transform the whole range of meanings and potentials of the genre of western landscape painting and place its problems and practice at the centre of the modernist endeavour
Some of this held true for the second generation, that we associate with Impressionism, 1863-86. Here, while social art historians have rightly identified such interventions as Impressionism as a negotiation of the novel conditions of urban socialities and subjectivities, and the creation of that hybrid social and economic space, the suburb or suburban town, it is vital to see how and why a reverse dialectic of a return to the country as site of modernist painting became so important within a generation after the founding Impressionists. For the painters of the later 1880s, it was the rediscovered of other countrysides: Provence for Cezanne, Brittany or Tahiti for Gauguin, or Provence for van Gogh, that became the decisive if perplexing structure for avant-garde painting. For the pressing avant-garde question of what to paint was as often thought through another: where to paint.11 Far from following, therefore, a straightforward logic of artistic development propounded by the old modernist story of art that moves seamlessly through teleologies of formal development from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and so on, we social historians of art stress the discontinuity of primary attention to city or country which diverted major artists in the I 880s from the cities to the regions, coasts, and colonies imagined as other to the urbaninsing modern even while access to these other spaces was created precisely by the long arm of modernisation, railroads, steamships and other modern communications systems.
In this model, however, painting as place-making involves a temporal dimension, that reveals in the fabric of subjectivity the psychic importance of childhood, that repertoire of invested memories to which, prior to the emergence of psychoanalysis as an explanatory model, certain artistic and literary forms allowed a mediated and imaginative access. Interest bordering on romanticising nostalgia for the countryside of times past was typical of a generation whose own childhood had been spent in rural communities, so that a highly personalised narrative overlaid and over-determined a larger sociological response to the upheavals wrought in town and country by urban industrial and colonial capitalism. Personal history and social situation coincided and could, of course, only be explored and negotiated culturally through the practice of invented place-making: landscape painting as the intersection of place, subject and memory. This might require an actual motif, but most social historians of art have shown repeatedly how the support offered by the motif does not reduce to a replication of it; indeed motif functions as a precipitating factor for precisely this relay of psychic and social relations that make this practice capable of sustaining major modernist practices for several decades.
Of this formation, the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh is perhaps the most typical and at the same time the most exceptional example. The very fact of his complete lack of formal artistic training and his merely amateur apprenticeship, coupled with a voracious literary appetite that made him a reader of British, French, Russian, German and Dutch poets, novelists and philosophers, produced a strangely symptomatic painting practice that bypassed the profound reflections on modernism we find in Cezanne or Seurat, or the intellectual complexities of the immensely ambitious Gauguin. In the case of the Big Three of the so-called Post impressionist generation, their education as painters had taught them something about what would emerge slowly as a core modernist problem: space. Space is both what the world is and what the canvas is, the three dimensionality of the former meeting the interesting challenge of the two-dimensionality of the latter. The classic formulation remains true if banalised by our over familiarity: how do you represent three-dimensional worlds on two-dimensional surfaces without sacrificing the core modernist ‘truth’, the ‘fact’ of the surface flatness of the canvas. The technical, intellectual and ideological challenge of this simple but vital problem exercised the major early modernists, each exploring a different solution. But van Gogh did not enter art practice by means of those engagements with painting that would teach him that this was the problem. He learnt from teach-yourself-to-draw manuals and from copying graphic illustrations which emphasised line, especially outline for the purposes of illustrative narrative and gave him no artistic understanding of the problems of volume or of space and fewer means of tackling them when he did turn to painting itself.
