The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, whose latest book is Van Gogh: The Life, explain why it was worth a decade of their lives to put together the artist’s biography.
Authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White SmithOriginally aired on November 18, 2011
Tavis: Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors whose previous books include a biography of Jackson Pollock that inspired the Oscar-winning film starring Ed Harris.
Their latest is easily one of the most talked about books of the year, a new biography of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s titled “Van Gogh: The Life.” Steven and Greg, congratulations first, and good to have you here.
Steven Naifeh: Thank you.
Gregory White Smith: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I think the whole country saw that “60 Minutes” piece and they don’t often give people two segments on “60 Minutes,” but thought a lot of this work. So we’re delighted to have you on PBS tonight.
Let me start by asking what it is about Van Gogh that makes it worth giving ten years of your life to do. I mean, we all make decisions and choices every single day on what to decide and maybe you didn’t know it was gonna be a decade when you started, but you gave a decade of your lives to write this. Why was it worth? Why do that?
Smith: Well, we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into when we started, but I think it was the realization that Van Gogh really was a unique cultural figure. You cannot name another artist that is so loved and whose works are so widely known. Thousands go to his grave every year. So this is a level of appreciation that goes way beyond any other artist.
Naifeh: It almost has a religious feeling because half a million people a year go visit his grave and they write little notes. Every day, they have to come clean away the things that have been left at the grave, little notes people have written, painters will bring their paint brushes and put them on the grave, Jewish visitors will put rocks on the headstone, Russians will pour vodka.
Most astonishingly, Japanese visitors will bring the ashes of their ancestors and pour them on the gravesite because they want them to live in eternity with the painter of “Starry Night.”
Tavis: I might be naive in asking this, but as compared to other artists, what draws that kind of following to one’s gravesite?
Smith: Well, that’s exactly the question that we wanted to answer and that’s why it took ten years. We wanted to try to get at what is it about this art and about this artist that has become such an indelible part of the human imagination, that almost everybody knows his “Sunflowers” and knows his “Starry Night.” Why do those images speak to all of us all over the world so eloquently?
Naifeh: We talk about it with the other people in the Van Gogh world of writing and there are a lot of reasons. But we think one of them is that lots of people out there know the basic outlines of the life. They know that he cut his ear off; they know that he supposedly killed himself.
They can see in the self-portraits that he was an unhappy person. In fact, the life was even more miserable than appears from those few facts. But they’ve also seen the pictures and the pictures are so ebullient, they’re so joyful, they’re so life-giving, that they get a sense that this man was able to extract beauty and joy out of a life of sorrow.
I think there is a kind of almost religious feeling towards him and, in fact, he wanted to be a preacher long before he wanted to be an artist.
Tavis: I got a quote I want to get to in just a second to get you guys to comment on something you wrote beautifully in the book about the fact that he did want to be a minister. Before I do that in 30 seconds, you suggested earlier that he was somebody who people really loved, obviously, to flock to his gravesite all these years later.
People love him and yet, to my mind, he was one of the most misunderstood people. How can somebody be so loved and be so misunderstood? Put another way, who are we loving and are we loving the person that we think we’re loving? Does that make sense?
Smith: That makes perfect sense. That’s really part of the challenge as his biographers is to get at who the real person was behind the myth because I think people are in love with the myth. They love this idea of this guy who is ignored by his – he has no friends, spends most of his life alone and seems to be no promise.
His life seems to amount to nothing and then he becomes this world-famous immortal artist. So I think that’s really, as I say, part of what it was that attracted us to do this project.
Tavis: To your point a moment ago, a brilliant point about what Van Gogh wanted to be, I refer to it as a piece of prose, not just writing. It’s prose on the part of both of you, the way you’ve crafted this particular paragraph. Let me just read it now.
“Finding beauty in nature was not just one way of knowing God, they proposed; it was the only way. And those who could see that beauty and express it – writers, musicians, artists – were God’s truest intermediaries. For Vincent, this was an electrifying new ideal of art and artists. Before, art had always served religion…But God was nature, nature was beauty, art was worship, and artists were preachers. In short, art was religion.”
As I said, a beautiful piece of prose explaining how he finally came to appreciate the gift, the craft, that he had.
Naifeh: Well, yeah. When he was young, his father was a pastor and he desperately wanted to bring the kind of consolation. He would follow his father out when he would help the poor people in the Dutch countryside minister to not just their spiritual needs, but their physical needs.
The level of consolation and the level of appreciation that those people had for what his father did, he said once to Vincent, “Oh, to have had a life like Pa’s.” Even though he was a genius, he didn’t have the kind of stick-to-itiveness to stay in school long enough to become a preacher. You had to have a lot of academic education.
Smith: He also wasn’t that good with people.
Naifeh: And he had real difficulties with people.
Tavis: That’s a problem [laugh].
Naifeh: That’s a real problem.
Tavis: If you want to be a minister and you don’t like people, that’s a problem [laugh]. He liked people. He had difficulty being around people.
Naifeh: Exactly. He just couldn’t interact with them. Luckily for him, there was a group of people within the Dutch Protestant community who had these ideas that you just read, that artists could see into the beauty of nature in a way that made them, in a way, ministers and that’s what he did. When he finally decided he couldn’t be a minister, he decided he would…
Smith: Use his art…
Naifeh: Use his art, yeah.
Smith: And touch the same parts of people that religion touches.
Tavis: I’ve always felt that way, just that you all write it in such a way that I could never say it. But I believe that artists at their best – I’ll put it that way, with that caveat – artists at their best really are God’s truest intermediaries. I totally agree with that.
