“He became famous not for what he wanted to achieve, but for his very transcendence of that.”
The portrayal of Van Gogh’s life in this audiobook is pervasively authentic in cataloging his successes, failures, and idiosyncrasies alike. Van Gogh’s philosophy shines through in the readings of excerpts of his letters, capturing both the development of his profound ideology as well as his dramatic interpersonal relationships. The artist is seen more human than he is often depicted, leading a life of uncertain choices and wavering opinions just as anyone else. This humility is accompanied by deeply emotional readings of his insecurities: as a teacher, as an artist, and as a brother and friend. His story is presented in a chronology that focuses on salient emotional and ideological developments, rather than benchmarks of his growing success as an artist.
Van Gogh is an artist constantly at war with himself. In his attempts to develop his style and ideology, he often falters in other respects. Wherever he shows strength and certainty, he reveals fear and anxiety in other areas. Helen Mirren’s modulated reading recounts Van Gogh’s “inability to enjoy success as an individual.” The importance of his relationship with his brother Theo is commonly referenced. In this retelling, the importance of his family and social circle come to the fore. His relationship with art dealers he previously worked for, a cousin who was a renowned artist, and his father are catalysts for many of his personal and artistic developments. Van Gogh’s social status is seen to affect his growth more so than we have heard before: an aspiring art dealer turned pariah artist must defy the ideology of everyone he knows to achieve his vision.
Van Gogh presented himself to the world, and received mostly apathy or disapproval in return. It is remarkable to hear the story of someone so misunderstood, knowing fully well that his work would impact the future of art as a whole, and the lives of countless viewers. He writes that he had “fallen under the spell of Impressionism,” a passion so strong he lost his life attempting to master it. The audiobook sheds light on the reality of Van Gogh’s waking life, a reality that leaves a listener with a tinge of sadness for his plight. The strength of color and vision that we see in his works today stand to justify and commemorate his life. The beauty of his work can be seen that much more clearly with the knowledge of his life story.
The audio biography speaks to the “demonstrable modesty” of Van Gogh’s character, a man who at times longed for recognition, at others implored critics to not mention his name. Critics acclaimed him to be “a possessed genius,” a label that contributed to his harsh self-criticism and deteriorating mental state. He could not be the artist he aspired to be and be praised for it at the same time. The audiobook and accompanying booklets present a beautiful explication of the life of one of the most vital artists of the modern era.