Van Gogh tried out oil painting only in the summer of 1882 and was pretty poor at it. When he tried to become a landscape painter during a stay or merely three months in the dramatically flat, canal-threaded peat lands of the Northern province of Drenthe, in autumn 1883, his head filled with Ruysdael, van Goyen, Daubigny and Rousseau, van Gogh clearly had no idea what made a landscape painting work. He had no idea about the orchestration of tonality to produce effects of distance, nor the key function of the middle ground, nor the function of planes and the strategic significance of the horizon in relation to the golden section, nor the function of the sky and so forth. Surrounded by the great works of the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century who had developed so many of the classic stratagems that sustain landscape painting, and by the renewed interest in that legacy that animated the painters of the so-called Hague School, followers of Barbizon painters themselves reviving the seventeenth century tropes, van Gogh’s first efforts at landscape painting are lamentable and tellingly so. He sensed it. Indeed he abandoned the project of being a landscape painter after a mere three months. He returned to his parents’ home in another small Brabant village and decided to try painting pictures of rural life based around the figure in a specifically agricultural community dominated by cottage, church and peasant interior
In our grand hagiographic accounts of the struggling and defeated genius, there is precious little room for such hard headed appraisal of his set backs. Everything bears the signature of his heroic struggle. But in what I frankly name van Gogh’s failed exercises, we can appreciate something that would finally find its resolution in later work To see this we need to go back before we can go forward and to link this ‘failure’ with the larger ideas about landscape and memory that I have been sketching here.
Star-Gazing and Map-making
In a heretical interpretation of this much misread and over-idealised painter I would argue that it is by virtue of what he unknowingly did, rather than through gifted insight or profound imaginative or intellectual understanding, that Vincent van Gogh can throw light on the question of landscape and memory within this moment of its initial emergence in the modernist epoch.To glean the symptomatic rather than the intentional, we have to read across the oeuvre for patterns, for the beat of an unconscious repetition that sometimes, however; surfaces. Avoiding all biographical deduction while specifically focussing on the structures of subjectivity that are revealed through the habits of his art making, we can plot out the pressure of memory and place and hence the creation of art works that are not expressive but rather mnemonic.
Firstly, we go forward. Between February and April I 890, it appears that Vincent van Gogh suffered an episode of prolonged illness following an epileptic crisis that overwhelmed him on 22 February 1890. During this period of recovery from a major fit, however; scholars believe that he did manage to produce a series of drawings and paintings that he called in a letter (LT 629) ‘reminiscences of the North.’ In a letter to his mother and sister Wilhelmina, he wrote:
Even while my illness was at its worst, I kept painting, among other things a reminiscence of Brabant, cottages with moss roofs and beech hedges, on a fall evening with a stormy sky, a red sun setting and reddish clouds. Also a turnip field with women pulling out the green tops in the snow. (LT 629)
The North is not merely generic; it is Brabant, the Catholic, southern-most province of the Netherlands in which Vincent van Gogh was born (at Zundert in 1853) and where he grew up in various parishes to which his father; a minority Protestant pastor, ministered. But what is remembered in this series of’reminiscences’ is not his own home and family, but the world of rural workers, already imagined in a vocabulary heavy with romanticism: stormy skies, evening suns, winter landscapes, lights in the windows, fires burning and smoke from chimneys. This is how the painters of the Barbizon school had rendered artistically interesting the topography and climatics of central France in works collected specifically by the Dutch painter Hendrijk Mesdag for his museum that boasts a wonderful display of daring and richly impasted ‘sketches’ of weather and time ‘effects’ by Dupre and Daubigny , full of dramatic sunsets against darkly silhouetted cottages.This is not phenomenologically inspired observation but a sentimentalising vision of the tropes of country life in which the bourgeois ideology of domesticity is firmly installed in a social landscape that also makes the cottage a displaced signifier of the feminine, maternal body.
Van Gogh’s strange drawings and paintings of spring 1890 are dismissed by scholars for their weakness [,] which apparently betrays the unstable mental condition of their maker I have always been intrigued by this remarkable moment of clarity in van Gogh’s work, because it seems less a momentary deviation resulting from temporary indisposition than a realisation that, despite his dependence on a given motif literally before him in order to paint, what he had always been painting had been ‘memories of the North’, or rather memories of home that were an amalgam of experience and acquired familiarity through art and fiction. Painting was always a way home from exile that was as much psychological as it was sociological.
