Seeing the world like Vincent van Gogh did

April 2, 2022

Thomas Froese Photo

The eyes of Vincent van Gogh, in this self-portrait, loom large at Hamilton’s “Beyond Van Gogh, The Immersive Experience.”  The show ( runs to April 10.

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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday April 2, 2022)

Find things beautiful as much as you can. Most people find too little beautiful. Vincent van Gogh

It’s a night in 1876 and Vincent van Gogh looks outward from his room’s window. In a letter to his brother, Theo, he writes what he sees. “Over those roofs, one single star, but a beautiful large friendly one.”

I recently read it. And again. Sipped it like wine. There’d been a storm over the yellowish sea near the English seaside town, Ramsgate. I imagined the shadows Vincent saw, dark hues in a difficult world. It’s just one line in hundreds of letters Vincent wrote to Theo. There’s no grand meaning. No hidden metaphor. No tricks. Just a common experience, framed.

This is what the good artist, the caring artist, does: sets apart an otherwise common face, or field, or moment, and says, slow down. Stop. Pay attention. For God’s sake, and your own sake, pay attention because your very life, in a way, depends on it.

Pay attention to the drops of rain sliding down the window. To the children laughing downstairs. To the garbage truck at the end of the drive. To the Cheerios floating in your breakfast bowl. This is the stuff of life. Your life. The only life you’ve been handed.

Vincent did this. He paid attention with large eyes and a generous spirit. He didn’t paint because he wanted “Likes.” Or hits. Or views. Or a name. He didn’t care about Billboard’s Top 40, if his art was on the charts or off the charts. He simply looked up and saw the sky and loved it so much that all he wanted was to paint it, so that you could see it, really see it, too.

After some false starts — pastor and missionary among them — he found his place in art. He studied hard, worked at his craft and stayed true to his vision. From 27 to his untimely death just 10 years later, he produced, incredibly, more than 900 paintings. This, despite serious mental illness.

Some have since sold for tens of millions of dollars, even though Vincent couldn’t sell any himself and died poor.

Now we live with Vincent the pop celebrity. It’s hard to know what he’d make of it all. But if you want to understand Vincent the man, you could do worse than reading in “Dear Theo,” those many letters that Vincent wrote to his brother, often after long days of painting.

Maybe you’ve also heard of the immersive experience with Van Gogh’s art. I recently attended Hamilton’s version, called “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” (Not to be confused with “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” or “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” or “Van Gogh Alive” or dozens of other shows now sweeping North America.)

It’s like swimming in Van Gogh’s paintings. Dozens of projectors throw hundreds of images over thousands of square feet. It’s now Ticketmaster’s most successful show in the world. But, really, what would Vincent, whose birthday was this past Wednesday, say?

Maybe he’d say something like this. Dear artist. Dear friend. Dear fellow human being. Don’t be discouraged. Keep at it. You have something to offer. If you’re an artist — and isn’t living a life of love, in itself, an art? — then you have a leg up.

Because when the world is a mess, which it often is, one can’t think one’s way out of it. No. Other ways are needed. People are broken. So love your broken neighbour with your broken self.

Right now, dear artist, is especially the time when people need what you have to offer. So do pay attention. It’s easy to let life slip away and miss the point of it all, that we each have something to leave behind.

Remember that you, a grain of sand on the beach of the universe, are also deeply loved. This too is true. More than, from where you are, you’ll ever imagine.

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April 2, 2022 • Posted in
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8 thoughts on “Seeing the world like Vincent van Gogh did”

  1. Herman Goodden

    Thanks for this essay. I’ve been hedging whether to check out a version of this show which is coming to London, worrying that the technological wizardry of it all might undercut or jazz up the viewing experience in some less than helpful way. So congratulations, Thom. I think you’ve persuaded me to give it a shot.

  2. Hi Thom,

    Our family is looking forward to the London version of the Van Gogh experience. My elder daughter and her husband saw it last year in Toronto. Your honing in on the importance of really “seeing” the world around us resonated with me as I am in the middle of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek,” having last read it more than 30 years ago! She too saw so much by really paying attention to a small area around the creek over the course of a year or so — and describing all that transpired in her mind and imagination during that time. Very timely counterpoint to the rest of what’s going on in the world!

  3. Wow, what insight !
    Because when the world is a mess, which it often is, one can’t think one’s way out of it. No. Other ways are needed. People are broken. So love your broken neighbour with your broken self.
    Peter D

  4. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is a masterpiece. Glad you’re reading it, Steve, Similar thoughts circling around the same theme — the Divine’s fiery fingerprint all over the commonplace, so easy to miss.

  5. We enjoyed the Beyond Van Gogh in Toronto. And I really appreciate your response to the previous comment: “the Divine’s fiery fingerprint all over the commonplace, so easy to miss”. Thank you!

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