True facts (probably) —
The last painting that Vincent Van Gogh completed was entitled Wheatfield with Crows. This painting was completed sometime in July, 1890. On July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh set out for the wheatfield where he had recently been painting. He then shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He then passed out. This happened in the afternoon. Upon waking in the evening, he then searched around in vain, searching in the cooling twilight, looking for the revolver so that he could complete the act. He could not find the revolver. He then walked back to the inn where he was staying, in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, in northern France. He returned to the inn at around 9 p.m., clutching his stomach.
The innkeeper asked if there was a problem.
Van Gogh was walking up the stairs to his room, clutching his stomach. After being asked if there was a problem, Van Gogh said, “No, but…” He then broke off in mid-sentence, and continued up the stairs to his room.
Later, the innkeeper’s husband heard groaning noises and went to Van Gogh’s room. “I have tried to kill myself,” Van Gogh said. Later, he said this, “Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.” When a doctor suggested that his life could still be saved, Van Gogh muttered, “Then I’ll have to do it all over again.”
He died two days later, at one in the morning, with his brother Theo in the room. His last words were these: “La tristesse durera toujours.” The sadness will last forever.
Thoughts (and idle speculations) —
What does it feel like to shoot yourself in the chest? Dull ache, or heavy burn?
Why would you do such a thing?
What would you think to yourself after shooting yourself in the chest? Would it be something like “Really? I shot myself in the fucking chest? Really?” Or would you experience a feeling of contentment? Or would you just feel nothing?
How annoying would it be to wake up and realize that you were not dead? It’d be a drag, to have to search for the missing revolver, probably, right?
Which would be more annoying: not being able to find the missing revolver, or having to walk all the way back to your cruddy room in the cruddy inn?
If you saw someone you knew during the walk back to your village, would that be awkward, embarrassing, upsetting? Would you sort of clutch your jacket more tightly around yourself, straighten up, try to act like you weren’t even hurt at all?
What about the painting (the one with the crows)?
What of it? Wheatfield, path through wheatfield, cloudy sky, crows. “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams once said, speaking of poetry, and his dictum applies even more to painting that it does to poetry, since painting has no words in it, only flat 2-D things in it — blotches of lines and of colors, attempting to convey ideas to us.
What would you paint if you were a painter and you were painting your last painting? …And how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? No, but really, what would you paint?
Crows, wheat. Van Gogh once said this: “Orange is the color of insanity.” If you’ve ever stood in a room that is painted a bright, lurid orange, you’ll start to see his point. But there is no orange in the painting, nothing to indicate that he was going insane and was about to kill himself.
A wheatfield. A path going nowhere.
No sun in the sky.
And then there are the crows.
How much should we read into any of this?
Then there are the crows. Are they flying up or flying down? It’s impossible to tell. But Van Gogh must have known. He must have had an idea he wished to convey. The crows were there, either flying down to land on the field, or flying up in a gust toward the sky. The crows were there, he saw them, and decided to paint them. The crows were there, and then they were gone — they didn’t remain there, posing obediently for the hours and days that it took to finish the painting. He saw the crows at one point, Van Gogh did, and made a conscious decision to record them, forever. No ideas but in things.
There are the crows. If art means anything it must be a message, but if the artist is gone we can’t interpret these messages, lacking the key with which to interpret them, and so the key is gone, and we’re just getting distant broadcast signals now; light from a dead star. There was a field, there were crows. Are they flying down, settling on the field like black death? Or are they flying up, heading into the ether, carrying away dark souls? Or are they flying to someplace better, maybe, a place harboring the unseen sun?
1) The birds are flying up. (True/False)
2) The birds are flying down. (True/False)
3) Suicide — are you pro or con, or more middle of the road? (Multiple choice)
4) Complete the following sentence. “No, but…”
5) “The sadness will last forever.” What exactly is meant by this? Is this statement too self-dramatizing, or just self-dramatizing enough?
6) “Then I’ll have to do it all over again.” What is meant by this?
Please be prepared to defend your responses, showing your work and utilizing diagrams if necessary. You will not be graded on this assignment; I repeat: you will not be graded on this assignment. Really and truly, you will not be graded on this assignment, though in selected special cases, extra credit may be awarded.