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The Man with the Face of Straw

Jean-Michel Maulpoix

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting grows upwards towards the sun. In flames or twigs, in tight little dabs of light, his canvases are sunflowers. Everywhere, fields of barley or wheat. Right up to the sky, where the sun is made of straw. Right up to the walls of Lazarus’ room, or on the faces of Joseph Roulin and his wife. Emotion harvests the twigs about to catch fire.

Self-portrait in a Wheat Field is what Van Gogh could have called the painting representing him…

“With the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse,” he paints suns by the dozen, at different stages of their flowering: in a beautiful chrome yellow on a Veronese green or royal blue background. Some of them, fallen to earth, half faded, look like big, burning artichokes.
Rudimentary horizons suit him: a vegetable garden, a few hills…. Out of earth, gladly, he makes a mistral wind of colors. Whatever happens, there must be waves, whirlpools, a swell. Had he been a potter, perhaps his hands would have finally found satisfaction. Who else grasped nature with a paintbrush so thoroughly? Who saw it crawling like that and twisting?

He paints only what burns him. He doesn’t seek subtlety, instead he seeks force. “Madness!” you say. No, it’s the invisible inside forgotten under the skin or under stones rising under pressure to the surface of the painting.

Rather than repeating the artist’s pain and anguish, it is the responsibility of those who follow him through the torment and joy of his paintings to find the momentary respites they afforded him: the hope of a color that would keep its promise.

His madness is less important than how he remains calm. When he was found dead, he had on him a letter addressed to his brother, with these words: “You have your share in the very production of certain canvases, which, despite their chaos, remain calm.” Those are as good as painting’s own final words.

His wish is less to paint what is there, as it is, before our eyes, than to awaken the sleeping gaze. And since a painting is made of dabs and lines, rather than erasing them or absorbing them in careful scumbling, he makes each one a sign where painting reaffirms itself in his effort and the insanity caused by being the silent music of the visible.

Translated from the French by Dawn Cornelio