Several days ago, on Piccadilly, I passed a luxury jewellers. In the window, beneath the sign “Hommage à Vincent van Gogh”, was a range of enamelled rings, bangles and pendants inspired by three of van Gogh’s best-known paintings, Starry Night, Almond Blossom and the Sunflowers. The pendants cost a cool £1,700.
Van Gogh, famous for selling only one painting in his lifetime, has become perhaps one of the most successful brands in art. It’s not just a matter of National Gallery posters and coffee mugs. You can buy van Gogh vodka in a dozen flavours, van Gogh perfume, a van Gogh Giant road bike, a limited edition Sunflower CollectionHeineken beer. This year the skate shoe company Vans has developed a range of Vans x Van Gogh Museum apparel. One of the paintings they have used is van Gogh’s Self-portrait at the Easel. Vincent made the self-portrait in Paris when he was exhausted and ill; “You’ll say,” he wrote to his sister later, “that this is something like, say, the face of – death.” It has not stopped Vans from including in their range a pair of sneakers with van Gogh’s “unkempt and sad” face staring bleakly from the toes.¹
Of course van Gogh’s work has only ever been one part of his enduring appeal. His story captivates us as much as his canvases: the tormented artist who toiled unacknowledged and in poverty, who sliced off his own ear and shot himself. That most of these ‘facts’ are exaggerated, and some simply untrue, has made little difference to the ubiquity of the legend. The Romantic idea, conceived in the nineteenth century, of the mad genius who must suffer, even die, for his art continues to resonate today. We really want it to be true.
I have wanted to write about this for a long time, not van Gogh the man but the mythical madman-prophet he became after his death. At first I thought my story began with his sister-in-law, his brother’s Theo’s wife. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger never knew Vincent well – she and Theo had been married barely a year when he killed himself – but, when Theo died a few months later, leaving her with an infant son and some 200 of van Gogh’s paintings, she became the self-appointed guardian of Vincent’s legacy. It was Johanna who arranged exhibitions of his paintings, making strategic gifts to museums while carefully holding back his finest works; Johanna who edited, translated, and finally published more than 500 of the letters Vincent wrote to Theo, excising anything she thought might damage his burgeoning reputation (including several angry arguments about money after Theo’s marriage). It was Johanna who, twenty years after their deaths, exhumed Theo’s body and brought it to Arles to be buried next to his brother’s.
Who was this woman who began the work of creating van Gogh? “I not only read the letters with my heart, but with my whole soul,” she wrote to a friend later, confessing, “it was not Vincent whom I was seeking but Theo.”² I wanted to look out through her eyes, this clever, serious woman who knew nothing about art, whose life’s work began as an act of love and memorial for her dead husband.
But, as I tried to imagine myself into her head, it was not Johanna’s story that took root inside me. Instead I found myself increasingly drawn towards a man on the fringes of her life, an eminent German art critic called Julius Meier-Graefe. Meier-Graefe was among the first to style van Gogh as a contemporary Messiah, describing him in a newspaper article in 1914 as “the Christ of modern art … He created for many and suffered for many more.”³ His 1921 bestseller, Vincent van Gogh, which blended fact with vividly imagined fictions, was a rhapsodic portrait of a man driven to madness by poverty, isolation and the struggle for spiritual truth. The book ignored the more conventional signs of van Gogh’s success: his growing reputation among his artist peers who swapped their work for his, the first glowing reviews from the critics. Far from regarding his fits of madness as an obstacle to his work, as Vincent himself did, Meier-Graefe’s van Gogh painted at his frenzied best when most deranged. “His history will rattle at every door,” Meier-Graefe wrote and, with many of his imaginings now evolved into biographical fact, it does so still.₄
Vincent van Gogh Dutch, 1853–1890 Self-Portrait, 1889 oil on canvas, 57.2 x 43.8 cm (22 1/2 x 17 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney
