“For an animal its natural environment and habitat are a given; for man—despite the faith of the empiricists—reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held—I am tempted to say salvaged. One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events—which is what one means by reality—is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond—and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.
All modern artists have thought of their innovations as offering a closer approach to reality, as a way of making reality more evident. It is here, and only here, that the modern artist and revolutionary have sometimes found themselves side by side, both inspired by the idea of pulling down the screen of clichés, clichés which have increasingly become unprecedentedly trivial and egotistical.
Yet many such artists have reduced what they found beyond the screen, to suit their own talent and social position as artists. When this has happened they have justified themselves with one of the dozen variants of the theory of art for art’s sake. They say: Reality is art. They hope to extract an artistic profit from reality. Of no one is this less true than Van Gogh.
One knows from his letters how intensely he was aware of the screen. His whole life story is one of an endless yearning for reality. Colors, the Mediterranean climate, the sun, were for him vehicles going towards this reality; they were never objects of longing in themselves. This yearning was intensified by the crises he suffered when he felt that he was failing to salvage any reality at all. Whether these crises are today diagnosed as being schizophrenic or epileptic, changes nothing; their content, as distinct from their pathology, was a vision of reality consuming itself like a phoenix.
One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to him than work. He saw the physical reality of labor as being, simultaneously, a necessity, an injustice, and the essence of humanity throughout history. The artist’s creative act was for him only one among many such acts. He believed that reality could best be approached through work, precisely because reality itself was a form of production.
His paintings speak of this more clearly than do words. Their so-called clumsiness, the gestures with which he drew with pigment upon the canvas, the gestures (invisible today but imaginable) with which he chose and mixed his colors on the palette, all the gestures with which he handled and manufactured the stuff of the painted image, are analogous to the activity of the existence of what he is painting. His paintings imitate the active existence—the labour of being—of what they depict.
A chair, a bed, a pair of boots. His act of painting them was far nearer than that of any other painter to the carpenter’s or the shoemaker’s act of making them. He brings together the elements of the product—legs, crossbars, back, seat—sole, uppers, tongue, heel—as though he too were fitting them together, joining them, and as if this being joined constituted their reality.
Before a landscape this same process required was far more complicated and mysterious, yet it followed the same principle. If one imagines God creating the world from earth and water, from clay, his way of handling it to make a tree or a cornfield might well resemble the way Van Gogh handled paint when he painted a tree or cornfield. He was human, there was nothing divine about him. If, however, one thinks of the creation of the world, one can imagine the act only through the visual evidence, here and now, of the energy of the forces in play. And to these energies, Van Gogh was terribly attuned.
When he painted a small pear tree in flower, the act of the sap rising, of the bud forming, the bud breaking, the flower opening, the styles thrusting out, the stigmas becoming sticky, these acts were present for him in the act of painting. When he painted a road, the roadmakers were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labor of existence; and this labor, recognized as such, was what constituted reality for him.
When he painted his own face, he painted the production of his destiny, past and future, rather as palmists believe they can read such a production in the lines of the hand. His contemporaries, who considered him abnormal, were not all as stupid as is now assumed. He painted compulsively—no other painter was ever compelled in a comparable way.
And his compulsion? It was to bring the two acts of production—that of the canvas and that of the reality depicted—ever closer and closer. This compulsion derived not from an idea about art—this is why it never occurred to him to profit from reality—but from an overwhelming feeling of empathy.
‘I admire the bull, the eagle, and man with such an intense adoration, that it will certainly prevent me from ever becoming an ambitious person.’
He was compelled to go ever closer, to approach and approach and approach. In extremis he approaches so close that the stars in the night sky became maelstroms of light, the cypress trees ganglions of living wood responding to the energy of wind and sun. There are canvases where reality dissolves him, the painter. But in hundreds of others he takes the spectator as close as any man can, while remaining intact, to that permanent process by which reality is being produced.
Once, long ago, paintings were compared with mirrors. Van Gogh’s might be compared with lasers. They do not wait to receive, they go out to meet, and what they traverse is, not so much empty space, as the act of production, the production of the world. Painting after painting is a way of saying, with awe but little comfort: Dare to come this close and see how it works!”
— John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos