So it is with every artisan and master artisan
   who labors by night as well as by day;
those who cut the signets of seals,
   each is diligent in making a great variety;
they set their heart on painting a lifelike image,
   and they are careful to finish their work.
[Sirach 38:27]

For our anniversary last week, my wife, Linda, and I took in the Immersive van Gogh Exhibit in Cleveland. We didn’t know what to expect, but we came away totally mesmerized with the experience.

Other than an occasional visit to a museum, we are far from what we would regard as art aficionados. Some paintings are appealing; so much so, that I’ve purchased framed prints to display in our home. But what little I know today of certain artists or works of art; I’ve learned mostly from friends who have a greater interest in art than I do.

In college, I took a required art appreciation course which exposed me to painters and sculptors I would probably never have known otherwise. I never probed very deeply into the finer details of what made for great art, or why certain artists stood out from the rest. Like many required education courses, the knowledge learned there was filed into the deep recesses of memory and eventually forgotten.

However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gained an appreciation for the struggles and hardships some have endured.

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was one of those.

The van Gogh Museum in Cuesmes, Belgium. That is a much younger me by the house in 1978.

In 1978, one of my sisters was living in Belgium. I visited her and took advantage of my trip to tour the house where van Gogh lived while he was a missionary to coal miners in the Borinage region of that country. It is obviously now a museum; and it was there, seeing some of the letters that he wrote, and other memorabilia, that I became intrigued with this most misunderstood man.

To say that van Gogh lived a troubled life is a classic understatement. He was considered a failure at just about everything he attempted, relationships, romance, religion. His episodes with mental illness are well documented – from being hospitalized for a time, to cutting off his ear, and taking his own life.

Vincent van Gogh self portrait, 1889

Yet it was during those times of madness (diagnosed as manic depression) when he was most creative. It was precisely when he was institutionalized, that he produced his masterpieces.

What I find most fascinating is that van Gogh immersed himself into art after his hopes of becoming a pastor were dashed. He failed the entrance exam to the University of Amsterdam School of Theology. Subsequently, he was also dismissed from a three-month course at a missionary school near Brussels. In his book, Van Gogh and God, the author Cliff Edwards maintains that art became van Gogh’s road to personal salvation.

Henri Nouwen, a fellow Dutchman and one of the great spiritual writers of our time, describes van Gogh’s life as a powerful example of faithfulness to the inner fire of God’s Spirit. In Nouwen’s words, “During his life nobody came to sit down at his fire, but today thousands have found comfort and consolation in his drawings, paintings and letters.”[1]

He died destitute. However, as Nouwen indicated, his genius has inspired countless others for centuries after his death. The Van Gogh Museum in his native Amsterdam receives more than 1.5 million visitors per year. He was immortalized in music by Don McClean, who wrote the hit song, “Starry, Starry Night,” in 1970.

And with this immersive exhibit, he is enjoying yet another revival here in the United States.

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. Below is a slide show of some of the paintings displayed at the exhibit. The people who put this work together really outdid themselves.

Whenever it comes to your city, I would encourage you to go if you can. Though I don’t qualify as an art critic, I guarantee it will be time well spent.  

[1] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, (New York: Harper Collins, 1981), p. 64

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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