Archive for the Vincent van Gogh Category

Meeting Gabriel Combs again after nearly five years was a shock. All the former young-punk anger and wiry strength that I had seen when I first met him was gone, replaced by frail deliberation, lumbering gentleness, even a kind of solemn grace. “Can I offer you some coffee?” he asked apologetically when I arrived at his small apartment in the rough and densely populated Stevens Square neighborhood of Minneapolis. He seemed unwilling to look directly at me, turning his back to the sink of his tiny kitchenette. “It’s fairly fresh. I just need to heat it up.”

I demurred, and held up the bag of Middle Eastern food I had picked up on the way over. “I can’t drink coffee this late in the day,” I said, “but I am hungry. You guys want to eat?” (Another artist named Ray, who has long spread an itinerant life between an old RV and the couches of friends, was also present.)

They accepted the food without thanks, like prisoners do, and ate mostly in silence. I swallowed pieces of spinach pie and chattered nervously, trying to get conversation going. I mentioned I was specifically interested in their artist careers, and how had art had perhaps let them to their current stations. This got them both started on a littany recitation of the slights, insults, and the past treacheries they’d endured in their lives, jobs, art pursuits, and so on.

I didn’t take careful notes (I wasn’t thinking of this as a journalistic visit), but I learned a few indelible facts that I record here. Combs had been supporting himself by selling art on eBay for more than two years–ever since he’d quit a job at a photo processing place, supposedly because of “some bitch” coworker who was blaming him for things that had gone wrong at work. In a typical month, Combs makes 25-30 small art works to sell, working in series to save time and reuse colors between images, thus conserving supplies. He couldn’t say exactly why he started selling art on eBay as a “survival thing.” It just happened “by chance,” he said, as he was applying, unsuccessfully, for job after job to replace the one he’d left. “I saw some others doing it on eBay, and I thought I’d try. I just put it out there. I weigh it against all the jobs I’ve hated, and I like this much more. I just need to figure out all of the marketing strategies.

“I feel like I got pushed into this… but I’ve made a pretty good run of it,” he said of selling his art at $10-$20 a pop, mostly to collectors from Europe.

While Combs luck seemed to have run out finally, it lasted awhile. And his art got sent out all over–Germany, England, Spain… “A bunch of people in Spain have my work,” he said. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go to France or Spain. The street art there is just incredible.” But Combs doesn’t have money to get to those countries, let alone to sustain himself for any length. He hadn’t paid his rent since November, and in the weeks leading up to his call-for-help blog and forum posts in early February he had been dealing with the heavy-handed mechanisms of the legal system.

Prior to ending up at the photo processing place, Combs had attended school in Minneapolis for graphic design. I can’t recall which school he attended, as there are several for-fee schools here that purport to train the next generation of working designer. I don’t know the details, other than Combs left school with a degree and a sizeable debt, but he was unable to find work in the field. “I really liked graphic design,” he said. “Really. It just was impossible to find a job doing it.”

The littany of blame, excuse-making, and self-demurral tossed out by Ray and Gabe against all the people in the art and professional world who were keeping them from success reminded me of some recent blog-writings about work and creativity of another Minneapolis artist who seemed to have hit rock-bottom of late.

I’m making no money on music. I can’t get a gig. I can’t find a decent job. And I don’t have a social life because I’m too broke to do anything, and besides, I should be at home recording anyways… Taking a chemical won’t change who you are. It won’t change your brain. It definitely won’t make your life situation any better. It can only promote change. So I’m trying to see what I can change and how I can help myself. I’m just afraid that the answer is to “find a job.”

Any job that fits my qualifications does not fit my skills or personality, and vice versa. That’s the trap I’m stuck in. I’ve gone after jobs that “fit me,” and I don’t get hired, usually because someone more personable is just as available. I was able to slip in to jobs only to get treated passive-aggressively, and sometimes even used as a scapegoat. If I’ve ever had a job that did not fit this profile, it was low pay and small hours.

EVERY employer wants a “motivated, team-oriented, self-starter,” which I can be if I were running a gallery or something. I can’t be that while answering bitter emails from dissatisfied Target customers. And I can’t pretend I’m going to. What the fuck is the point of that?

I’ve always known this about myself and that’s why I fight against the odds and work my ass off in my spare time, making music, making art, promoting the arts, volunteering, running a zine fair, etc. hoping that it will pay off down the line. The fact is that it WILL NOT pay off…

Based on former experience, the best case scenario is that I will settle for something that will pay me to simply maintain my human existence. If I save anything, it’ll cover the hole that I create when I get pissed off and quit. My only life, it seems, is a flat line. It also seems my creativity has been dwindling since I stopped getting student loans and switched to paying them. I made a huge mistake. I invested in myself. I thought being educated would get me somewhere. I didn’t realize that you’re more prepared for the workforce as a high school graduate than as a college graduate.

