I wish I could have taken better pictures of these drawings, but of course I could not use a flash, and my digital camera is quite old. This was the best I could do.
I took them in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve already described (look back to my post on the museum trip). And I’ve been thinking about them ever since. The drawings were part of an exhibit of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century drawings, all of which were magnificent, some of which were truly unexpected. It was fascinating to see drawings by Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot. But Vincent Van Gogh? Artists draw, of course. But somehow I never expected to see a Van Gogh drawing. Here they are:
What’s so magnificent about them is that they’re not like drawings by anyone else. Look at them closely to see the details. I don’t even know how he drew that tree. It’s as though it was drawn by someone who made up a new way of drawing, using those thick hatch marks. Who draws a tree like that? And the waterscape. Look closely and you’ll see how delicate it is, what a fine eye he had.
I feel as though these drawings should lead me to some sort of philosophical statement about art and the artist. But the only thing they make me think of is that Van Gogh truly was unique. Picasso made himself unique: he imitated everyone else until he figured out who he was as an artist, how to paint like no one else. But Van Gogh simply seems to have seen the world differently. (It reminds me of the scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse where Mr. Ramsey thinks about two different ways to get to R. Some people have to go through the entire alphabet to get to R logically, while others seems to get there directly, by skipping most of the letters and simply intuiting R.)
I suppose the only philosophical statement this leads me to is that all great artists become great in different ways. And I will admit, although it’s difficult to admit, that a place like the VMFA leads me just a little to despair. Because there is such an obvious difference between a great work and a not-so-great work, when it’s hanging on the wall in front of you. And I wonder if I will ever write something not just good, but truly great, something that people will still want to read a hundred years from now, as they want to look at Van Gogh’s paintings. (Although I also like looking at the drawings. It is in the minor works, often, that you can learn the most about an artist. But we look at the drawings because of the paintings, at the minor works because of the major ones.) That way lies discontent, and so I just write. But as I do, I think about things like Van Gogh’s drawings, about how he stamps his personality so completely on even these small works.
Even in them, he can’t not be Van Gogh.