About the artists: not who they were, but how they've been nTC painted

October 31, 1993|By Daniel Grant

Title: "The Mythology of Vincent Van Gogh"

Editor: Kodera Tsukasa

Publisher: John Benjamins Publishing

Length, price: 461 pages (245 illustrations); $125

Title: "Inventing Leonardo"

Author: A. Richard Turner

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 288 pages (69 illustrations); $27.50 In these increasingly relativistic -- excuse me, pluralistic -- times, individuals never "are" but "seem." Can anyone truly say what someone (or something) else "is," or is this description only an interpretation, colored by one's background, cultural context and historical assumptions? This is the dilemma of the postmodern biographer, critical of the opinions of others and self-consciously cautious about advancing any of his or her own.

A. Richard Turner and Kodera Tsukasa are both far less concerned with the question of who Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), respectively, were, than how the two artists have been perceived by other artists and the general public over time. Their books offer intriguing insights on how and why myths about these and other artists are made. Both leave readers a bit emptier after the books are put down, for what do we have to hold onto after being told that our received ideas are invalid?

Mr. Turner and Dr. Kodera certainly picked appropriate subjects -- the one, the painter of the most famous work of art in the world ("Mona Lisa"); and the other, the most renowned artist's life (penniless, mental case, praised only when dead).

Dr. Kodera, who teaches at Hiroshima University in Japan, makes clear in his introduction that he chose the term "mythology" rather than the more passive "influence" in order to "show how mythical images of van Gogh have affected people's lives and creative activity over the past hundred years." In the more traditional area of research -- the influence of van Gogh's art on contemporary and later artists -- contributors Fred Leeman and Nakatani Nobuo describe Western and Japanese artists, respectively, who followed up on van Gogh's stylistic leads.

One myth to which a number of contributors refer, stated plainly in Wilhelm Uhde's 1936 biography of van Gogh, is the painter's art "and life here are so closely intertwined . . . that they cannot be described separately." Examining the artwork in terms of pathology has been a long-running strain ever since.

Contributor Andrea Gasten notes: "This vision appealed to existentially inclined artists who saw both life and creativity as a condition of despair and futility." Artists with this view of van Gogh frequently ascribed greater knowledge and powers of insight to him that could be documented. Other, postwar artists were to find in Vincent van Gogh someone who was alienated from society incarnate, a description that may have more appropriately fit themselves than van Gogh. In such a way was his reputation elevated from obscurity -- only one of his pictures was sold in his lifetime -- to what one critic in the 1950s called a "pioneer of modern art."

But the meat of "The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh" is how he has been presented to the public. Eighteen novels, as well as 87 films and videos, have portrayed him to the public, cementing the view of him as misunderstood in life and destined to be appreciated in death.

Sjraar van Heugten, one of the book's contributors, noted that van Gogh did not sell his paintings because he was not pleased with much of his early work and planned to display paintings in his mature style all together at some point in the future. However, "illness thwarted these plans, [although] he continued gain increasing recognition and by the time of his suicide van Gogh was well on the way to becoming a distinguished and marketable artist. . . . It therefore requires a certain sleight of hand to present van Gogh as an unrecognized artist."

Irving Stone's novel "Lust for Life," made into a 1957 movie, has been the most influential mythologizer of the artist, adding emphases to less important aspects of van Gogh's life and falsifying others. Not only did "Lust for Life" perpetuate an image of the artist to a general audience, it influenced other filmmakers who, in their own film biographies of van Gogh, maintained the same myths. Interviews with three of these filmmakers -- Robert Altman, Samy Pavel and Maurice Pialat -- are revealing of the directors' own mythical notions. "For me," Mr. Altman is quoted as saying, "Vincent and [his brother] Theo are one and the same person. Mentally, they are Siamese twins."

Where the van Gogh book is concerned with how a myth is created, Mr. Turner's book examines why. Mr. Turner, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, uses the word "inventing" to describe how the artist has been viewed and interpreted over the centuries, but it means much the same as Dr. Kodera's "mythology."

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