I have elsewhere elaborated this argument about van Gogh the tourist in France in more detail.12 But two elements need to be introduced here. One is that van Gogh acknowledged that the actual landscapes in which he painted, sites around Aries for instance, were already memories. Here is the twist however: memories of pictures. Secondly, these pictures were already signs of an entire world, or shall I say of an ideological position that used an idealised past to signify a political critique of contemporary capitalist society. For example, onto the scenes of Provence that he encountered in 1888 Van Gogh projected not only his memory of paintings by seventeenth century Dutch artists such as Rembrandt, Ruysdael, Hobbema,Vermeer and de Koninck. He felt himself transported by that visual recollection to the ordered society he imagined was represented by these painters of seventeenth century Holland because of the clarity of composition and disposition of elements their paintings achieved for their proposed spectator. Why?
Behind this proclivity to identify local scenes with the contents of his imaginary museum, lay a deeper identification and dislocation that had been articulated in a critical letter written ten years before in 1880. So here we go backwards.This letter, LT 133, declares in various coded ways his decision to take up art as a new career. Writing to his brother, van Gogh declares that he longs for what he calls ‘the homeland of pictures’ from which he has been exiled since he left the art dealing profession that had allowed him to work with paintings and live in cities where he could see pictures in galleries and museums. His decision to take up a career in art is an attempted return to a’patrie’, a homeland, associated with and imagined through paintings. This is a powerful image. Van Gogh writes that ‘far from that land, I am often homesick for the land of pictures’ The act of making pictures, at first through drawing and only after three years through painting, is a means of travelling back to this land to assuage this heimweh, this homesickness, for what is held before him in his imaginary museum. The paintings, however, selected to fill this memoryland themselves represent the time of his childhood: they date from the mid-nineteenth century and thus are the images through which his sense of a childhood past is not remembered but recreated through the promptings of these paintings that provide an image for a sensation of lost home and past time.
Let me track one example to show how this complex dialectic of personal and cultural memory worked.
The Dutchman Vincent van Gogh was an artistic tourist in the South of France in 1889 when he made his perhaps most famous and hence over-interpreted painting, Starry Night (June 1889, Museum of Modern Art New York).This work is readable not so much as the usual expressionist reflex but as the first of a series that he would name one year later as Memories of the North.13 Under its apocalyptic sky with sun and moon and eleven stars, all haloed amidst billowing clouds cited from Rembrandt’s Annuni’ciation to the Shepherds, at the centre of the painting is a sleeping village in moonlight, overseen by a church painted in lighter hues. The architecture of this building does not belong to the Provencal village that may have been visible from the asylum where it was painted.The church does not belong to the local scene. A small sketch of a view of St. Remy sets the regular tile roof-lines of the Provencal tiled architecture that forms the densely clustered town in relation to the sharply spired basilica-shaped Catholic church of the town (F 1541 v, van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). A drawing in pen and ink (F 1540) probably based on the completed painting shares with the painting an entirely different architecture: thatched cottages and a Northern protestant church that Ronald Pickvance suggests is a composite of several van Gogh had painted and drawn in Brabant in the early 1880s. Following this line of enquiry, we would begin to form a small catalogue of images of cottages and images of churches to show how persistently these themes occur: inviting the unwary Freudian to easy suggestions of associations of the phallic spire with the father and then homely cottage with the mother. But we can be more careful without losing the painful if often apposite simplicities of Freud’s insights into our deepest longings and fantasies that are structurally as well as biographically familial. In fact van Gogh did not represent many churches in his earlier years. Two stand out, both from the village of Nuenen where he painted the small circular chapel at which his rather was the Protestant pastor, and the remnant tower of an older Catholic church once used by the local peasantry. Redrawing those churches that do appear in his work produce no similarities at all with the church at the centre of Starry Night
On 22 July I 878, eleven years earlier; Vincent van Gogh had written to his brother Theo from Etten, another small village in Brabant in which he had grown up as the second son of a Reformed Protestant pastor Theodorus Van Gogh and his wife Anna Cornelia Carbentus. The letter is atypical, at least according to the later image of the letter’s writer once he had begun to refashion himself as the artist Vincent van Gogh. It is a lyrical letter about a trip he and his father had made to explore training schools in evangelism for the young man. On their return from Brussels, they had walked through the twilight:’the sun setting red behind the pine trees and the evening sky reflected in the pools; the heath yellow and white and grey sand were so full of harmony and sentiment – see there are moments in life when everything, within us too, is full of peace and sentiment, and our whole life seems to be a path through the heath; but it is not always so.’ He then reports that he spent a morning with his much younger brother, Cornelius, collecting heather for rabbits.They had sat in a pinewood and done a drawing of a little map of Etten and its surroundings. Cor had written on the drawing: Vincent and I did this in the pinewood – Cor – and I must go to bed. Goodnight.’
