My Pursuit of Van Gogh: The True Story

Life is remarkably circular. Sometimes life works in ways you can’t even predict. Fifteen years ago, I encountered a story that little did I know will touch my heart in the most unexpected way.

In the early 00’s, encyclopaedias were still our default search engine as the ultimate source of information. Thick, hard-bound books shelved in glass cabinets, catalogued alphabetically according to the sets where it belongs. One day, it was one of those times I was hanging out with a life-long buddy at the library during lunch break when this person handed me an infamous story about a famed artist of the nineteenth century who cut off his ear and shot himself. My 12-year old naive, innocent and Catholic-oriented self was undeniably shocked. Back then, I looked up at these magnificent people from the past as glorious beings who ever walked on earth; Faultless, infallible and immaculate. A quintessence of an ideal human being.

“How could one of the most famous and influential post-impressionist painter lived such a life?”

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Image source: Holland.com

It was the time I was still obstinate and intolerant to the imperfections of life. The story was incomprehensible for me to accept and digest. From then on, I only focused on his works and refused to read about his life. It was simply unsuitable to take a young mind’s innocence and corrupt it with the dark intentions of human beings. So I thought.

Over the years, it has been my personal goal to expand my views and be more open-minded as possible. I allowed to put myself on someone’s shoes in every subject matter, remove all prejudice, breakdown every cultural norm and understand the root of such belief, behaviour and mindset. Since then, it has been my ultimate goal in life: To understand everyone and everything. Everything is a though word and impossible to achieve, but hey, we got to set the bar to the highest level.

One and a half decades later, I’ve pretty much achieved my goal in every subject that crosses my path. By removing personal preferences and inhibitions, I am able to dissect every detail of a fact, opinion or argument. It’s a very liberating thing to do. It’s the perfect time to go back to one story that I tried dancing around for quite a long time.

Life took its turn and presented me with the opportunity to revisit an old friend I’ve kept buried in my memory. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia and independent art historian Sjraar van Heugten curated Van Gogh and the Seasons as one of its international exhibitions for 2017.

“Hey! It’s Van Gogh. Not to be missed for sure!” I thought. It’s true. It was a wonderful once in a life time experience to see such an exhibit that focused on the four seasons of his works. The storytelling of the exhibit was impeccable. One, if only he will allow to immerse himself to the experience, will clearly feel the connection with Van Gogh’s personal life; How he came to be as one of the most renowned artists of all time.

 

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Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy

After going through the exhibit, I exited into the souvenir shop without the intention of purchasing any merchandise. There was a large coffee table book, most likely 12″ x 12″ in size detailing the entire exhibit which I personally find above my budget to own. Everyone seems to have bought it. Besides, it was an exclusive publication for this particular exhibit. My best friend bought one, being a huge Van Gogh fan that she is. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of impressionist paintings so I gave it a pass. While browsing through the books section, I saw two copies of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy in paperback neatly placed on a table, seemed untouched. The title is very catchy, I scanned a bit, read a few pages and left.

Days later, the book seems to be calling out for me. NGV was conveniently located two blocks away from my workplace so I went back to the souvenir shop during my lunch break. I went back to the table where I last saw it but to my surprise, there’s none left. I saw an elderly man, around 70 years of age, intently reading the only copy of the book in sight. I wanted to wait for him so I can grab it for myself but he seemed so serious and wouldn’t put it down any time soon.

I asked the first staff I could find but I was told that it was completely sold out! I couldn’t accept it. “She seems like one of those staff who are lazy to get some stock.” The person I happen to asked must be a newbie. So I looked for the most easily swayed staff, younger than me, someone who looks like he doesn’t want to upset anyone, from the minority group, and asked again. I explained to him how badly I wanted the book. I know that I can purchase it online, but sometimes, you just want it right now.  I waited for some time and he came out with a bunch of new stocks. I was delighted and thanked him repeatedly. I got two copies and sent one to my best friend who lives in Sydney.

I started reading it as soon as I got the book. I couldn’t just put it down. The investigative, story-telling narration style was so captivating. The enigma of the book piqued my curiosity and I was completely sold. The story revolved around the pursuit to identify “Rachel”, the allegedly prostitute which Van Gogh offered his ear after cutting it off one night of December 1888. There were a lot of times while reading the book, my mind was impatient and furious, “Who the f*** is ‘Rachel’?!” But of course, I knew that her identity will only be revealed in the end. I didn’t want to skip anything! Every detail is vital to the story. I’m a lazy reader and I’ve got to say that not a part of this book bored me neither gave me a reason to give up.

Van Gogh’s mental breakdowns – why, when and where it happened – were all essential in understanding the ultimate act of insanity that went down to his story and eventually to history.

