The Return Of Vincent Van Gogh


"So - you’re the one who claims to be Vincent Van Gogh. Peter Travis. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it… You don’t look quite the same, either."

"You mean not haggard enough? Not low enough on fuel yet? Not in the last moments of incineration, burning myself into oblivion with a final few paintings?" The man stood there before her, large, awkward, a trace of bitterness, perhaps, concealing his deep wounds too well, for she expected to see him there bleeding and grateful to have finally found someone willing to be his mother. "Or is it that I still have both my ears?" he asked, a cynical smile still lashing back at the generation that had destroyed him.

"Let’s see your paintings," she countered, matter of factly, yet secretly overrun by anticipation, bossy and filled with desire, speaking as a rich woman speaks to her gigolo when she tells him to strip.

The artist paused for a moment, then began to take the mantle from his work, gracelessly, uncertainly, yet somehow lovingly.

For a moment, the woman, still sitting in her chair, regarded it, changing her posture, her relation to the chair, as he stood to the side, studying her face for a reaction, then turning back to his painting, with a visage of protective intensity, like a mother looking at a child’s cut. Turning once again back to the woman, he saw that a dark shadow had come across her face.

"I have believed in reincarnation for quite some time," the woman said, at last; "and Dr. Corson’s account has very much intrigued me." Dr. Corson was the regression therapist who, with their mutual consent, had put them into contact with each other - a wealthy admirer of the arts of New York City, a protectress and promoter of beauty, as she perceived it, who had taken several struggling artists under her wing in an effort to touch history through them - and a brilliant, disturbed man, a floundering, creative misfit, who gave every indication of being the reincarnation of Vincent Van Gogh, knowing even the content of some unpublished letters found among the papers and effects of Theo Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. "Some of the insights which you have produced regarding Van Gogh are very startling," she continued. "The description of the painting you destroyed and why you destroyed it; the youthful conversation with the coal miner which you recalled as the end drew near. And your ability to reproduce the look of Van Gogh’s works in the paintings you did for Bradley [Corson]. It was all so - compelling."

Sensitive, yet seemingly mechanical, the artist began to place the mantle back over his masterpiece.

"No - not so soon," protested the woman, feeling somehow too abrupt.

"Your eyes have already offended my work enough," he replied, definitively, sheltering his painting beneath the heavy mantle, securing it for his departure.


"Eyes that look but do not see are like knives."

"Your portfolio," the woman said, trying to remedy the situation, to cling to her longing.

"Prints," he told her.

"Let me see them." He could sense her appetite, her lust for fame, and a horse to ride to fame. Her hope that his first painting was only a failure of communication.

He hesitated.

"Show me," she demanded, like a queen ordering a servant. Adding "Please!" a moment later, but not meaning it, the same imperiousness hiding within it.

A cruel smile flickering on the artist’s lips, a reflection of what the world had done to him before, and might well do to him again, he removed the binder of prints from the large black case, and set it down on the desk between them, heavy as a life not lived.

The pages turned. Too quickly. Then there was a sudden burst of movement around the non-movement of the pages. "This! Now this - this - is Van Gogh!"

"It’s the painting I destroyed - psychological closure," he explained, almost guiltily.

"It’s magnificent!" she said. "Just like the retakes of ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Wheat Field and Cypress Trees’ which you did for Bradley. Now why - why can’t you do more stuff like this?"

"You’re asking me to be an imitator of myself?" he asked. "You know, forgery is an advanced art these days, if it’s ‘Van Goghs’ you want, I’m sure you could find someone far more capable than me."

"Don’t be so rude, so headstrong," the woman chided him. "You know - the world loves Van Gogh. His paintings go for millions, nowadays. He’s adored - he’s mourned - do you know what an ungodly reception he would receive if he were to be resurrected in our midst? Do you know how many people would run to him, just for the chance to bow down before him and kiss his feet? Do you know how the art world - how the public - would react to his return?"

"From the looks of it, with utter disinterest," the artist replied.

"But, of course," the woman explained, lectured, " they must be able to recognize him as Van Gogh! They must be able to penetrate the secret of his identity, recover him from the deceptions of time! They must be provided with some indication, some proof, some point of reference, to know that it is truly he!"

"In other words," the artist said, "in order to be myself, I must cease to be myself?"

The woman regarded him, exasperated by the level of his difficulty, surprising even for an artist.

"VAN GOGH," the artist said, suddenly adopting a theatrical, even frighteningly intense air. "VAN GOGH. To be VAN GOGH, he must be who Van Gogh was, not who Van Gogh is, who Van Gogh is becoming! - VAN GOGH. To be Van Gogh, he must self-consciously reproduce what he did before, play himself, convert his life into a role, freeze his adventure, stop growing. Do you ask a child to stop growing?" he demanded. "A tree? Take out your art books!" he cried, suddenly terrifying the wealthy patroness. "Look! Look at ‘Wheat Field and Cypress Trees’! Do you see something static? Something frozen? Do you see a field with no wind, no life, no movement, no soul, no magic? Look! Look and read the text - by an art critic - one of your tribe!" he ranted, stabbing his finger onto the page of a book he had torn from her shelf, like a planet hurled out of its orbit by a cosmic catastrophe. " ‘Both earth and sky show an overpowering turbulence - the wheat field resembles a stormy sea, the trees spring flamelike from the ground…’ What do you think, that that soul, the soul who saw that and treasured it and brought it back, could be frozen in time; that heart and hand, become a permanent fixture in your universe?!"

