July 2020 Vol. 1, No.2
Ode to Vincent van Gogh and Robert Johnson
A personal pandemic essay
In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, when sequestered and isolated in my home in the Hudson Valley of New York, for some reason my mindset is on the comfort of familiarity. I seek happiness in comfort food, calling old friends and family. I am listening to my favorite records, some of which hadn’t been pulled out for years– comfort music, the soundtrack of my life. This morning I made myself a coffee and pulled out my bright yellow cup with Vincent’s signature inscribed, which I had bought at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City back in 2005. His vivid yellow shines like a vast sun blazing above golden fields. His yellow is on fire. Inscribed on the cup is his quote, “How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun.” He even ate yellow paint in hope to be happy. I am happy to just look at his yellow cup. Then, I dug out the picture books to revisit old friends, pictures of Van Gogh’s paintings that I have loved all my life long. Likewise, I’ve been playing a lot of Robert Johnson, one of many from my vast music collection. I have music by just about every blues musician who ever recorded, but my favorite is Robert Johnson. When I think of both, I recall Van Gogh’s quote: “There is no blue without yellow…”
I am no art historian, but certain visual art twangs the bass string of my soul. Visual art, like all the muses, are a matter of taste. Art experts will quickly identify me as an unsophisticated viewer, not up with the latest trends. It’s rather uncool among the art elite for someone to name as their favorite artist Vincent van Gogh, and other impressionists of the late 19th Century. Admitting love for Vincent van Gogh is considered merely pedestrian, ordinary, too mainstream. Today’s art students at elite schools don’t sit around cafés discussing how amazing Vincent van Gogh is. Everybody likes Van Gogh, they say, he’s like a pop star for the masses. It’s old hat. Yesterday.
I love Vincent van Gogh. So there!
Since I left home as a teenager, one of my cultural pursuits was to seek out every chance to see his paintings in real life. In my student days, I was free to roam and ramble. I went everywhere I could to see his exhibits: to the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, the Louvre in Paris, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the Prada in Madrid. I later made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The most amazing events were Van Gogh exhibitions when major galleries pulled together large collections of his paintings from galleries worldwide into major solo showings. Cumulatively, I’ve gazed upon the majority of his life’s work, each time with curious fascination and more than once with uncontrollable emotional joy.
I have a soft spot for music, which often moves me to tears, be it Beethoven or Mozart, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Billie Holiday or Robert Johnson. They all make me cry. I don’t care who knows it. It happens all the time and perhaps that’s why I live in music.
The thing is, it usually does not happen with visual art, although I treasure it as an important element of my life. Lots of visual art excites me, but only Vincent van Gogh regularly shakes me up inside and moves me to tears. The last time was at the fairly small Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. After I finished viewing the entire exhibition a few times, on my way to the restroom, I saw a painting of a tree from his early days that I had never seen before, not in any books, programs or other exhibitions. They apparently did not think much of it, sticking it away behind a pillar next to the restroom hallway. I stopped cold and stood in sheer amazement. Again, the joyous emotion came over me. As I stood there wiping my moist eyes, a woman who was also heading for the indoor plumbing gave me a startled look of pity. She apparently did not get the power of the tree the same way I did.
Vincent van Gogh’s paintings often ring my bell the same way that bluesman Robert Johnson touches my soul, perhaps because I became enthralled with both as a young teenager. The guitarist Robert Johnson lived from 1911 to 1938 in the American South. Vincent van Gogh from 1853 to 1890 in Holland and France. These two artists, from a different time and place, in different muses, have nothing typical in common. Most people would not compare them. To me, they evoke each other and inspire me, both being brilliant geniuses. Both are strange, wild, and dramatic. Both went through their existentialist struggle, transforming their burdens into powerful art. Both died tragic deaths. They are comparable in multiple ways – including their posthumous rise to fame and glory.
With his rhythmic patterns of color, Van Gogh has always seemed to me to be the most musical of all visual artists. His two-dimensional picture planes evoke rich colors and texture, a melody of shapes and feelings that visualize music, even more than artists who openly attempt to accomplish this, such as Romare Bearden. Conversely, Robert Johnson’s transformative and inventive playfulness reminds me of Van Gogh with his sharp, haunting exaggeration of the essential and his fierce expressiveness, powerfully strong. Like Van Gogh’s colors, Johnson’s music is a flowing swirl of sound, strange lyrics – bold, daring and powerfully emotive; yet, with a backdrop of elegant emptiness – with compelling, longing, temperamental singing – musical brush strokes– the same expressiveness with different mediums. When I see Van Gogh, I hear Robert Johnson sing to me. When I hear Robert Johnson I see vivid colors. His music appears before my eyes, his feeling evokes dramatic color. Their magnificent tones and colors intermingle. Both are ferocious.
During a single day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City 2005, more visitors filed past Van Gogh’s artwork than had seen his work during his entire lifetime. Like Johnson, who was a mere street busker and itinerant musician who played mainly parties and juke-joints during the 1930s, Van Gogh was fundamentally not important in the art world of his period, but today he is accepted as one of the most beloved, popular and celebrated visual artists of all time. Both were struggling nobodies, complete unknowns in the establishment circles of their time. Robert Johnson, the famous, infamous and mythic bluesman, died at age 27 in 1938, with only 29 recorded songs. I believe it is safe to say that there have been more recorded covers of Robert Johnson songs than of any other blues artist, easily making Robert Johnson one of the most emulated figures in the blues. His delicate, polyrhythmic fingerpicking style, his open tunings, complex chording and slide-playing are widely emulated. While his original 1936 and ’37, 78-rpm Vocalian “race record” recordings sold only in the thousands, the Columbia/Legacy 2 CD box-set of his complete recordings, issued in 1990, sold more than a million copies worldwide, more than any blues record to date. They even put his picture on a US postage stamp.
The popularization of Vincent van Gogh and Robert Johnson was a 20th Century phenomena, which turned the once obscure artists into top selling, widely beloved stars and influential forces. Neither were accepted in their time. Both would be astonished if they could know of their newfound fame. To me, both are the finest in the world, two of the best of all time. Both give me a rush of ecstatic aesthetic beauty. When I see a Vincent van Gogh painting again or hear a Robert Johnson song, it is like meeting up with an old friend. Right now, as we all face a global crisis and when we are at risk, there are no friends like old friends.
Writer. Photographer. Producer.
Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.