Anyone who sees the way Gabriel Combs interacts with and approaches the world would quickly know that the root of his problems–his inability to keep a job, to market his art, to get along with others in a position to help him–likely lies solely within himself. It is a case where a person’s voracious creativity not only creates conditions for alienation and isolation, but makes the person blind to the reasons why he is shunned.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good thing to see a person lose his vibrancy and vigor in this way–particularly when it’s a result of a voracious creative drive. Combs, compared to his old self, is a zombie now–diminished, hungry, lacking any spark of joy. It was vastly preferable to know him when even the smallest slight would provoke a shitstorm of rage and spew, when you were afraid that he might explode on you just because you looked at him wrong, and when you knew he was only seeing the world as a canvas on which he could make marks, literally and figuratively.

It was sad to see him like this, even if he told me he was hopeful and optimistic for the future, proud of his petty art sales, and eager to keep making art work. In the course of conversation, Combs brought up several times the name of Van Gogh, citing something he’d read in his letters to his brother Theo or talking up some aspect of his life. He also mentioned he had recently seen the Schnabel film about Basquiat. I wasn’t sure if he was identifying with these famous artistic failures, or if he was just acknowledging those who had previously traveled the path he was now setting off on.

“All things considered,” says Combs, “I’m a happy guy. What have I got to complain about?… I literally have nowhere to go. I could couch-surf, but I have no permanent place to go. If that’s what it is, then so be it.”

The latest updates on one of Combs’ websites suggest he was scheduled to hand over the keys to his apartment to a court representative on Monday–yesterday–at noon. Below is a picture he posted as the last image from his studio, just before it must have been carted away:


Today, just a few hours ago, Combs posted the following on the mnartists forums:

i’m close to kmart on lake… i have’nt been on since friday, so i missed about the painting on saturday. officially without a home now, having handed over the keys yesterday at noon. anybody know how to get a dvd out of a macbook drive? i stuck the last harry potter movie in here and it does’nt know its there and won’t let it out… i hope it does’nt mess this thing up. i got a ton of drawing done, as i’d been holding back from it for quite a bit. lots of thumb nails for paintings to do. have to get back to painting i a little bit here, but had to check the net. ramen noodles and bread… spring should bloom nicely this year. gotta run…

“[Galleries and art firms] are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money,.. [and only] one-tenth of all the business that is transacted… is really done out of belief in art.”

–Vincent Van Gogh, after his failure as an art dealer, in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina Van Gogh 

All this talk about Vincent van Gogh has got me thinking a bit about how artists often ruthlessly back-stab, undercut, and undermine each other in order to get themselves ahead. I recently wrote a quick essay on the subject of artistic competition for a project by the artist Monica Sheets, which began:

ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history…

Such behavior makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that artists struggle for a very small pool of reward. On one level, it’s simple and basic law-of-the-jungle behavior. At the same time, it may also just be that artistic people tend to be more high-strung and high-maintenance than their non-artistic counterparts.

Two recent stories bear out both theories. One, an account by Joseph Harriss, in the Smithsonian magazine, of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s life together for two months in Arles, for instance, relates numerous examples of the “creative sparks that flew when these two opinionated avant-garde artists came together in the South of France.” At the key moment, Van Gogh, upon learning his friend planned to leave their “poor little yellow house” after only two months (instead of the planned six months) threw a glassful of absinthe at Gauguin’s head and ran after him in the street hurling wild accusations; then, sometime before the next day, there was that whole cutting-off-the-ear episode (the exact circumstances of which we may never know).

Leading up to this climactic moment, of course, it was clear that Gauguin and van Gogh—though connected by an artistic affinity—were not compatible as people. Their work styles were different, Gauguin approaching each work in a more measured, plotted and composed, intellectual manner, van Gogh working with impetuous, “pell-mell,” poetic and manic energy. Whereas Gauguin worked to build up thin layers of color that affected certain moods, van Gogh’s technique was replete with gestural strokes and an impasto accretion of paint. “Their ideas on art differed greatly,” the article quotes Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum. “[While in Arles] they influenced each other to a degree, and then went back to their original styles.”

The two also clashed over ideas. “Our arguments are terribly electric,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “We come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.” Ultimately, according to the article, Gauguin grew contemptuous of van Gogh’s intellect, citing his friend’s “disordered brain” and “absense of reasoned logic.”

