“I want this one to be a work of art, & that can’t be done without much bloody sweat.”
George Orwell, 1935
“Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me.”
. Vincent Van Gogh, 1883
Generations of art historians have been intellectually stimulated by Vincent Van Gogh’s remarkable correspondence and one cannot exaggerate how important this treasure, accessible online with boundless footnotes about the places, ideas, books and art Vincent references, is for anyone wishing to witness the growth of an artist’s mind. It struck me, while reading these letters, that Van Gogh and George Orwell shared similar artistic inclinations, motivations and life stories.
What did the English writer and Dutch painter have in common?
I have not discovered anything written about Orwell and Van Gogh (with this question in mind). Does this make what I am about to say fanciful? Although it occurred to one essayist that a comparative study of D.H. Lawrence and the Dutchman was worthwhile.
Orwell (1903-1950) & Van Gogh (1853-1890)
I often quip that Orwell is not the writer your English teacher told you about. Van Gogh too is much more complex than the romantic narrative, about the solitary genius and madman who sliced off his ear, that popular culture tends to emphasise.
The following rough notes (and feel encouraged to add your critical reflections in the comments below) compare, rather than contrast, the two men:
– their professional careers – as writer and painter – did not commence until they were well into adulthood and were truncated by early deaths
– they both tried to ‘play the game’ by pursuing careers, approved of by their parents, after leaving school for which they were totally unsuited
– similar lower-upper-middle class class backgrounds featuring boarding school and parental encouragement to better themselves socially through education
– itinerant and unfazed by physical hardship
– profound love of nature and passion for walking
– uncompromising, single-minded attitudes towards their art – “true artists”
– a surprising personal commitment to the poor and oppressed
– experienced mining communities and were shocked by the conditions they witnessed
– a profound interest in radical politics and history
– they both had networks that promoted and supported their artistic endeavours (especially after their deaths) and were not the solitary geniuses of reputation
– both suffered poor health accentuated by careless attitudes towards their own wellbeing
– both were well-acquainted with prostitution
– dressed as proletarians with little consideration of the notions of respectability that their parents valued
– they were driven by their art, writing and painting, which was more important than other considerations
– their artistic outputs were phenomenally high during short lives where the spectre of ill-health was never far away
– they both worked as schoolteachers and booksellers
– they disdained academia
– they forged original styles that were accessible to regular people
– at death, both men were recognised as important artists by their peers
– they were readers who lived obsessively in the world of books and ideas
This last point is the one I am currently researching.
Orwell & Art
Orwell’s interest in painting was much deeper than generally recognised. Mabel Fierz, the woman who championed his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, met Orwell on the beach, at Southwold, while he was painting seascapes. He likely occupied himself in Paris, during the late 1920s, by not just visiting salons and galleries but also trying his hand at drawing and painting. I have argued previously that the artist, Ruth Graves, was a significant and trusted early mentor. She argued passionately in her dissertation, titled ‘The True Artist’, that the greatest art is produced by those who ‘struggle with poverty to paint truth’ and that, ‘the artist’s wage is not comfort, but life’.
Orwell is no art critic but his essay, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali’, although not particularly well-known – except for a stunning, oft-quoted opening sentence – is an excellent rumination on the challenges of modern art and an artist he finds repellant.
There is no record that Orwell viewed Van Gogh’s work while living in Paris but we do know that he admired the artist. On 4 May 1945, the socialist newspaper Tribune published a letter signed by Orwell (and eight others) protesting the imprisonment for nine months of several members of the editorial board of the British political journal, War Commentary:
“The things these men did which brought them standing, where thieves and murderers are wont to stand, inside the dock at the Old Bailey, spring from their love of justice and their concern for the victims and the poor. On trial with them were the teachings of Jesus, the philosophy of Peter Kropotkin, the politics of Tom Paine, the poetry of William Blake and the paintings of Van Gogh. No man who accepts these can remain true to them while rejecting the right of these three men to do the things they did.”
In 1948, Orwell wrote hopefully (to his friend David Astor) just before he commenced a course of the experimental drug, streptomycin, to treat his tuberculosis mentioning “the Van Gogh exhibition apparently begins on the 21st”.
This exhibition opened at The Tate Gallery in London during December 1947 before moving to Birmingham, then to Glasgow — near where Orwell was in hospital — from 20 February to 14 March 1948. Douglas Bliss, the director of the Glasgow School Of Art, reviewed the exhibition perceptively in The Scotsman (Saturday 21 Feb. 1948).
There is no evidence that Orwell was able to leave his hospital bed to attend the exhibition with his friend. Sadly, he had not responded to treatment being allergic to streptomycin, the drug that would have likely saved his life.
Literature, Painting & Dickens
“But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. As I said earlier, Dickens is one of those writers who are felt to be worth stealing. He has been stolen by Marxists, by Catholics and, above all, by Conservatives. The question is, What is there to steal? Why does anyone care about Dickens? Why do I care about Dickens?”