Eyes blazing, the artist regarded her, then suddenly quiet, suddenly sad, like an angel who could not stop a world from destroying itself, said, "Van Gogh is an explorer. An experimenter. A risk-taker. A searcher. Van Gogh does not paint for you, but for himself, and for life. He is not defined by you, but by his struggle. He does not stay in one place, because life is everywhere, and he does not want to miss any of it. Van Gogh is a force that cannot be restrained, like the earth in springtime, exploding with things being born; he is a prisoner of the fertility, he cannot stop the blossoming, the growing, the changing, the transforming. Van Gogh is not this moment or that moment, but this force, and he can only be Van Gogh by allowing himself to be immersed in it, swept away by it, carried away in its torrents, away from everything that gets in the way, even who he was and who you want him to be!"

The woman, trembling, shocked, stammered, "but - this - this print, for instance - this new ‘Van Gogh’ - it’s unfathomable. This light…"

"It’s the birth of a universe," the artist replied grimly.

"And this - this red - with no frame of reference…"

"The blood of an artist, giving his life substance to what he creates, though no one understands." He took the binder from her hands, closed it, and forced it back into the black case.

"But - why couldn’t you be more like you were?" she insisted. " ‘Starry Night’ - was so spiritual. Spirituality is such a respectable theme these days. And the cherry blossoms… nature… all of this stuff with Van Gogh written all over it. Why not? … Please, leave the print here, at least - the ‘destroyed painting’ which you redid!" A mysterious ghost-like smile spread over the painter’s face, like the light of a candle illuminating the shape, but not the contents, of a room. "Well - perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to meet again," the woman told him, like a policeman kneeling down to provide first-aid to a person he has just shot.

"Yes - perhaps," the artist agreed, as he gave a final check to his belongings, to his painting mounted, again, on the little cart, and the portfolio, then left, with a nod and a wink that was but a hollow bluff of life.

Two years later, the meeting, which neither of them had expected would ever occur, actually did take place. It was a cold January morning, around 11 AM, with snow on the ground, and a bitter wind sweeping through the ice-coated, glistening trees: in pain, no doubt, so far from their green prime, yet compensated by the beauty the hardship had given them. A huge banner hung from the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - "Van Gogh at Arles" - and in spite of the weather, a steady stream of people had begun to appear, conversing, complaining about the cold, mounting the steps of the giant, palace-like building, to behold the legacy of a genius. On the street, near enough to be passed by most of them, stood a thin, burnt-out man, half-buried in a second-hand winter coat, his head squeezed by a wool cap pulled down farther than it could go, his hands protected in gloves with the fingers cut out, so that he could manipulate a brush and pen, the hands, waiting to be summoned, in his pockets for the time being.

"Yours?" a man asked, observing the row of prints set up against the low wall of a fountain, turned off for the winter.

The artist nodded. "I do portraits also," he said after a moment.

"No, not on a day like this!" the man laughed, his girlfriend standing beside him, plain but utterly ravishing to the artist, because she smiled at him.

"It doesn’t take long," the artist said, "an essence comes out in a moment, it turns my hand into its midwife, and brings forth things which the photograph has yet to dream of."

"It doesn’t take long to freeze to death, either," said the man, his laughter contorted by the cold. "Thanks - and good luck!"

"Off to see Van Gogh?" the artist called after them.


When the woman stepped out of her taxi, with a male acquaintance, a woman friend, and her daughter, she was afraid he would see her. In the middle of telling a high-spirited joke, she stopped, and suddenly said, "It’s cold, let’s hurry!" And started them towards the steps at a fast, self-absorbed pace, cut off form the world.

The artist had just picked up several of his prints, which the wind had blown down, and also his easel. He was unshaven, now, and laughing to himself, the wind and cold like pranksters whose cruel jokes were finally becoming funny to him. "Poor, misplaced wind!" he said. "You deserve the sails of a mighty ship, to blow across the sea, yet here you are, blowing over an artist’s unwanted prints. At least, they affect you enough to produce a reaction."

For a moment, hard though she tried to escape, their eyes met, and he could see the horror, the fear and confusion, paralyzing her, stopping her in her tracks; but kindly, flooded by a strange sweetness which his angry exterior could not conquer, he did not use the moment to gain revenge. Instead, he only laughed, protecting her with his unapproachability. " ‘Van Gogh in New York.’ Next life’s exhibit! Always a step behind. See you there!" And spinning around, back to his friend, the wind, he spread his arms out wide, like a seagull, an albatross, waiting to be carried away, and said, "Well, what are you waiting for? Go on, take me to my next destination: to my next beautiful catastrophe!"


REFERENCE: History of Art, H.W. Janson.


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