This book revealed so much from what I have expected. Bernadette Murphy took seven laborious years gathering information and ID-ing every single resident of Arles in every situation. She traveled in every place mentioned in the book to see first hand and imagine what it was like to live during Van Gogh’s time. Her effort in completing this book is truly amazing. This book explains the different medical diagnoses of the painter and uncovered the truths behind the sensationalised newspaper prints during his time. It also allowed us to see and feel the ultimate bond between two brothers despite the financial hardship they went through.

After all these years, I have finally able to embrace his story in perfect timing. It’s utterly overwhelming to have finished the book with a tragic end (as we all know) but it leaves a heartwarming experience that will forever linger in the soul.

 

 

A Morning Walk

The darkest hour of the day has just retreated and sunlight starts to pierce through the clear sky. It is dawn, wind is chilling, streets are still empty and thousands of stars can still be vividly seen shining in the midnight blue sky. The woman in her mid-20s observes the celestial bodies with melancholy as she stands in the cold pavement of the unfamiliar metropolitan. The cold slowly envelopes her fragile body wrapped in black trench as her eyes focus on the brightest star.

“Strange. Really strange. I’m staring directly at the past. It’s a reminiscence of a baffling time that nobody could possibly imagine what it was like.”

The screeching of the passing tram breaks the silence and draws her back to reality from her deep thoughts. Her long wavy auburn hair dances with the breeze as she clutched her purse and starts walking towards up the road. It’s a bit of a stroll until she reaches her destination that she can’t even vaguely remember. The trees gestures with their outmost courtesy, branches waving and bowing as she passes by.

The intense aroma of different sorts of coffee linger in the area, inviting and awaking every passers by for a warm cup to grab. Around the corner of the laneway, a hole in the wall caught her attention. A rustic coffee shop with a huge wooden plank nailed just above the head reads “Expresso.” She pulled a bill from her pocket and ordered a latte. In a snap of a finger, the coffee is handed over to her. Or so it seems. She continues walking and crosses the road heading to the next block. The cup warms up her freezing hands as she slowly sips and savour the morning treat.

The coffee triggers a memory.  “How long have I been drinking coffee?” she asks. It has been ten years, “It was the time I decided to start taking risks.”

The vivid memories quickly flashes back in her mind. Her thoughts sucks her back to her senior year in college.

It was the time of the year of acceptance letters. The most awaited moment for every senior student. After receiving offers from the most prestigious universities in the country to take up the course of her childhood dream, she, suddenly, out of rationality, backed out. She was frightened. She got scared of the pre-destined path she’s about to take. She felt something is missing in her life. A spark. A challenge. A risk.

She decided not to accept any of the generous offers. Instead, she has chosen to pursue education on career paths she never even imagined herself doing. Everyone around her was surprised. Her unwavering dream, or so it seems, officially came to an end.

A decade later she finds herself looking back at the very first risk she did in her life. She sips from her cup and feel the energising liquid fills her empty stomach. It’s satisfying and comforting at the same time. Her thoughts linger with a What If.

“What if I pursued my childhood dream?”

She takes a deep breath and exhales generously. The best response she gives herself.

As she reaches the end of the block, a lengthy crosswalk leads to the next one. Her destination is nowhere yet near in sight. She pulls herself together, uplifting her evidently down spirit with all the melancholy that lingers in the early time of the day. There isn’t any stoplights around. Cars vs pedestrian, basic traffic rules apply in confidence that everyone obeys it despite the lack of signals. She braves the crosswalk and begins to cross, level-headed and fearful of the massive vehicles that are about to pass by. Her heart keeps beating fast, terrified and unsure of the outcome she’s taking. However, she feels excited, challenged and surprisingly alive.

In every step she takes, she puts herself in a balance between life and death. But it doesn’t stop her from pursuing such a risky path. She holds her purse tightly and advance like a determined chess piece making a move. Certain of the progression and aggressively faces the path yet to be taken. Vehicles of all sorts continue to pass by without hesitation and she continues to brave the crosswalk. As she gets through, she looks back and observes the path she has just taken.

She suddenly realises that for a decade, she has been spending her life taking the path of a crosswalk. The moment she started to take the risk, she has been continuously taking one risk followed by another. And she’s still not yet halfway through. It may not be an easy path, but undoubtedly, she knows that it’s the right path to take. The only way for her further development as a better person, a passionate individual and an interesting personality with a broadened understanding of the world.

Looking forward, she continues her stroll towards her destination. Boldly facing the direction of the wind. Sipping again from her cup, feeling the cold breeze brush against her pale skin, she obliviates all her worries, unnecessary What If and enjoys the rest of the risky journey ahead.

“Risks are definitely worth it.”