In the late 1970s, I worked closely with Fred Orton on several projects that involved our common research interest in the work of Vincent van Gogh.14 Fred’s PhD had been based on creating a conceptual and thematic index of the van Gogh Letters, enabling us to track the lines of thought, the thematic continuities that traverse the literary text of an artist whose life and work is, despite art history’s passion for linear trajectories, radically ruptured, discontinuous and yet following an unconscious pattern of core interests and ideas. Van Gogh moved from career to careen job to job, country to country, city to country, country to city and to other countrysides. Indeed, it requires us to map the fractured lines of his discontinuous passage through time as a migratory movement through space that was, however, always that of a remembered time.
This little map of 1878, drawn in artistic innocence with his younger brother Cor at a moment of relative peace with his family and its location in rural Brabant takes on, as Fred Orton and I immediately sensed in our early work together; a kind of emblematic significance. We need only to juxtapose it with this famous passage from van Gogh’s literary works:
For my part I know nothing whatsoever about it, but looking at stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black and white dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself should the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is that we cannot get to a star while we are alive, any more than we can take a train while we are dead.LT 506
Cor and Vincent van Gogh’s drawing is an atypical nineteenth century map that works simultaneously on the axis of planar projections: as if seen directly from above, and as a perspectival vignette. The ground is marked by roads, creating a network of pathways through a blank territory not registered as flat or ribbed. Supplemented, the drawing also includes buildings and tree plantations although there is no indication of the pinewood from which this drawing was made.The buildings are of two kinds, in fact they are of one kind: churches and associated dwellings such as the rectory – the boys’ home. At the central crossroads of the 1878 map is, however a large church and then a house which we can recognise from a drawing from April 1877, The Church and Vicarage at Etten (juvenilia XXI, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) At the upper left is the church that I think is being remembered and redrawn from memory, travelled to by star as it were, in Starry Night.
Here begins van Gogh’s parallel fascination with the representations of churches and of his various homes that will form a significant repeating motif across his migratory work Yet never again will he be able to imagine himself at the centre of the spatial universe. During his sojourn in the city of the Hague (1881-83) he makes a drawing of the house he rented on the outskirts of the Hague, showing its precarious location on a new, just built estate where city is being formed within the still rural country.The view from the back window of his apartment underlines the hybrid, becoming and changing space that he will again seek out when in Aries he rented perhaps his most famous home, the Yellow House. In this painting, he angles his vision to be able to see both the tiny corner dwelling that is his home and the street that tunnelling under the railroad bridge led him daily to the plains of la Crau where he painted and drew his remembered scenes of Holland in Provence.
Juxtaposing the two images relieves the usual nonsense written about van Gogh’s later work and draws it back to a deeper need to inscribe the self in space, to create an image of a spatial location for the self, mirrored not by a spectral double as in the self-portrait but by its housing. The house is, according to Adrian Stokes, the architectural memory of an originary housing, that could never be remembered, but could infuse its unconscious intensities into the shapes of built environments that are more interesting to us, subjects, than mere topography.
