How will we know it's us, without our past?
-James Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath
Reflection on this trip to Paris and Amsterdam started 72 hours ago. Ever since, I feel as though I've been surfing waves of history.
We returned Friday night after 12 hours of flying (we connected through Dallas to get back to St. Louis). The gift of air travel is suspended time. Slipping from time zone to time zone the hour on my watch felt irrelevant and between dozing and watching a few movies a mental slide show of the last two weeks shifted and sorted itself in my thoughts.
I had made the trip for work but tucked in a personal goal of conducting research for my book while in both cities. By exploring the idea of basing a book around Johanna Van Gogh, the sister-in-law who brought Vincent's work to acclaim after his death, I'm starting with the artist, Vincent, himself with lots of questions: What made his paintings so admired? What influenced him? How did his painting evolve? What was his relationship with his brother Theo, and through him, Johanna?
Why wasn't Vincent recognized in his own time?
Like scattering puzzle pieces across a table before fitting the picture together I have bits of info sliding around in my imagination. One of the clearest from Paris is a scene of struggling artists come alive.
Imagine a group of men clustered around a cafe table arguing. They are in Montmartre, an area that sits on the crest of a hill overlooking Paris. Once farmland it is now the location of a growing labyrinth of streets, cafes and clubs on the outskirts of the city. Over wine and cigarettes the men debate artistic styles. Pushing against the boundaries of classical art taught in their art institutions, they debate unconventional ideas about color, subject, technique and light. Scathingly criticized, they are not professionally successful and live in exile from the main artist community.
In fact, the word "impressionism" came from a harsh critic of Claude Monet's work, who called his work only an "impression" of art versus classical reality.
Later this period (1872-1914) would be called the Belle Époque (beautiful period) but this community of future greats -- Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Degas, Bernard, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others -- had no idea. They struggled with poverty, worked other jobs, labored to paint and evolve their artistic expression in spite of the lack of recognition.
Sometimes they banned together. For example, in 1873, unable to find art dealers to support them, a group of four (Monet, Renoir, Piassaro and Sisley) created their own society, wittily named "The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers."
Other times they directly supported each other, like when Theo and Vincent purchased three of Gauguin's paintings for 900 francs just when he needed it.
I imagine the group expanded and contracted as individuals moved in and out of Paris -- making friends, exchanging contacts, influencing each other. This avant-garde artist community started before Vincent got there (1886-88) and extended long after him. I had imagined a vibrant community, a "golden age" breaking through boundaries of expression; yet, now realize I'd romanticized it by ignoring their poverty, doubt, jealousy and pressure from family alongside small breakthroughs of recognition. They had no crystal ball to assure them that one day their art would hang on museum walls. And, no doubt, there were artists among this group whose names we do not know, whose art did not break through.
Perhaps this is a setting or context for the book?
This brings me back to Johanna. She's in these ruminations somewhere. She -- but for her circumstance of being the widow of Vincent's brother -- would not have played the role she did. Like a comet Vincent streaked across the European landscape driven to create as he did, churning out his paintings in a single decade. In his last five years, from 1885 to 1890, he lit up the sky in the world of art. Blink, and we'd have missed him. Blink, and without Johanna's unsung role to bring Vincent's paintings to recognition, he could well have been among the other Montmartre artists we do not know.
Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research: I need a better research note-taking strategy. At this stage my notes are now strewn in journals, along margins of books and on printed out references. My nemesis has always been the afterthought of organization. (I'd rather jump into exploring ideas instead of setting up and obeying an electronic filing system.) I definitely need to create a visual way to see the context of events and how they might impact my characters. Here's an idea from an interview with author Margaret Atwood:
"Atwood believes the social context into which you are born informs your entire life. 'One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen... So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you.'”
I'm going to try this as one way to capture information. If you have any ideas, Jamie, I welcome them!
Books I'm reading: My head's still spinning from Love's Fiery Prescription and Love's Fiery Resolution by Yvonne Kohano. They were excellent page-turners on the long airline flights. Next up, and fresh from this trip, I'm going to return to dipping into The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (this is just one of several versions), as well as starting Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for my book club. And I have more airline travel to do it because tomorrow we leave for a week in Oregon to celebrate a family wedding. (All the Paris laundry is done, just need to pack.)
One final note, Juan and I visited Montmartre on our first day in Paris. It's no longer on the outskirts and today teems with artists. Three hundred registered artists live in Montmartre and there's a 10-year artist waiting list to move there. Tourists crowd the streets and markets where paintings can be purchased and quick charcoal portraits sketched. Hardly the exiled world of starving artists I've been describing. The vibrant creativity drew us in and we wandered among the canvases for a while. The memory of that sunny afternoon is vivid. As Steinbeck said,
Many a trip continues long after movement
in time and space have ceased.
Passez une bonne semaine! (Have a good week!)