Van Gogh Reinterpreted

19 Oct

You might have read about the new biography of Vincent van Gogh that claims the artist did not commit suicide but instead was accidentally killed by two young boys.  Unfortunately the book is not yet available on Kindle, so I either have to order it from the U.K. (expensive) or wait until I’m in the U.S. for Christmas.  I am, however, very curious about this new idea.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was quick to refute the theory, saying that it still isn’t conclusive.  Although I don’t want to say anything definite until I read the book, I must say that the claim of the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, actually makes sense.  In the great tradition of true crime there are several pieces of evidence that are open for interpretation from both sides, but the questions the book raises are valid.  Why wasn’t the gun ever found?  Why the odd angle of the shot?  And why wasn’t there a suicide note?

There are also those who jumped to say that it wouldn’t matter either way.  While a murdered van Gogh would have no bearing on his paintings being some of the greatest of all time, it would make all the difference in the legend of the artist.  After all, what is van Gogh if not the classic tale of the troubled artist?  Try to imagine Romeo & Juliet ending with the star-crossed lovers being murdered by others instead of committing suicide.  It changes things entirely.

A suicide is a special kind of tragedy.  Every creature on earth has been programmed through millennia of evolution to do whatever it takes to stay alive.  When a person, especially one as talented as van Gogh, defies that we are all shocked and dismayed.  We all know that the artist was a troubled soul.  The idea that not even his incredible paintings were enough to save him has held the public’s imagination since his death.

I can’t help but feel like this is part of the reason so many have been quick to dismiss this new theory.  Van Gogh’s life is a cautionary tale so ingrained into Western culture and to change it would throw into doubt one of the great archetypes of the modern age.  Even if this new claim is 100% true, the legend of Vincent van Gogh will remain intact.  He was a troubled soul who created some of the most beautiful images of all time, and no amount of research will change that.

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