Yet in van Gogh’s perpetual search for the reinvention of a home in pictures and by picture-making we find a deeper question being posed: not of the lived life: bios – with all its inevitable discontinuities and even radical and painful ruptures, exiles, migrations and longings.The question is about how we find out who we are by wondering where we come from. It hardly takes Gaston Bachelard, Adrian Stokes or the latter’s mentor Melanie Klein, to spell it out: the home, the house is, inevitably, the fantasmatic and uncanny body of the imaginary mother: where biography and space primordially combine too soon for us to know. Van Gogh remained tied by melancholic nostalgia and killed himself in a field or did himself harm there on 27 July 1890. We do not know what he was painting at the time. It certainly was not the painting Crows in a Wheatfield that is so often placed at the end of the narratives of his life and work in art history books, exhibitions and films because its darkly threatening sky, aborted pathways and menacing crows literally project a scene of anguished self-doubt and defeat.15
That work was painted early in the month of July as part of a series of double square landscape paintings that actually promised an interesting formal and decorative shift in his work.16 Current research suggests that the last images van Gogh made were, in fact, paintings of cottages, of habitations which he so often painted from the outside, while using these images to imagine their invisible but homely interiors generating both a sense of longing for place and exile from its inclusive embrace. Thus not only the narrative of the child and the maternal body, but of the masculine subject and the sexually desired interiority of the feminine is activated in these images of perpetual exile inscribed into genre images of the rural cottage seen from an outsider’s viewpoint.
Landscape and memory – home and the body, time and loss worked out through the specific possibilities of painting and space, these form the potential tropes of a re-reading of the affective intensities of the engagement with landscape in the later nineteenth century. Of course, major social and historical explanations for these choices and practices are necessary and relevant in our plotting out social histories of art. But feminist questions about the fantasies of sexual difference and their formation in the ambivalences of our formation as sexed subjects to which that much maligned but endlessly fascinating discourse of psychoanalysis gives us imaginative and self-critical access, opens up the place of painting to the processes and intensities of subjectivity that nestle into and line with affect ideologically determined cultural representation. Repressed yet powerfully determinant is not the motherland or even the fatherland of nationalistic and territorialising and racialising discourses, but the ‘home’ of the maternal site of our becoming human subjects, from which we are necessarily and creatively exiled. It is, none the less, clear that this partly conscious and deeply unconscious layers of memory, haunting and recurring, are not, as the masculine thinkers argue, adamantly lost. Land as the very allegory of both place and displacement is a figuration of the role of the maternal feminine in all our formations and one that can become the ‘matrix’ of a creative exploration at the self-reflexive interface of longing, loss, and human meaning.Thus in a final gesture, I would like to unravel a little the adamant psychoanalytical shiboleth of desire predicated on loss, to suggest that through painting, and specifically that which stages the space of subjectivity, such as place-making or space-making, which we generically call landscape, works for us precisely because there are relays between what we are not and what we feel.
Bracha Ettinger finesses basic psychoanalytical propositions through her painting-created concept of metramorphosis. Never entirely fused or joined and equally never entirely lost or separated, subjectivities may interconnect through forms of linking and webbing that the effects of painting specifically engender in the relay between painting as a practice and the conditions of viewing. Under the title After the Reapers, Bracha Ettinger started painting landscapes of desolation haunted by the terrible figures of pain and atrocity inflicted on human kind in the beautiful landscapes of Poland under the Third Reich. Flinching from the impossible representation of the tortured human body in a landscape of voided humanity, she abandoned painting and landscape, to recreate her practice through the ready-mades of history, photographic remnants of the various ‘scapes’ of her parents’ lost and new worlds between Poland and an emergent Israel that would be passed through an interrupted photocopying processes and then re-worked through the painted gesture and affective marking of colour Her work increasingly explores the traumatic legacies of this history etched into a familial genealogy that made her write in her notebooks:
Europe and the desert ofjudea. Israeli-European archaeology. The earth and all that filth underneath: underneath – Europe must be looked at.
During every journey, I see the green everywhere; and I see filth underneath. Nature and all that it has swallowed. The plain desert: blessed
drought, or drought wounded.17
The artist records her mother’s words that inflect the sense of place and sense of landscape with other meanings created in this history.
