Lessons Learned from Vincent Van God Awful

Have you heard what happened to Lisa Gherardini?!

No, she’s not the new Bachelorette.  And no, she didn’t get punched in the face on the latest episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Her bones did, however, turn up in an Italian convent.

Cool!  A new murder mystery!  Tabloid fodder to outdo that now-dull celeb escapade. Yippee.

Actually, no again.

The big hoo-ha over Lisa Gherardini is due to her being the supposed model for that really important painting.  You know, the one with the “enigmatic smile”.

And now they’ve found her bones aren’t we excited to have that mystery finally laid to rest?

Hold on a sec.  Who says we want to know?  Isn’t the mystery part of what makes the painting so alluring?  Forget “alluring”, I should really just say “famous”, because at this point that’s all that painting is.  Simply the most famous of paintings to which hoards of people flock so they can mark it off their bucket list.  Last time I looked nobody was exactly admiring Leonardo’s brush strokes.

And I wonder.  If we rob Mona of her mystery will her fame not suffer as a result?  Don’t we need a good narrative to remind us of a thing’s importance?

So why doesn’t Johanna Bonger get more attention?  You know, Johanna Bonger?  Arguably the art world’s most important woman of all time.

Who?  Johanna Bonger.  AKA Johanna Cohen Gosschalk.  Oh, come on!

Johanna Van Gogh!

And no, not Vincent’s wife.  His sister-in-law.

A little while I ago I had the misfortune (no, that’s not a typo) to go to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.  I diligently bought my tickets in advance, knowing that if I were to wait I would likely be distracted by other things (I can’t imagine what other distractions Amsterdam has to offer) and once again miss the opportunity to stand up close and personal with Van Gogh’s resplendently celebrated “Sunflowers”.

So there I was on a glorious June day, entering the hallowed halls of one of Amsterdam’s choices art prizes.  And as I wandered from room to room, following the paintings in prescribed chronological order, something dark and unsettling gnawed at me, a forbidden realization that I felt ashamed to admit to.

But standing before the Van Gogh’s pièce de résistance, his moment of triumph, his “Sunflowers”, I could deny my shameful insight no longer.

This guy is a pathetic hack!

Some things are better digital.


Right from the start one gets the impression of a young man who desperately wants to be a great artist but who doesn’t yet have the technique, or even the insight.  It all looks very much like bad student work, from the sort of novice who thinks that just because he has what he believes is a good idea (which is debatable as well) that this makes him a great artist.

And over the course of his short career, it never changes. This is a man who just wanted to be famous.  Nowhere in the work could I see a desire to reveal some hidden truth, or capture some ephemeral quality of life.  No Seurat, Gauguin, or Monet.  Nope.  It was all about how frustrated he was that other people didn’t recognize him as a great artist.  It’s in the subject matter, the brush strokes, even the color.

And “Sunflowers”?  The plaque beside the “masterpiece” talks about how Van Gogh wanted to create an artist colony in Arles where other (and more lauded) artists could come and inspire one another.  Typical delusions of grandeur.  How many film students have I heard talk about this great idea of putting together a collective?  Forget actually having any projects.  If we can just get everyone together, fame and fortune will surely follow.

So in February of 1888 a young and misguided Vincent rustled together a couple of paintings to decorate the walls of his destined-for-glory commune (the 19th century equivalent of popping down to T.J. Max and picking up a couple of cheap prints) and voilà, “Sunflowers”.  The colony, by the way, didn’t really take off, and by July 1890 he was impoverished, sans one ear, and dead by his own hand.

This is where Johanna Bonger enters the picture (though not as literally as in Picasso’s work).

After Van Gogh unceremoniously offed himself and brother Theo bit the bullet not six months later, Theo’s wife, Johanna, was lumped with a pile of art, cluttering up her life and leaving her with a dilemma.  I can picture her muttering, “What the hell do I do with all this crap?”

So what did she do?  She single-handedly went out and convinced the world that this egotistical nutter, who never had the patience to learn his craft but still wondered why nobody was taking him seriously, was the greatest artist of all time.

I don’t know about you, but that’s impressive.

Convincing the glitterati that sloppy technique is really genius abandon, that cutting off ones ear is the true mark of artistic nobility, that takes balls.   And it’s a narrative that we’re all still gobbling up.

Because we do so need the narrative to convince us of all things significant.  Hence poor Lisa Gherardini’s exhumation.  Or Picasso’s harem of muses.  And above all, hapless old Vincent’s ear.