Meier-Graefe’s history rattled at my door. He lived in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, enduring hyperinflation and experiencing in the late 1920s the brief and brilliant flowering of Berlin as the creative capital of Europe before the Nazis took power and cultural life was slowly and systematically stamped out. It was a time when fictions were asserted as facts, when meaning was turned upside down. The runaway inflation that hit the currency in 1923 made a nonsense of the ideas of money, of absolute value. While in December 1921 a loaf of bread could be bought for four marks, by January 1923 the price had risen to 250 marks. By August that year it had soared to 69,000 marks. In November, before the currency was finally brought back under control, it cost a staggering 201,000,000,000 marks. For most Germans, these months proved catastrophic, wiping out their savings, forcing them to barter jewellery and furniture for food and fuel. Meanwhile men like Meier-Graefe, who had foreign earnings, were rich beyond their wildest dreams. In the autumn of 1923, with a single US dollar worth nearly 100,000,000 marks, it was possible to pick up factories, businesses, even whole streets of houses for a song. What were the stories, I wondered, that people were telling themselves during these crazy months when it seemed like the world would never make sense again? And what about afterwards, when the American-led Dawes Plan flooded Berlin with investment dollars and for a wild few years Berlin became a place where anything went, where men like Auden and Isherwood could openly pick up boys in bars and the city was lit at night with neon advertising hoardings that painted the dark sky a brilliant van Gogh orange? And when the party was over, and Hitler’s NASDP began to tighten its control over the city, what were the stories then? That Germany would rise up and once more become a force to be reckoned with? That the international community would never allow Hitler to run out of control? That, despite the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric, the boycotts and the concentration camps and the laws that prohibited them from working as doctors and teachers and lawyers, the Jews were still Germans and would be safe?
My novels have always taken root in the spaces between questions like these. Often, as I dig deeper, my ideas find entirely unexpected connections. Reading about Meier-Graefe, I discovered that in 1924 he was approached by a man called Otto Wacker, a one-time dancer who had become an art dealer. Wacker asked Meier-Graefe to authenticate a painting belonging to a Russian prince who had smuggled it out of Moscow. The painting was a van Gogh. Over the next few years, Wacker sold the Russian’s entire collection, a total of 33 previously unknown van Goghs, to museums and collectors across Europe and the USA. Twenty five of the paintings were authenticated by Julius Meier-Graefe. Their prices set new records. It was not until 1928 that a gallery in Berlin suggested that some of the canvases might possibly be forgeries.
How do we know whether the stories we tell ourselves are the truth or simply what we want to hear? How much does it matter anyway? The story I have written is not Meier-Graefe’s or Otto Wacker’s, though both have left their traces on it. It is a story about an art dealer, a young artist and a Jewish lawyer navigating what was surely the most turbulent decade in German history and coming, as we all must, to their own accommodations with the realities they face. Almost none of it really happened. I am a novelist and not in the business of “purging … superfluities” and “filling out the gaps”₅, as Meier-Graefe confessed to doing in his introduction to Vincent van Gogh. But perhaps that does not make any of it less true. In 1885 van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo from Nuenen where he had devoted himself to learning to paint, a letter that Johanna would later translate into English. “I long most of all,” he wrote, ‘to learn how to produce those very inaccuracies, those very aberrations, reworkings, transformations of reality, as may turn it into, well – a lie if you like – but truer than the literal truth.”₆ He succeeded – how he succeeded! – and his paintings stand as an inspiration to all of us who follow after him. He painted the world as he felt it, with its purple fields and churning skies, and all the placemats and the pendants in the world cannot rob his work of its power.
1. Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his sister Willemien, June 1888, taken from Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, 2009
2. Part of a letter by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, quoted in Memoir of Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger by her son Vincent van Gogh, published in Van Gogh’s Letters at webexhibits.org
3. Julius Meier-Graefe, Berliner Tägeblatt, 1914, quoted in Solar Dance by Modris Eksteins, Harvard University Press, 2012
4. Julius Meier-Graefe, Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst, 2nd edition, Munich 1927, translated and quoted by Stefan Koldehoff in When Myth Seems Stronger than Scholarship: Van Gogh and the Problem of Authenticity, The Van Gogh Museum Journal 2002
5. Julius Meier-Graefe, Vincent van Gogh: A Biographical Study, translated by John Holroyd-Reece, Harcourt Brace, 1933
6. Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, Nuenen, July 1885, translated by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, quoted in Van Gogh’s Letters at webexhibits.org