Just to be clear: generally speaking, this book is amazing: it collects all his surviving paintings (871!), in overall good quality reproductions. It also has an extensive biographical text, zooming in on all of Van Gogh’s life phases. While the first edition is already 30 years old, powerhouse Taschen has put out a new, shiny edition that’s easily available, and under 30 euros… Really! Best bargain ever!!
If you are interested in Van Gogh, you might be interested in the things that struck me most while reading – I list those at the end of this review.
First, I want to address some minor issues for those that might be interested in buying this book, although I have to say, given the price, none of those should even stop you to consider getting out your wallet.
1) A small part of the reproductions are in black and white – I’d say roughly 5%. Strange that some museums apparently are not willing to sell color reproduction rights at a fair price. It seems possessive and petty, and contra the mission of what a museum should do. In the case of paintings owned privately, it’s just as possessive & petty. Obviously, of the few paintings that did not survive or whose whereabaouts are unknown, we are lucky to still have any photograph at all, even if they’re just black and white.
2) A lot of the reproductions are not able to translate the three-dimensionality of the paint. Some do however, so I do not think it is an issue of printing quality. I assume a lot (if not all) of the photographs of paintings date back to the original 1989 edition. Standards have evolved since. It might be worth it for Taschen to invest in newer (and in some cases also larger) photographs: I would buy such an update in the blink of an eye, and I suspect I’m not the only lover of painting that would do so. The paint’s physicality is a crucial aspect of Van Gogh’s work. Then again, a contemporary book with highlights put out by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam doesn’t have better reproductions either.
3) Both the text as the pictures are presented chronologically – a good thing. A bit annoyingly however, often the text deals with pictures separated by 20, 30 or even 50 pages. When talking about one specific painting, that’s not really a problem, as you can just thumb to the specific page. But when your reading about a certain period is accompanied by paintings from an earlier or later period, it is. I’m quite sure the effort to keep things more in sync could have been upped – but that would have meant a higher page count.
4) The text is both really interesting and a bit infuriating. There’s two reasons for the latter. Metzger wrote the original in German, and I don’t think the translator did his utmost best to do something about the German tendency to write overly long sentences, and tone down some winding passages to solid English. This kind of art writing is outdated – 1989 is a long time ago, and today we expect less interpretative pomp, and a more objective slickness. Sadly, there’s quite a few passages that are not grounded in fact, but are rather grandstanding interpretation by Metzger.
At times, one even has to ask what certain sentences mean. Take this: “Vincent was doing his best to be a Romantic, but in reality he was not a mood painter; and whenever his pictures struck intense emotional notes it was only because the emotion was vitally present in the subjects.” I simply do not understand the last part of this sentence, especially not when applied to his landscapes, which can strike emotional notes too.
Metzger also writes, on multiple accounts, about Van Gogh’s “absence of skill”. I have to put this down to the translation. I’m not sure about the German concept of “skill”, and okay, Van Gogh might not be a painter with a classically refined technique, his skill, his metier, his painting power simply is among the best ever.
It has to be stressed Metzger knows his subject. He quotes extensively from Vincent’s letters, and these passages are really illuminating. He also draws from other 19th century sources to embed Vincent firmly in an intellectual tradition – a valid approach, making him more human, and less of the lone genius as he is usually cast.
Some might not want to read the book, and just look at the pictures. My advice would be to read the text nonetheless, with all of its heavyhanded imperfections. Van Gogh’s life is interesting, and knowing more does make his paintings even better.
Here’s a few of my take-aways:
– Van Gogh only painted for 10 years.
– Around 25 he tried to become a lay preacher. He was rejected for being too fanatic. Quickly after his religious spell he decided to become an artist, and he can generally be considered an autodidact. At the start of his artistic life, he had a relationship with an alcoholic prostitute. His artistic practice has a clear moral and social praxis at this point in his life, and it will remain so, albeit less outspoken.
– Van Gogh did think about the (symbolic) content of his paintings, a lot even. I was informed incorrectly about that, having been told by people I thought that were very knowledgeable that he did not, and just painted whatever. His letters do show otherwise. He can even be dubbed an intellectual, and he clearly approached his painting theoretically as well.
– Van Gogh was successful in his own life. Although he indeed only sold one painting while he lived, he did gather status among other artists and their public at the end of his career. He simply didn’t sell any paintings because he gave most of them away to his brother and to admirers. He didn’t need to sell because his brother supplied him with what he needed – which wasn’t much, he led a poor life indeed.
– An important reason for Van Gogh’s suicide might have been a calculation made out of love, because he very well knew his paintings would increase in value because of his death, and he knew his brother, an art dealer, was at the brink of losing credibility with his employers. As such, it was a kind of reimbursement for all his brother had done for him. (On the other hand, in a 2012 biography, Naifeh and Smith claim his death not to be a suicide, but the result of an encounter with bully youngsters.)
Anyhow, this is the go to Van Gogh book, as I have no knowledge of any other edition currently available collecting ALL his paintings. After reading this, I’m even more invested in Van Gogh, planning to buy a few books on his drawings too, maybe a biography – but not that 2012 one, which seems to be highly problematic – or better yet, the letters themselves. I’m pretty sure I will visit the Van Gogh Museum again later this year, and Kröller Müller too.
Here is a list of my favorite art books.