Van Gogh speaks to yearning for transcendent

Peter Corney on Van Gogh and the transcendent in our modern world

The Red Vineyard at Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

By Peter Corney

June 23 2017The huge numbers of visitors to the NGV’s Van Gogh exhibition, including many young adults, have given Peter Corney new hope that a longing for the transcendent is not dying out in our culture.

I recently attended, with thousands of others, the NGV’s Van Gogh exhibition. I was first attracted to his paintings in my late teens in the mid 1950’s. The brilliant light, colour, luminosity and energy in them are wonderful. Later I read Irving Stone’s biography Lust for Life and then saw the 1956 film of the same title starring Kirk Douglas, and I was hooked. It was many years before I saw a real painting rather than prints.

I think my interest in art came from my mother who was an artist and later I studied drawing at Perth Technical College for two years.

When my wife and I first met, one of the many joyful things we discovered we had in common was a love of Van Gogh and we hung a number of prints of his paintings in our home. In fact Merrill confesses that as a young teenager she was secretly and deeply in love with Vincent, the brilliant but deeply troubled soul. She says she just wanted him to know “that someone loved him!”

To return to the wonderful exhibition, the NGV is to be congratulated on presenting it for Melbourne audiences who have responded by turning up in their thousands. The day we went the long queues stretched back into the Great Hall with people patiently waiting. There were also queues in the bookshop as people lined up to buy books, prints and cards of the paintings. It was heartening to see among the crowd of all ages so many young adults. It was a bit like attending a big game at the MCG!

As we moved through the exhibition I was almost as fascinated by the reactions of people as I was with the paintings themselves. Apart from the rather intrusive obsession with taking photos of the paintings on their mobile phones the interest was intense. To see a young woman gazing intensely at a glowing field of wheat in a European countryside, with Vincent’s unique brush strokes making the wheat move in the wind, was itself a joy. I heard one young person say to their friend “I want to go there!”

There is a power in inspired art that is difficult to explain and describe but it is unquestionably there in Vincent’s paintings.

As we know, he suffered many disappointments in his life and was afflicted with serious mental health issues. His faith and idealism led him to train for the Christian ministry as a pastor and then to work as a lay evangelist among the rural poor for whom he had a special concern, but felt a failure. Eventually he found the vocation he had been made for in his painting, through which he has enriched the world.

At the end of the exhibition is a small but luminous self-portrait and below it is a quotation from the artist himself: “It requires a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high which doesn’t belong to us, to do beautiful things.” Yes!

I left the exhibition feeling a new sense of hope – that this extraordinary response to Vincent’s inspiration might be a sign that this generation may once again be open to the transcendent, longing to find the source of that inspiration – “the ray from on high” – and be inspired “to do beautiful things” for the world.

The Revd Peter Corney is Vicar Emeritus, St Hilary’s Kew.