I have recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam where I crossed off an item on my bucket list; a visit to the Van Gogh Museum.
We are all familiar with these paintings. They have become almost cliche by now because they are reproduced so frequently. It was especially great to see the paintings that weren't so famous because they revealed not only amazing technical painting talent, but interesting choices of subject matter. A crab on it's back, a wooden chair, a forest floor rotting with leaves to name a few...
This random subject matter rendered so beautifully reminded me how to see again, if only for a few minutes. It asserts that beauty is in everything. What a sublime experience and it is one of the many reasons he is considered a genius.
The exhibition was very heavy in biographical information and context for the paintings. One of the treasures that art historians have regarding Van Gogh is the canon of letters that he wrote to his brother Theo throughout his lifetime. One of the earlier letters dated before Van Gogh had ever considered being an artist caught my attention. In this letter, along with a rehash of recent news, he describes a storm that he watched one day in detail, describing every color and texture. He was looking at his surroundings with the eye of a artist. He was "painting" without being conscious of it. Van Gogh is not a particularly good writer nor is he very poetic. What makes this letter amazing is that as we read it almost one hundred and thirty years later, we know the end of his story and he doesn't. In hindsight, it is so clear to the world that he is everything that a painter personifies with talents so strong that they emerged despite even the presence of severe mental illness. He painted because he had to. He painted with very little encouragement, no recognition and few resources. You see, I believe that we ALL have inherent talents and destinies that we are not fully conscious of yet. I believe that many of us put stress and pressure on ourselves and on those we love to discover what those abilities are, define them and make use of them within a set framework that fits within society's norms. Sometimes in order to find our purpose we need to just BE. We need to listen to what we love and look at what we notice. We need to see the beauty in ourselves and others in much the same way Van Gogh saw a crab or a chair. That is where the genius can be found in all of us. Sometimes this genius is hiding in plain sight. Van Gogh was such a teacher of this through his art but like many teachers, in a very human way he failed to turn this way of seeing towards himself. So many believe that the worst tragedy in his life was that he didn't live to see the recognition of his genius by the world. To me the biggest tragedy is that he never seemed to be aware of or to enjoy his own genius. If he had only been able to appreciate his unique beauty he wouldn't have needed any outside evidence of acceptance. Today try to notice something special and revealing about yourself. What have you loved today? What did you notice today that made you smile or gave you pause with emotion? What experience attracted your attention? There is your genius...don't miss it!
Vincent's letter to Theo (edited)
Ramsgate, May 31st, 1876
My dear Theo,
[...] Did I write to you about the storm I watched not long ago?
The sea was yellowish, especially close to the shore. On the horizon a streak of light and above it immensely large dark grey clouds, from which one could see rain coming down in slanting streaks. The wind blew the dust from the little white among the rocks into the sea and shook the Hawthorne bushes in bloom and the wallflowers that grow on the rocks. To the right, fields of young green corn, and in the distance the town, which, with its towers, mills, slate roofs, Gothic-style houses and the harbour below, between two jetties sticking out into the sea, looked like the towns that Albert Durer used to etch.
[...] That same night I looked out of the window of my room at the roofs of the houses you can see from there, and at the tops of the elms, dark against the sky. Above the roofs, a single star, but a beautiful, big friendly one. And I thought of us all and I thought of my own years gone by and of our home, and these words and this sentiment sprang to mind, 'Keep me from being a son who brings shame, give me thy blessing, not because I deserve it but for my mother's sake.'
Excerpt from 'The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh'
Penguin Books, 1996