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Book Review: Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days

by Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp --

Published by The Monacelli Press

Bill Gusky

My dear Theo,

In reply to your question about the greatest disadvantage to being dead and famous, I’d probably
have to identify the frequent floggings as the answer. It seems that complete and total strangers
can’t resist dragging me from the grave every few years and wailing away now that I’ve bit the big
one. “Let’s see how much more gold we can squeeze from the old boy.”

I suppose I wouldn’t mind it so much if more people were truly interested in the real me. But as
we’ve discussed, more often than not it’s some contrived caricature of Vincent they want to know
more about, some sort of pathetic insane misunderstood genius. What is it about this cartoon
character that people can’t resist? It’s like that worthless yellow sponge creature that lives in a
pineapple at the bottom of the ocean, all outline and no substance. Even the outlines are without

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Very rarely does anyone ever get it right. Picasso understood me well, as did Matisse and some of
the Fauves. Kirk Douglas had not a clue. As for Don McLean, let it be said that he doesn’t want to
meet me in a dark alley anytime soon. My stomach churns to this day from all the grave-spinning
caused by his worthless ballad.

Wouter Van Der Veen and Peter Knapp seem most assuredly to have a clue, if their book Van
Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days is any indication. It’s one of the few times I’ve noticed the authors
of a mainstream publication attempt to straighten accounts for me and set things right.

As an example allow me to submit these quotes from the introduction:

Van Gogh has often been presented to us as poor, sick, insane,

depresssed, alcoholic, and hotheaded. He has usually been portrayed as
an antisocial and isolated individual, as a violent misfit, filled with rage
and easily carried away, who sold only one painting in his lifetime
because his work was despised and misunderstood. He died a martyr,
sacrificed at the altar of the ignorance of his contemporaries. ...

In reality, Vincent van Gogh was a complex, intelligent, and

sophisticated artist...

He was a longtime student of the techniques of drawing, consulted texts

on perspective, and kept himself abreast of the latest artistic
developments of his time. He could afford to do all this because he was
not in a position of financial difficulty...

This cultivated bourgeois was not mad, far from it. He was obstinate,
uncompromising, drawn to the extreme in everything he undertook. He
had an impossible character, an innate and stubborn sense of
perseverence, and he was utterly indifferent to what other people might
think or say...

Van Gogh was neither misunderstood nor ignored by his

contemporaries. ...
...the privileged few who were able to view his work... were filled with
enthusiasm for the dazzling work before their eyes...

Finally, (he) did not sell just one painting in his lifetime. ...

Theo, do you want to know what the greatest disgrace of a misleading caricature is? It doesn't
smell. There’s no sweat, no anxiety. Those last days come back to me in memory as an aromatic
melange, coffee, tobacco, liquors and sweats of all kinds: tobacco sweat, alcohol sweat, garlic
sweat. The rancid alfalfa sweat of the stable man as distinct from the half-franc-perfume sweat of
the Avenue Dimanche whore, as distinct from the hot summer morning old-laundry sweat
steamed into overworn bed sheets. The clean glisten of exhilaration at a perfect creative moment,

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fresh as dew. The acrid drenching shivering perspiration just after trigger-pull.

Van Gogh in Auvers returns some of the sweat to those days as only a skilled and relentless
historian’s best research and estimation could possibly perform. I can feel it in the writing, which
seems to break down those weeks at times practically day by day. Its humidity steams in the
section about you, Brother Theo, your tragic ending, and of your wife and son and their struggles
and successes, all excellently documented with family photographs. I can also feel that sweat in
the crisp, bright and sweeping photographs of my paintings that devour the generous pages of this
intelligent volume. In many of these images I can feel every stroke again.

And where did the authors find this dizzying selection of artworks? Some of these paintings I’d
almost forgotten about entirely. These two authors have done the work of an army of detectives to
scrounge some truly obscure canvases out of collections from around the world. Had I not already
known what I’d been up to, this book would have done a thorough job of informing me.

That being said, I don’t understand the presence of a little reproduction of one of my letters to you,
Theo. It’s slipped into the pages almost as an afterthought, not up to the quality of the rest of the
book. When I hold it to my ear I can almost hear a meeting in which some middle manager force-
feeds this half-baked inclusion to the exhausted authors. Had it been Monacelli Press's intention
to make a gimmicky coffee table book they’d have done better to use a rubber severed ear.

Not that I wouldn’t enjoy a truly gimmicky send-up. Maybe that’s where the Don McLean types get
it wrong; they don’t carry their caricatures to bombastically entertaining extremes. I’d venture a
few dozen francs for a book in which I wear a backwards baseball cap and low-slung trousers, and
ride a skateboard through southern France spitting hip-hop rhymes while committing canvas
crimes -- and that’s a cartoon that’s at least as good as the pathetic, insane, misunderstood genius.
Wouldn’t you agree, Theo?

Thankfully, Van Gogh in Auvers is above all that, a rare book that for once adds to and clarifies
the discourse rather than simply sitting on it or, worse yet, sending it even further astray. With
that in mind, and fake letter notwithstanding, I hereby award the book Van Gogh in Auvers: His
Last Days four and three-quarters out of five glasses of absinthe for outstanding research,
spectacular photo-illustrations, excellent peripheral and contextual information, and, over all, for
being a shining example of what a flogged-to-kingdom-come artist really wants to see in yet
another book about himself.

That’s all from me, Theo. Time to begin resting up for the next flogging.


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