Enclosed spaces must be left behind. As soon as space is dosed, hit the road – my mother said that. Catherine repeats again and again, “As your father says, if it’s closed, leave it behind.” And yet, I tell her, it’s my mother. My mother always says,” When I saw they were closing off the ghetto, I just had to go elsewhere. Better to die free, like an animal and in the fields.18
The events of the Shoah rupture all inherited tropes and conventions, thought, ethics and aesthetics, challenging a human world to re-create its own conditions of living while demanding vigilant but changing forms of memory that run from generation to generation, actively framed, as here by mothers’ words and experiences of death-ladened imprisonment and equally uncertain living in the unlocked spaces of’countryside.’. Landscape’s once beneficent if always nostalgia-ladened connotations were ruptured by the siting of the death camps the fields and forests of Poland and Germany as the final destination for those who had been initially enclosed in newly created ghettoes. In working at this rupture as a borderspace for the transmission of that historical as well as familial trauma, a working through inevitable mourning that passes on to further generations some of the unprocessed trauma of those who experienced this first hand, Bracha Ettinger discovers in painting, and then theorises via psychoanalysis,’art as the transport-station of trauma’, art as memory-work that can engage with but also modify the ‘gap’, suggesting not the phallic structure of absolute loss that conditions desire, but the possibilities of exchanges and transformations at the borderlines between elements of different subjectivities across time, space and historical disruption.19
Thus, instead of the plot I have been laying out so far in the early modern world of Courbet and Van Gogh, of landscape as a machinery of desire premissed on the loss of the maternal as archaic Other, home and origin, Bracha Ettinger suggests a role for the landscape of painting (and art forms that can function ‘as painting’) in relation to the re-negotiation of what is not-quite-loss (because affects and intensities are transmitted) and not quite reconnection (for there is always a minimal distance) that can assuage our sense of exile and dispossession without the faintest trace of the fascist dream of absolute belonging and re-grounding. Bracha Ettinger, an artist of the second generation of the Shoah, painter and feminist theorist belongs with a group of artists now working on place, history, and memory that defines an era not so much post-modern as ‘after Auschwitz’ but with a specific feminist turn. Its intensities are familial and inescapable for many artists, some of whom will be exhibiting in this show. For others, they are less immediate but they, none the less, condition the grounds on which the complex politics of landscape and memory have been played out in the modern era, an era in which structures of loss, disconnection and dislocation have been both creative engines and machines of catastrophe.
For the new generations of artists who address this burdened history, landscape and memory take on new urgencies and offer expanded possibilities for negotiation of memories that are theirs and also others’. The question, as even is how do the works call to us, their witnesses, readers and partners? How do they position or disposition us, and dispose us to reflect upon these powerful relations of place and person, land and reminiscence, home and away. What new forms of visual rhetoric are possible in painting, video, film, photography and new media, to articulate much more self-aware relations of subjects and places that Courbet’s sense of the progressive history of the earth combined with a history of our human, social interventions, Van Gogh’s sense of aesthetically fashioned homelands and motherspaces and Ettinger’s traumatically ruptured but matrixially transported landscapes of catastrophe variously deposit as markers and memories of the landscape of art.
AHRB CentreCATH, University of Leeds June 2004
Griselda Pollock is Professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art in the Department of Fine Art
and director of the AHRB Centre for Cultural Analysis,Theory and History at the University of Leeds, England.
- Julius Meier-Graefe,’UberV/ncent van Gogh,; Sozialistische Monatshefte, 10:2, 1906, 145-57 translated by Bogmomilla Welsh-Ovcharov, Vincent van Gogh in Perspective, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974, 73.
- I have developed this reading in my ‘Crows, Blossoms and Lust for Death: Cinema and the Myth of Van Gogh the Modern Artist,’ in The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh, edited Kodera Tsukasa and Yvette Rosenberg, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1992, pp 271 -240.