Still, the real reason for the dissolution of the friendship may have been simple and petty feelings of jealousy and competition. A few weeks after Gauguin’s stay in Arles, Theo van Gogh sold a number of the artist’s paintings in Paris, giving him more money than he’d had in years, and Gauguin began thinking immediately of leaving Arles to go to Martinique, where he’d start a “Studio of the Tropics.” The portraits that each artist painted of each other in this time period—in their posing, composition, and rendering—were tense, loaded with “defensive and aggressive implications.”

After the glass-tossing, street-shouting incident, Gauguin left on a night train for Paris. The two artists never met again. A few months later, in early 1889, van Gogh entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and just about a year later he shot himself.

In 1891, Gauguin finally abandoned his family (back in Denmark) for good and moved to Tahiti. He became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. In 1892, he attemped suicide with poison, but he failed. He died of a heart attack, broke, in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands at the age of 55.

I can’t help but wonder whether either artists’ lives would have been different had their relationship not been fraught with mutual competition, back-biting, and intense jealousy; had they managed instead to inspire each other mutually and provide support in each of their struggles.  These questions, of course, are naive and moot. Not only can we never have an answer to them, but competition, jealousy, and ruthlessness are ever the artist’s bread and butter.  So intense and inbred is this behavior that Paul Gauguin, tellingly, continued exhibiting it years after van Gogh was gone.

Toward the end of his life, Gauguin, realizing that van Gogh’s reputation (even in death) was growing faster than his own , began to refer to his former friend as “crazy.” He wrote in 1903 that his stay in Arles was for purposes of “enlightening” a struggling and lost van Gogh. “From that day on,” he claimed, “my van Gogh made astonishing progress.” Gauguin even attempted to alter chronology to date van Gogh’s sunflower paintings after his arrival in Arles.

Even in death, even at the end of life—when nothing else was stake other than reputation—an artist will without a thought throw a fellow artist under the train.

Et tu, artifex?

(Note: A second story of the tragic consequences of artistic competition and mutual jealousy will follow in the next few days.)

Considering the topic of the previous post, I’ve decided here to dig out an old essay I wrote on Vincent van Gogh, in which I puzzled over the artist’s unlikely apotheosis to the front of the line of eternally favorite artists. Enjoy.

What Vincent van Gogh Means to Us Today

By Michael Fallon

News Item: Aug. 4, 2003
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (Toby Sterling, Associated Press) - “Film of Van Gogh allegedly discovered.”

“Photography was still young and celluloid film had scarcely been invented when Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Yet a team of Dutch filmmakers claimed Monday it has made a documentary about a snippet of film shot that year in which the artist allegedly appears…. According to Lumineus Film Productions producer Jeroen Neus, Van Gogh was attending a welcoming party for a new pastor in Zundert when he was coincidentally captured on film for a few seconds by an early film enthusiast. The film supposedly lay for almost a century in a damp attic before it was discovered in 1984 and restored.”

I WAS NOT SURPRISED to read the above news, for I’ve long thought that Van Gogh is accorded a near-Messianic status among the art lovers of the world. Of course we all know there’s little chance that the figure in the film is actually the artist, but it’s pretty to think so–in the same way we are fascinated to hear about Jesus Christ’s visage in a potato chip, or the Virgin Mary stain on a brick wall (or Elvis at the local minimart, for that matter).

In the art world, Vincent Van Gogh has a cult following and his paintings are granted the status of sacred relics–their worth is almost incalculable. The most expensive painting ever sold was a Van Gogh–his “Portrait of Dr.Gachet” was bought by Ryohei Saito in 1990 for $85 million. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is one of the city’s top tourist stops, drawing 1.3 million visitors last year, according to once source. Last March marked huge celebrations of the artist on the occasion of his 150th birthday. The Dutch village of Zundert, where he was born, has named 2003 the “Van Gogh Year” in his honor.

Meanwhile, any institutions that are fortunate enough to have a relic of the artist’s hand are given cathedral status. (”Does the Arts Institute have a Van Gogh?” is a question I’ve heard more than once.) Van Gogh’s work is revered more than any other art saint’s (perhaps only Leonardo’s work competes). “He is a big name like Einstein and Beethoven,” said Andreas Bluehm, head of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum. “We are always amazed by how popular he is and his popularity seems to be growing.”

One can only speculate why Van Gogh has attained such luminance. Yes, his paintings have a certain magic to them–they’re at once colorful, expressionistic, and edgy but still easily accessible. Still, just to compare, Gaugin was a far better painter than Van Gogh; Cezanne was more innovative and influential to the generation of the artists who followed him, and fellow post-impressionists like Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made more immediately eye-catching images.