. …George Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’, 1940
Comparing Orwell’s and Van Gogh’s reading lives will take some time. I am well-versed in Orwell’s reading but Van Gogh referenced over 800 works of literature in his many letters.
Both men were deeply immersed in 19th century British and French literature and valued re-reading. Orwell had “the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons” and felt his “literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued”. Van Gogh identified himself with literary characters when considering his current plight or situation. Both enjoyed what Orwell called, “good bad books”.
Although Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and William Shakespeare were perennial favourites, Van Gogh particularly loved George Eliot and Charles Dickens, re-reading them frequently throughout his life:
“I find all of Dickens beautiful … I’ve re-read them almost every year since I was a boy, and they always seem new to me.” Van Gogh, 1883
Of course, these novelists were widely read and there is nothing remarkable that both Orwell and Van Gogh loved their books. However, both men engaged with ideas about social reform espoused by these writers to fuel their own creativity and original styles. Patrick Grant says of Van Gogh:
“Mainly, he found confirmation among the great nineteenth-century novelists for his lifelong concerns about the plight of the poor, but he also found validation among many of his admired writers for his own favourite theories about artistic production. For instance, he thought that distinguished authors (like painters) do not simply reproduce natural appearances; rather, they often use exaggeration and simplification to achieve imaginative power.” Reading Vincent van Gogh (pp. 141-142)
Books often feature in Van Gogh’s paintings. He fervently believed that the creative juices a novelist or poet employed were little different to that of the painter. He described them as “sister arts”. Van Gogh’s commentary on Charles Dickens illuminates this point and is interesting in that it emphasises style:
I have my perspective books here and a few volumes of Dickens, including Edwin Drood. There’s perspective in Dickens too. By Jove, what an artist. There’s no one to match him.”
Rumination on beauty and truth permeate both writers work. Orwell – “I have tried to tell the truth in these letters” – was famously honest and the rarest of writer in that he admits when he has been wrong. Van Gogh, in one of his many letters to his brother Theo, explained how he regarded art:
“One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful. What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don’t believe I’m aiming too high. I want to make drawings that move some people.”
Ideologically, it makes complete sense that Orwell would appreciate Van Gogh’s artistic achievement. One instructive example, The Potato Eaters (1885), is important to understanding how Van Gogh rendered a philosophic message stylistically. He explained to Theo how hard he had worked on seriously studying “peasant life” to “give people who think seriously about art and about life serious things to think about”:
“I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
Orwell, would have understood Van Gogh’s comment in the same letter, that “a peasant girl is more beautiful than a lady — to my mind — in her dusty and patched blue skirt and jacket, which have acquired the most delicate nuances from weather, wind and sun”. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell’s protagonist listens to a “prole” singing while pegging baby diapers to the clothesline:
“She’s beautiful,’ he murmured.
‘She’s a metre across the hips, easily,’ said Julia.
‘That is her style of beauty,’ said Winston.”
It was during his years in London, working as an art dealer, that Van Gogh was shocked at the penury he saw in city. An exhibition held in London (2019) explored the crucial impact of Van Gogh’s time living in Britain on his work:
“Having grown up in a middle-class home, Van Gogh was shocked by the poverty on the streets of London. He began questioning capitalism and vowed to live a meaningful life. When he did decide to become an artist, he wished only to create art ‘for the people’. Prisoners Exercising was based on a print of Newgate Prison in London. It shows the misery and entrapment of the prisoners, while their superiors, a prison guard and two upper-class men in top hats watch on. This image stayed with Van Gogh for many years, finally painting Prisoners Exercising in 1890. It is clear Van Gogh felt a kinship with the behaviour and social position of these prisoners.”
Orwell, who had dressed in his own “top hat” while at Eton, spent his life reflecting on life in London. Anyone who has read Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) will remember Winston’s Smith’s questioning of an old man in the pub:
“Here in London, the great mass of the people never had enough to eat from birth to death. Half of them hadn’t even boots on their feet. They worked twelve hours a day, they left school at nine, they slept ten in a room. And at the same time there were a very few people, only a few thousands – the capitalists, they were called – who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that there was to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with thirty servants, they rode about in motor-cars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they wore top hats…”.
It is challenging to reconcile the intensity of Van Gogh’s religious belief and the impact of this on his work with any comparison to Orwell’s intellectual world. Van Gogh’s most famous painting are infused with a desire to have art do what religion monopolised. They celebrate and transcend the ordinariness of the world.
Orwell was an atheist from his teens, despised the Roman Catholic Church and wrote some challenging things about buddhist priests and religion generally. Van Gogh, the failed pastor, who never lost his faith, saw Jesus Christ as an artist above all other artists.
One would imagine Orwell had no beef with the teachings of Jesus Christ though.
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