52:07 Van Gogh’s Infinity
I was recently reading Pascal Bonafoux’s excellent biographical sketch of Van Gogh when I came across this arresting line, drawn from one of the artist’s letters: “Painting harnesses infinity.”
The line stuck with me as I worked my way through Taschen’s two-volume Van Gogh and reviewed most of his surviving work. These three words seemed to epitomize his entire passion and endeavor as an artist – to render a vision of infinity in the everyday by the careful, controlled amplification of sensual experience.
Whether painting a chair, a pair of shoes, or a sunflower, he could see and show us what it is that is alive in that sunflower, shoe, or chair, and in ourselves.
William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I’m the kind of person who is incapable of reading any fewer than four books at any one time. It’s a habit I picked up in college, and I’ve never lost it – the rewards are too great. I’ve learned to expect unforeseen synergies and reflections that echo across time and space, unifying disparate domains of inquiry into a single insight. It’s what comes of comparative study.
So I wasn’t surprised when I moved from Van Gogh to Eternity’s Sunrise, Leo Damrosch’s outstanding new biographical study of William Blake, to find precisely those resonances. I could imagine no keener or more precise gloss on the function of Van Gogh’s art than Blake’s poetry.
Take these lines from his early work There is No Natural Religion:
Man’s Perceptions are not bounded by Organs of Perception; he perceives more than Sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
Reason, or the Ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
The Bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round, even of a Universe, would soon become a Mill with complicated wheels.
If the Many become the same as the Few, when possess’d, ‘More! More!’ is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.
If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, Despair must be his Eternal lot.
The Desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.
God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.
Van Gogh helps us to see the infinite in all things.
This morning I was out in Redwood Shores in California and saw this landscape – the kind of view I normally wouldn’t think twice about.
I couldn’t help but see the cypress trees and fields of Van Gogh’s Arles.
“I do my best,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “I draw, not to annoy people, but to amuse them, or to make them see things that are worth observing and that not everybody knows.”