a. Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887. 


1. Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh - The Letters. Version: January 2020. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING. Letter 480.

2. Van Gogh Route, “Info”, vangoghroute.com.

3. Jansen et al. Letter 480.

i-004. INTERLUDE | 12/3/21

Wheat is wheat  

Fine black lines are etched into the skin on the inside of my wrist. They make a name, a first name, a signature. Old-fashioned handwriting fashioned out of needle and of ink.

In January 1885, five years into his career as an artist, five years also before he died, Van Gogh wrote to Theo:

If I make better work later, I still won’t work otherwise than now; I mean it will be the same apple only riper — I myself won’t turn from what I’ve thought from the start. And this is why I say for my part, if I’m no good now, I won’t be any good later either — but if later, then now too. For wheat is wheat, even if it looks like grass at first to townsfolk — and the other way round too.1

This paragraph, and especially this last line, is very dear to me. It’s what helped me keep writing after disappointments and rejections - indeed, it’s what made me decide to start this blog. I thought it said something important about perseverance and self-belief, something that is valuable to any creative person. My work is worthwhile, no matter what anybody else thinks of it. Wheat is wheat, no matter what people from the city mistake it for. My writing is my own, my pictures, poems, paintings, music, my work is my own, even if it does not as yet receive much appreciation. And as I keep going, my work keeps getting better.

It’s a heartening paragraph, then, but there’s also a vulnerability to it that appeals to me. Van Gogh sounds defensive, protective of his art. There’s a peculiarity in reading Van Gogh’s letters which originates in the fact that only one half of a lifelong correspondence is available. Theo kept most of the letters his brother wrote to him. Van Gogh, who at the end of his life had lived in 21 cities and villages all over Europe, and therefore moved around a lot, disposed of most of Theo’s writings.2 The view this correspondence offers is one-sided, incomplete. And never forget that Van Gogh was financially dependent on Theo, and often ended his letters, and this one too, with appeals for an increase in his monthly allowance. The reliability of Van Gogh’s writings can be questioned.

Some clues, though, here and there, despite the distorted colouring. For instance in the lines Van Gogh writes a few paragraphs on:

But I can’t understand you when you say — perhaps we’ll also find something good later in the things you’re doing now. If I were you, I would have enough self-confidence and independent opinion to know whether or not I could see now what there was in a thing. In short — decide that sort of thing for yourself.3

If years from now some merit is to be found in my work, then it has that worth now. If I keep to my own standards, hold fast to my beliefs, my work will in the future be the same, if not better, riper, so its worth is the same now as it would be then. To think of Van Gogh’s current reputation, his standing, and to compare it to the pickle he was in when he wrote this letter, living with his parents and struggling to learn his craft… How can this letter, again, be anything but incredibly heartening to creative people? To anybody who’s trying to make something, but has as yet achieved no official success?

I’ve read and reread this letter, finding something new each time, yet always I detect a tension between the intrinsic and extrinsic worth of Van Gogh’s work. To a certain extent all meaning is extrinsic, ascribed in people’s heads, ‘the eye of the beholder’, etcetera, but what strikes me is the mention of ‘townsfolk’. It mattered to Van Gogh what other people, wealthy people, the establishment, thought of his art. Of course it did. I believe that art, that literature, is important, worth a lot for its own sake, and that its importance does not correlate with the level of appreciation it receives. But I do not write just for the sake of it. I cannot. Wish I could. Comes a point, now I’ve been writing for five years, where I want other people to read what I’ve written. To understand it, and appreciate it. To say ‘well done’, maybe. How else to go on?

Feed the beast, and it’ll want more. I expect I could be the most successful artist ever to have lived, and still feel that same hankering. It’s not a flattering idea, but I suspect that tension between intrinsic and extrinsic worth will stay. Van Gogh’s letter is even more powerful in that regard. Something to live by: ‘if I’m no good now, I won’t be any good later either — but if later, then now too’.

Fine black lines are etched into the skin on the inside of my wrist. They form the signature Van Gogh signed this very letter with. It is to remind me of everything I’ve written here. And remember I do, every day.

Comments? Questions? Do drop me a line: 
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︎ viola@eightytoninety.com

© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.