If anything, Van Gogh was an eccentric in art history, a painter with an anomalous style of fairly negligible influence. After all, as we often hear, Van Gogh was a complete flop in his own time and sold but one painting while he lived (a mediocre and muddy effort called “The Red Vineyard”). And he has no direct artistic lineage into the twentieth century.

Many might suggest his popularity has to do with the sensational facts of his life–his scandalous love for a pregnant prostitute and for a cousin, that whole episode with his ear, his falling-out with the painter Gaugin, his institutionalization for mental illness, his suicide at the age of 37 in 1890. Much of the turmoil of his life is well documented in his paintings–the madness that tormented him is apparent in the eyes and swirling color of his later self-portraits, and in the wild fantasy of his most famous painting, “Starry Night.”

But for my money, these facts of his life don’t quite add up to his paramount status. After all, a lot of artists through the ages have been troubled or scandalous or infamous. Andrea dal Castagno was involved in murder and other mayhem; Michelangelo feuded publicly with popes; J. L. David had a hand in the French revolution and was nearly executed, and so on–and none of these artists are nearly the icon that Van Gogh is.

Instead, I think Van Gogh’s status today says something about our age, and the ideals we strive to attain as a culture. Van Gogh represents to many modern people the quintessential romantic dreamer, a cultural-creative Don Quixote-cum-urban hipster who was above the quotidian trials of daily life. Because of the obstacles he overcame to paint, and the single-minded passion he brought to the task, Van Gogh is representative of the burning, soul-wrenching passion to create that we want to believe lies at the heart of human experience. In this, he is an archetypical ideal. His life represents all the risks we wish we could take but are not brave enough to–giving up the day job and all the bourgeois comforts of middle class, dropping out of society and fleeing to the south of France, attempting to establish an artists commune and above all else burning to make up for the time lost in genuflecting to the daily fucking grind.

He gave up the day jobs–the comfortable life he could have had if he’d found any pleasure dealing art, teaching in a boarding school, preaching to Belgian coalminers–and in his late 20s set out to follow his passion, painting, in the biggest possible way. Here’s the truly unique fact of Vincent Van Gogh: he knew what he wanted to do, and he set out to do it despite its unconventionality. And he did it damn well despite that he attained absolutely no material success for it (and despite the fact that his early work shows little conventional talent for it).

It’s a pet theory of mine that humans are born with an endless capacity for passion, but everyone in our lives–parents, teachers, bosses, society-at-large–conspires to wean us of this trait. If you’ve ever heard a baby shouting for her mother’s milk, who is certain only in the knowledge that she is surely going to die of this hunger-pain, then you know how raw and human this sort of emotion is. Yet when’s the last time you felt remotely like that inner infant? If we think on it, passion is a great evolutionary tool. When we somehow find it in ourselves, not only does it help us perpetuate the species but it also spurs us to attempt great things–build bridges, make sculptures, invent life-saving devices–even if everyone you know is telling you it’s a damn fool mistake. Passion helps us say “scupper the consequences,” and it lies at the heart of most of our culture’s most meaningful achievements.

Unfortunately, nowadays we live in a well-mannered age, a time when all the passion has been drained from our manner of living. We spend endless empty hours on the freeway, sitting at a desk in front of one cathode-ray tube or another, attending PTA meetings or watching kids practice soccer at a park, avoiding our own lives with diversion and entertainments, and doing very little of any creative significance. Our lives are anything but passionate. Our age is an age of anti-passion.

Is it any wonder then that art is so popular a practice now? We all dream of being a closet Van Gogh–chucking our shit jobs, our credit debt, and all the chintz that fills our crackerbox houses to live a life more meaningful and real, to be the passionate humans we are meant to be. No wonder there are so many more people who claim to be artists than ever before (2.5 million according to the last census), and no wonder we worship the painter Van Gogh so–we’re all looking for a glimpse of the natural creative passion that is our birthright.

“No more bread.” –Said by a baker to Vincent van Gogh; the painter had been exchanging paintings to the baker for food. (I wrote this in my notebook during my visit to Dean Fleming at the Libre Commune; I think I saw it in a book I had pulled from his bookshelf to read in bed while sleeping in the extra room at Fleming’s geodesic studio/home, but I can’t recall for certain.)

“I feel—a failure.” –Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother written after visiting Docter Gachet in Auvers. While in Auvers, van Gogh completed dozens of paintings and drawing, including a portrait of the doctor that later, in 1990, would sell for $82.5 million (the highest price ever for a painting sold in auction—proving “failure” is a relative term). At the end of his two-month stay in Auvers on July 27, 1890, at age 37, the painter would shoot himself in the stomach, and he would die two days later.