But let’s face it, without someone to dicky up the story and make the rest of us pay attention, you can cut off your ear, nose, and right nipple for all that that will make the difference.

So I take my hat off to the salespeople of the world.  The glorious marketers who peddle our second rate wares by weaving many a fantastic tale.  Because without these turd-polishers we would be nothing but a bunch of frauds, gibbering about how the world doesn’t take us seriously. What whiny babies we are.

Maybe that’s ultimately why we love Van Gogh more than the rest.  Because, like us, he’s a fool and a hack, who was simply lucky enough to have an actually brilliant individual sell his shit to the rest of the dim-witted public.  If only we all had a Johanna Bonger to turn our dull existence into a mysterious, intriguing, and above all profitable story.  Cha-ching!

PS. It is worth noting that all of Van Gogh’s art looks better in reproduction.  As if his true genius was capturing that “je ne sais quoi” quality that makes cheap art look that much better as Z-Gallerie tat.

8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Vincent Van God Awful

  1. Zach

    Maybe you just visited the museum on the wrong day! It happens to me; things I love for their indescribably profound and seemingly otherworldy beauty look like absolute trash at other times. So maybe one day look again. Maybe look again when you realize that emotion is the lens through which we perceive even logic, or compose narratives, as you emphasize. Thank you for this though; I love having my own stories challenged rationally, makes me even more sure 🙂

    1. Mischa Post author

      You make a very good point. I was fully expecting to be bowled over and when that didn’t happen I was somewhat bewildered. Could be that there were other things going on (internally or externally) that affected my perceptions. I’m heading back to Amsterdam soon, although I think I’ll give Van Gogh a miss this time. Need to revisit the Rijksmuseum and spend a little time with my favorite Rembrandt. Last time I was at the museum it was being renovated and most of it was closed to the public. Looking forward to seeing what I’ve been missing. I will take keep your comment in mind as I accept whatever emotional state washes over me. 🙂

  2. MattL

    It’s as though you are reporting from Mars! I’ve seen Van Gogh’s work in museums and it is amazing. Especially the colors. The reproductions actually suck because they cannot duplicate the color. I even did a comparison of a reproduction to the original in a museum a few years back.

    Everyone is entitled to their wrong opinion and that’s fine. But we are not entitled to our own facts. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did indeed work to promote Vincent’s work after his death but to give her credit for promoting an unknown hack into being considered one of the greatest painters that ever lived is giving her way too much credit. ALL artists could use that miracle! The fact is, the work stands on its own because it is damn good and frequently dazzling or great. The best work stands the test of time. Ever heard of Eugène Boudin or Jasper Francis Cropsey? They were best selling painters of the 19th century. Why has there work not stood the test of time? They were promoted. They sold paintings. They were in galleries and museums all over the world. Why? Why? Because their work doesn’t make the grade. It’s boring. They aren’t as imaginative as Van Gogh. I could go on but I’ll leave it there.

  3. rita hall

    van gogh was no hack. And Seurat and Monet were not revealing truth. they were playing with perception of color. art need not be intellectual, it can just be visceral. and if ever there was a guy who would have painted on velvet if he thought of it, or with his schwanz if he could, it was gauguin.

  4. Chris

    I don’t remember if I’ve seen his art unreproduced. I like the idea of the brush strokes – that seething passion distorting reality. But I don’t rush out in awe to look at his stuff. I definitely feel similarly when I look at student art and lots of lauded artists. Like I hate most of Picasso’s paintings.

    I guess, like probably many others, I assume that since I feel that way I don’t get what I’m supposed to. Maybe I’m not smart or sensitive or educated enough. Somewhere in me is a strong appreciation for other aesthetics, however, and I gobble that stuff up like food. And that, in turn, gives me some sort of foundation for confidence in my appreciation for art. I have SOME sensibility.

    But should I really go further with my sensibility and just call all the stuff I don’t like turds? I guess the multi-million dollar price tags inspire revulsion – like maybe some of that stuff is better than other artists, but it’s not a thousand times better. It’s just peacocking and investing in mania. And if I had that sort of money and I was paying for only what I liked, I certainly wouldn’t buy that stuff. Sell me Tara McPherson or Rene Magritte or a ticket to the movies during Oscar season.

    : )

  5. Mother

    This has made me think. I always felt that his paintings looked like the world after smoking a joint and kind of liked that. I also liked the idea that maybe my own attemps would one day be worth something. You could be a beneficiery. Think on that.


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