Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Q&A with Julian Bell

Julian Bell is the author of the new book Van Gogh: A Power Seething. A painter as well as a writer, his other books include Mirror of the World and What Is Painting?. He lives in Lewes, England.

Q: What are some of the most common assumptions--and misapprehensions--about Vincent van Gogh?

A: Vincent seems to have lodged in the popular memory as a severed ear and a madman going around with a bandage where it used to be attached to his head.

I do think the questions of why Vincent cut off his ear and what type of mental illness he suffered from are interesting questions and I try to address them in my book. But of course I want to remind people that they wouldn't be asking the questions, if the guy's paintings weren't far more interesting in themselves! 

And then, Don McLean's still got a lot to answer for, 44 years after his hit song "Vincent." I'll admit that it's a strong song in its own way and that it will have pointed a lot of eyes towards the paintings.

But all this soppy schlock about "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you" - I mean, anyone would have found this guy hell to live with, even his brother Theo, who truly was an uncommonly decent human being.

That kind of sentimentality produces an opposite over-reaction in the massive biography that came out a few years ago by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who seemed determined to prove that Vincent was nothing but a devious and histrionic weirdo.

As far as I'm concerned, he's like the rest of us in having it in him to be morally admirable at one moment and reprehensible the next. He's unlike the rest of us in having a super-animated, supersensitive intelligence and a prodigious drive to work hard - the inner energy that he called "a power seething."  

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The weightiest part of the research was reading all the letters - all the million-and-a-half words of them, most of them to Theo - and accustoming myself to reading between their lines, getting to know the relationships with family and friends in 3D.

Then there was probably as much reading again in terms of contextual documents, anything from doctors' reports at the asylum he spent time in to the sermons he'd have heard when he attended an evangelist church in Paris in his youth.

The most enjoyable part, of course, was travelling to see as much of the work as I could in the Netherlands and France - plus the places Vincent lived in.

I particularly remember taking a day's walk in the wet and misty fields around his native village of Zundert in Brabant: a bit of a dreary nowheresville, but I scooped up a bit of the sandy soil from the ground there and I kept it in a bowl that sat before me on my desk as I wrote the book. I've still got it - my Vincent talisman.

Things that personally surprised me:

(1) to realize that when Vincent decided to train as an artist at the age of 27, having abandoned his ambitions to preach, it was because Theo had suggested this line of work to him. The "inner voice" of inspiration had in fact been prompted by someone else.

(2) I approached the famous two months in Arles spent with Gauguin, at the end of which Vincent had a mental breakdown, with a presumption that Gauguin was the villain of the piece - this was because Gauguin's memoirs of the episode are so self-serving and unreliable.

But the more I researched it, the more I realized that Gauguin was just one of those silly people who make themselves out in writing a good deal worse than they actually are.

I ended up quite fond of him - and it's worth noting that Vincent did too, they carried on a friendly correspondence right up to the time of Vincent's suicide 19 months later.

(3) I hadn't realized the extent to which Theo's wife Jo (Joanna) had been the person who preserved and nurtured her brother-in-law's reputation after his death: Vincent's art and his writings probably wouldn't be as famous, and certainly wouldn't be as well presented to the public, without her efforts. She's one of my favourite characters in the book. 

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between Vincent and Theo?

A: Really, that is a question that has taken me the whole of the book to answer. It's like one of those eternal relationships in fiction - Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Tintin and Captain Haddock, or whatever. Except that unlike those examples, this particular wholly devoted, ever-fractious, interdependent dialogue ends up tragically. I find it very moving. 

Julian Bell, Pevensey Castle and the Channel Shore
Q: How does your own work as an artist complement your writing?

A: I wish there were a neat answer to that! I'm a painter first and foremost in my own mind, but my writing has travelled more than my art.

I enjoy writing when the subject is one I care about greatly, as in the case of this book, but it's not often that I feel "I really must write something" for its own sake: nearly always I write only when commissioned. Whereas painting is compulsive and feels to me like a more deeply important activity.

Julian Bell, Between the Units
Between painting and writing and teaching in art schools, my default position only too often becomes: Whatever I'm doing, I should be doing something else. But at least I hope I can bring a little of my experience as a working painter to the business of writing about art.

Q: What are you working on now?

Julian Bell, Zadar Postwar
A: For the next three months I'm working purely in my studio. I have an important exhibition with St Anne's Galleries here in England in June. It will be called Genesis and it will be a series of 36 paintings that form my personal responses to the first 33 chapters of the first book of the Bible. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Anyone wanting to know more about my writing or my art can go to

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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