We’ve been talking about his father now, Steven, his father, of course, being a minister. His mother, though. His mother – you give me the right word – disliked, disdained, hate, but she had no regard for her own son.
I think of Stephen Sondheim now, obviously another great in his own way. His mother rejected him. How does one go on to be as great as Van Gogh was when your mother casts you aside?
Naifeh: Well, I think mothers can play two different roles. Either their great love for their children can spur them on to greatness or sometimes rejection can spur them on to greatness ’cause they can keep on trying to win her favor. To his very last day when he died at age 37, Vincent was still desperately trying to win her favor.
She sent a photograph because she never visited him while he was in the mental asylum, when he was in the hospital, but she did send a photograph. He painted a very beautiful portrait of her and you can see in that portrait his desperation to win her favor.
But from the time he was a young child, he was such a difficult child, such as her ornery, stubborn child, and he wouldn’t follow convention. He didn’t keep his clothes clean; he didn’t go visit the proper neighbors.
Smith: She was a very conventional woman.
Naifeh: She was a very conventional woman and she didn’t realize that a lot of this misbehavior was because he had this mental illness, so she didn’t forgive him for that reason. She just stopped liking him. It’s really hard for us who had good mothers who loved us to imagine what it’s like to grow up knowing that your mother doesn’t like you.
In fact, even 17 years after he died is when she died and, to her very last day after he’d already become quite famous around the world, she continued to the last moment to think that his art was ridiculous, to use her words.
Tavis: I’m with you on that, Steven. I think about my own mom, as I’m sure most of us do. “Hi, Mom,” by the way. She watches every night back in Indiana. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if my mother just cast me aside and yet he goes on to navigate through that. To your point, though, trying to win her love, the favor of his mother.
Naifeh: What’s so magical is that most people would be flattened by that kind of parental rejection, especially maternal rejection. He was certainly made miserable by it, but he always picked himself up and pushed himself to achieve something.
I think that’s really a kind of lesson for all of us who have difficult times that you can extract something important and wonderful and beautiful and meaningful from a life of sorrow.
Tavis: Greg, a question. There’s a number of pieces of big news out of this book. Let’s just jump right to it now. The piece about whether he was in fact…
Smith: How he was killed.
Tavis: Murdered, or whether he killed himself. What’s the story?
Smith: What we discovered was that the traditional story, the mythology, is that he went out into a field one afternoon in July in 1890 and had a pistol and shot himself.
But he shot himself in the stomach and it didn’t quite kill him, so he dragged himself about a mile away to the inn where he was staying and he died about 30 hours later after a lot of pain. In the meantime, his brother came to his bedside and he died in his brother’s arms.
Naifeh: But there were a lot of problems with that story. First of all, less than 2% of the people who kill themselves with a gunshot do it in the stomach. It’s a very long, painful way to die.
Also, it was hard to imagine why anybody would give him a gun. He’d just come out of an insane asylum. Guns were rare in rural France, so why would they give him a gun? Then we put that together with some other pieces of information because, as biographers, you have to read everything, not just the important things, but everything.
After “Lust for Life,” the movie with Kirk Douglas, came out, a man who was at the time 16 years old who had lived in Auvers came forward and gave his very confessional interview in which he admitted the gun was his and he admitted to torturing Vincent.
Smith: Tormenting him in the sense of putting a snake in his paint box and that sort of thing.
Naifeh: But he doesn’t admit to actually pulling the trigger because there’s no statute of limitations on murder. It’s a much bigger story, but the final clue was that when this very important American artist named John Rewald visited Auvers in the 1930s when some of the villagers were still alive, what he was hearing wasn’t the traditional myth that was in “Lust for Life.”
What he was hearing was that Vincent was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to take the blame because he didn’t want it to ruin their lives. So you take all that information and it creates a much more plausible theory than the one that’s in the movie and in the books.
Tavis: I’d be anxious to know what Kirk Douglas thinks of this book.
Naifeh: Well, he asked us for a copy.
Tavis: Oh, he did?
Smith: He did, yeah.
Naifeh: It was really touching to think that he wanted a copy, so we signed a copy and sent it out to him. It was really quite touching for us to know that he was perhaps the person who, more than any other, made Vincent Van Gogh world-famous and that, so many years later, he wanted a copy of the book.
Tavis: Let me close on this note. I can’t do justice to a text that is this dense and this good about the life of such an iconic figure like Van Gogh. But his mother rejected him, but his brother, Theo, embraced him like – you talk a brother, you talk about a story of brotherly love.
Smith: It’s an incredible story of brotherly love, the kind of unconditional love that you hope to get from your parents, but you really need to get from someone. Theo provided that.
There’s also this sort of sibling relationship which is both love and a certain degree of resentment, so they had a very complicated relationship. Theo was the younger brother; Vincent was the older brother who was supposed to succeed.
Theo did succeed. Theo had supported his older brother, so there are all kinds of, you know, cross-currents of affection and resentment that are going on there, so a much more deeper and more human relationship than the traditional sort of picture of just Theo there handing him money.
Tavis: Gregory White Smith, I’m honored to have had you on this program. Thank you, sir.
Smith: Thank you for having us.
Tavis: Steven Naifeh, I’m honored to have you on as well.
Naifeh: Thank you so much.
Tavis: The new book is called “Van Gogh: The Life.” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith are the authors, Pulitzer Prize-winners, also, a book about Jackson Pollock. Good to have you on.
Smith: Thank you very much.
Naifeh: Thank you so much.
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