Sunday, September 20, 2015

Salt and Paint

Have salt in yourselves. The gospel reading for Proper 21B/Ordinary 26B/Pentecost 18 (Mark 9:38-50) features this instruction from Jesus. He reminds his followers that salt is good but salt that has lost its saltiness is not much use. Have salt in yourselves, Jesus says, and be at peace with one another.

Yes, we should. But sometimes it isn't as easy in the living as the hearing. A case in point is Vincent van Gogh. Few artists work is more easily recognizable than Vincent. His work routinely sells for tens of millions of dollars (in May 2015 his painting "L'Allee Des Alyscamps" sold for $66 million rather than the estimated $40 million, proving that the appetite for his work is still strong). The only thing perhaps as well-known as his work is his life.

Failed art dealer, failed teacher, failed evangelist, and if one accounts by economic success during his lifetime, failed artist. Vincent struggled in personal relationships with family, friends and strangers. He thought of himself as a painter but the world tried to send him another message. His work was not appreciated widely...or really at all.

In 1880, while living in Cuesmes, Belgium, in the mining region of the Borinage, he wrote in a letter to his brother: So you mustn’t think that I’m rejecting this or that; in my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know? (Letter 155, Br. 1990: 154 | CL: 133; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, between about Tuesday, 22 and Thursday, 24 June 1880)

Now called Maison Van Gogh, this house was where Vincent rented a room while living in Cuesmes.
http://www.polemuseal.mons.be/en/maison-van-gogh

It was while Vincent was living in the Borinage that he devoted his life to art. He had recently been dismissed from his position as a preacher and was searching for what he was to do. In September 1880, still living in Cuesmes, he wrote again to Theo: Well, and notwithstanding, it was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I’ll recover from it, I’ll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I’ll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I’m on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more so day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything. (Letter 158. Br. 1990: 157 | CL: 136; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, Friday, 24 September 1880)

And the artist was (re)born.

Vincent Van Gogh - child of the manse, aspiring preacher - put his own situation in the context of scripture, quoting Psalm 22 and Mark's gospel in letter 155. We owe Vincent's brother Theo for the financial and emotional support that made it possible for Vincent to buy paint and canvas on which to work. We owe Vincent's sister-in-law Johanna for the preservation of his work after his and Theo's deaths only six months apart. But our greatest debt is to Vincent for "having salt in himself" and pursuing the work God gave him to do.

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