Vincent van Gogh’s work can spark joy in dark times


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Conservators place the famous painting ‘Sunflowers’ by Vincent van Gogh on a felt-lined transport cart at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Sunday September 23, 2012.


As we approach 2022, finding hope could be one of our greatest challenges. News of a lingering pandemic, political strife, and Earth’s global warming can easily lead to depression or despair.

One source of hope is art, which I believe is also closely linked to faith. Art can bring hope to worshipers and non-religious alike, and kindle faith in a better future. A recent book has reinforced this belief. “Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh”, the book shows through van Gogh’s art and words how art is linked to faith and hope.

Van Gogh’s artistic sketches and paintings, writes author Carol Berry, invite us “to see beyond the obvious – with a greater awareness of the relevance of everything around us to the fabric of our lives. “.

Spiritual writers like Henri Nouwen, Berry added, and artists like van Gogh (whom Nouwen admired) “teach us to look more deeply at the reality of our experiences and see the presence of the divine therein.”

The presence of the divine (however one wishes to define the word “divine”) can provide the hope we need during times of discouragement. Feeling divine these days can be a challenge for some. Lately, the number of people who do not turn to religion has increased. Polls show that every year more and more Americans say they have no religion. They are often called “none”, because the answer they give to the question “What religion do you belong to?” is “none”.

Some might think that the “nones” would be likely to despair in difficult times, but this is not necessarily the case. As Czech priest Tomas Halik wrote, sometimes many non-religious individuals can be “allies” of religious people “on the path of deepening faith and revealing transcendence.”

Van Gogh in his art, Berry argued, offers a sense of faith and hope accessible to all viewers, whether they consider themselves religious or not. She goes beyond the stereotype many people have of van Gogh as a troubled, erratic man who produced eccentric art. Berry pointed out that van Gogh was a compassionate person who immersed himself in the daily lives of ordinary people, especially the poor and destitute. He himself went through long periods of discouragement.

Through it all, van Gogh came to see that the ordinary things in life – trees, flowers, wheat fields, stars and the sun – if observed carefully, can reveal transcendence and give hope. He was particularly attracted to sunlight, stars, or even a single lamp in a small room. This light can pierce the darkness and create not only hope, but also joy and peace.

Van Gogh, according to Berry, also believed that art can communicate something that most religions profess, that “our lives are intertwined and we share a common human bond with each other”.

Berry’s book is short, just 128 pages, and easily accessible to almost any reader. It provides many examples of van Gogh’s work, including black and white sketches and brightly colored paintings. Carol Berry worked on this book for 20 years, ever since Nouwen’s estate gave her the notes of his lectures in a course he taught at Yale University on van Gogh. Berry herself took this course 40 years ago.

The executor told Berry to write about van Gogh, particularly through lectures by Nouwen, who died in 1996. Berry took this mission to heart. She not only looked at all of van Gogh’s art, but read all of his letters, especially the letters to his brother Theo, who was his main psychological and financial support throughout his life.

Berry even traveled through Holland (where van Gogh was born), Belgium and France, where van Gogh lived and worked. The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to write a short van Gogh biography that would present, as its subtitle put it, “A Portrait of the Compassionate Life.”

Van Gogh, as Berry sees it, exemplified compassion (a focal point of most religions) in his life as well as in his art. He lived among struggling miners and farmers and at one point took in a pregnant woman and her child because they were living on the streets.

Van Gogh made many pencil and charcoal sketches of these people as he felt himself growing closer to them. Living with them in a desperate situation often led him to depression but gradually to hope, mainly through his connection with nature, in particular the landscapes that surround him. Olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers attracted him and, more and more as he got older, the sun became his inspiration.

I encourage anyone who thinks life seems depressing to read Berry’s book or just look at a Van Gogh sketch or painting. Moreover (Berry, van Gogh and Nouwen would agree), we can all find solace and hope in other works of art and especially in nature, including the trees and flowers in and around our neighborhoods. . But we need to do more than watch them.

We must look carefully at a tree, a leaf, a flower, a sunrise or a sunset and see “beyond the obvious”, as Berry wrote, “with a greater awareness of the relevance of everything in the fabric of our lives”.

In doing so, I argue that we can find, even in depressing times, not only hope, but also peace and joy.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos company. His email is [email protected]

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