- Critical responses to and interpretations of ‘new painting’, French painting and so forth vary according to the aesthetic ideology of the early schools of French, British and German modernist criticism. The canonising interpretation appeared with John Rewald‘s History of Impressionism, (New York, 1946) published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and following the model of analysis produced by A. H. Barr is his first decade of exhibitions as Director of that museum. Rewald’s model was challenged by two key figures in the 1980s, Robert Herbert Imnpressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society, (1988) and TJ. Clark The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (New Haven, 1984). Both books identified Meyer Schapiro as an inspiration. Schapiro had indeed challenged Barr’s formalism in a review of 1936, demanding even then a more subtle analysis of the relations between the modes of representation forged by the Impressionist group/tendency and the conditions of modernity that determined urban experience and social relations. Meyer Schapiro’s writings on this era have been collected as Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions (New York, 1997). My own work has introduced a feminist inflection of the Qarkian/Shapiran analysis in several studies of Mary Cassatt’s work and in my essay , ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’ in Vision and Difference, (London, 1988 & 2003).
- The definitive political interpretation of this painting and the meaning of this side of the work as a political message to Napoloen III is presented by Klaus Herding, ‘Das Atelier des Malers:Treffpunkt der Welt und Ort der Versohnung,’ Realismus als Widerspruch: Die Werklichkeit in Courbet’s Malerei, ed. Klauu Herding, Frankfurt am Main, 1978. A major feminist re-reading of importance is by Linda Nochlin who momentarily dreams another painting with Rosa Bonheur, also a major landscape painter of this period at the centre of a world of women thinkers and artists. Linda Nochlin, ‘Courbet’s Real Allegory: Rereading “The Painter’s Studio” in Courbet Reconsidered, ed. Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1988, 17-42.
- In a recent conversation with the writer Henri Raczymow, author of a new study of Courbet L’Outrance (Paris,2004), I was told that Courbet’s correspondence indicates that he had further plans for this painting within the painting: including several figures and animals, including a reference to his mother
- For an important reading of this painting’s place in art history and the role of this young boy see Jennifer Tennant Jackson, PhD University of Leeds (2000)
- On the significance of Courbet’s landscape painting within his overall oeuvre see Anne Wagner; ‘Courbet’s Landscapes and Their Market,’ Art History, 1981, 4:4 410-31; Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, ‘It took Millions of Years to Compose that Picture,’ in Courbet Reconsidered, ed. Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin New York, 1988) 55-65.
- The major study of Barbizon painting group and new bourgeois concepts of refreshment in ‘nature’ that created a tourist experience of privileged sites such as the Forest of Fontainebleau was produced by Nicholas Grreen, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth Century France, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.
- Petra Ten-Doesschate-Chu, op. cit, 61.
- I am indebted here toT.J. Clark in his Image of the People London:Thames and Hudson, 1973, who makes this point about Courbet’s major figure paintings of the later 1840s and early 1850s. He painted his world, family and friends, thus producing what we would now call situated knowledge and claiming speficity of experience against culturally condoned generalisation.
- This is a restatement of Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock, les Donnees Bretonnantes: La Prairie de Representation’ (in English) originally published in Art History I960, 3:3, 314-44; reprinted in Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed, Manchester, 1996, 53-88.
- Griselda Pollock, ‘On not seeing Provence: Van Gogh and the Landscape of Consolation, 1888-9, ‘Framing France: The Representation of Landscape in France 1870-1914, ed. Richard Thompson, (Manchester, I998),8I-I 18.
- Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers, (New York, 1986), 103
- Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock, Vincent van Gogh: Artist of his Time, (Oxford, 1978) reprinted and discussed in Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed, (Manchester, 1996), notably in the introduction, ‘Memories Still to Come’.‘
- The key interpretation of this model is Meyer Schapiro, ‘On a Painting of Van Gogh: Crows in a Whearfield, View: The Modern Magazine, 1946, 7; I. 9-14, reprinted Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries- Selected Papers, (N 447-86ewYork, 1996. See my rebuttal, Griselda Pollock, ‘Artists, Mythologies and Media: Genius, Madness and Art History,’ Screeni, 1980, 21:3, 57-96.
- See Carol Zemel, Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia, Modernity and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art, Berkeley, 1997).
- Bracha Ettinger, Matrix Halal(a) – Lapsus, Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, 1993, 29.
- Ibid, 21.
- See Bracha Ettinger, Art as the Transport Station of Trauma,’ in Artworking 1985-1999, (Brussels and Gent, 2000), 91-1 See also Griselda Pollock, ‘Gleaning…’ in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings.