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Walking around the splendidly renovated Morgan Library in Holiday lit New York City, taking in the recent exhibit of van Gogh letters written to his younger contemporary, Emile Bernard, I had an epiphany. First, I was forced to admit the obvious: Vincent wrote and read in multiple languages. The letters were written in French, a foreign language for him. Then, I had to ponder the significance of a 19th Century “uneducated” artist, writing beautiful letters, full of drawings, in a foreign language.

The reputed image of van Gogh as an uneducated vagabond, threatening his society with unbalanced, rash acts of violence, and the real image of Vincent flowing out of these letters seem to conflict. Even knowing that he had series bouts with depression, and suffered from a rare form of schizophrenia, these words attest to his clear, analytical thinking. Troubled? Yes, but illiterate, no. Passionate? Yes, irrational, no. Vincent studied Thomas Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ” in Latin every day and spoke five languages.1

And yet Vincent would have been considered only partially educated in his time. To show how much things have changed in only a little over one century, the Dutch Reformed Church rejected Vincent in his request to be ordained as a minister, partly because he was not educated enough.2 Education standards have eroded to such an extent that we would be astonished by the typical language capacity of 19th century “uneducated” artists.

The recent report on NEA’s study on reading in America, “To Read or not to Read,” depicts a dramatic erosion of America’s reading habits. Not only does the report give us hard data on the steep decline of reading at all levels and age groups (except the pre-teen years … call it the “Harry Potter effect,”) but it substantiates an alarming trend of communal disengagement. We are not only reading less, we are reading less well: we are not only reading less well, we are losing our capacity to focus and pay attention to the world around us with empathy. As I thought about this as I perused the exhibit, van Gogh letters began inject in my psyche an antidote to the problems laid out in “To Read or not to Read.” Vincent communicated in a foreign tongue with his acute sensitivity, and to impress upon the reader what he felt as sacred. The key word is “communicate,” and the report points out the severe consequences if we continue to lose our capacity to communicate. We may, if we go down this road, no longer have the capacity to be moved by van Gogh or any other artist: we would not have the patience and longing in our hearts to do so.

Take, for instance, the link that the study makes between civic engagement and reading: in short, folks who read are far more engaged in civic activities. They make better citizens. They are more likely to volunteer, more likely to go to a sports event, or to go hiking. Imagine that, people who you will find at local bookstores are ones you will see at a baseball field. They might have volunteered in a local charity event or have taken their kids on a hiking trail, or … to a museum to see Starry Night.

“The data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities,” Dana Gioia, the Chair of NEA writes, “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

What was a shock to us at the National Council, the advisory board of the NEA, was that one of the new findings reports that college students read more coming into college than when they graduate. Every higher education institution should gather their board and consider what this simple data might mean to them. If we are not producing deeply engaged readers, and empowered citizens, then what is the purpose of education?

Businesses spend over 3.1 billion dollars annually retraining their entry workers to read, so they can process information given to them in business manuals. Learning to read translates into an immediate economic advantage, a fact that should make everyone pick up a book.

Vincent would stand out in the work force today for the simple reason that he could speak and write in multiple languages. Would he have been a ph. D candidate in theology if he lived today? Or a social worker? Perhaps he would be working for a major business firm, translating business manuals, working like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in some bureaucratic office building Paris, France. Oh no, likely not, you might say, for his impulsive, and destructive behavior would make him unfit; but, I would argue, modern medicine would have given him stability, and these opportunities. The point is, these van Gogh letters should compel us to ask deeper questions about the “progress” of our modern culture and education. They point, along with “To Read or not to Read” report, to a deeper malaise that is more troubling than the bi-polar disorder from which Vincent was suffering.

Some, I am sure, will point out that the mode of communication has shifted from the antiquated print culture to our current internet society; now we have a “visual culture,” and are taking in information differently. But taking in mere information does not mean we are deeply engaged with the content. We may be able to scan for multifarious sensory input, and gather unreliable, but perhaps important, bits and pieces in our junkyard of amassed headlines. But the type of mental wrestling that reading a good book brings is irreplaceable. And walking about Morgan Library, I began to unravel a kind of visual code in van Gogh’s letters that lead me to consider a deeper connection between reading and the visual arts. I began to speculate that the loss of reading could result in LESS images (at least meaningful, lasting images), and not more.

As I perused the exquisite drawings and letters done in brown ink, a deeper mystery began to unravel. An epistolary “code” opened up in my mind: a type of visual language that connected Vincent’s language capacities and imagery. This link between images and words, could have led to Vincent’s interests in foreign cultures, especially the Japanese. And I realized further, that all of the above were intricately tied in with his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Vincent’s visual language flows out of this cross-cultural curiosity and capacity. He began to draw and paint to communicate to the miners he ministered to in Borinage. He saw drawing as another “language,” a visual language that connected heaven and earth. He writes to Bernard, a young artist he desired to mentor, of his intent on creating parables of color and lines. He speaks of his visual strategy to translate what he saw into a symbolic language akin to Japanese paintings and woodcuts. He saw his visual code the same level of synthesis that the pictograms of the Japanese art of the past exhibited. Significantly, he was writing and drawing these letters in reed pens, partly to imitate lines of Japanese woodcut prints.

Vincent adored Japan, considering Japan to be synonymous with paradise. In the fog of psychological confusion he was finding in Arles, he even claimed he was in Japan.3

Apparently the Japanese thought of woodblock prints in the 19th century in the same way that we consider yesterday’s USA Today newspaper: useful wrapping to protect shipment. They never thought that such prints would end up being revered in museums around the world (a fact that should make us pause - would any newspaper design today be worth keeping?).

Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, and countless artists were influenced by woodblock prints. Vincent lived next to Samuel Bing’s gallery in Montmartre, Paris, who exhibited thousands of woodblock prints. Van Gogh owned a few Hiroshige’s. Vincent even copied one Japanese print in one of his paintings. He was translating visual reality into a type of calligraphy that created an alternative spiritual language.

The development of this heavenly language reached its culmination in twin paintings, always meant to be shown side by side: one of the Olive Trees, and the more famous Starry Night.4 The Olive Trees were Vincent’s symbol of Gethsemane, and Starry Night his version of the Resurrection. To understand the “codex” of color and forms that van Gogh desired to communicate, we must make an assumption we no longer make in today’s cultural milieu.

In order to fully understand van Gogh, we need to assume the gospel of Jesus to be central to our creativity. That is what Vincent assumed. Thomas Kempis, who Vincent arduously studied, stated:

“”He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. (John 8:12) By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort therefore be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”5

Christ was the ultimate artist to him. This Renaissance idea of Christ-as-artist echoes throughout the letters at the Morgan Library exhibit. Theologically speaking, not only did Christ represent the Creator, Christ was the incarnate Creator of the universe (Colossians 1). Therefore, we are assuming the centrality of creativity in understanding Christ’s centrality in history and culture.

The Epistle of van Gogh is a visual parable of what Vincent considered to be the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the Morgan Library exhibit (which runs though January 6, 2008) reveals. The curators note the importance of Letter number eight: what the curator considers central to the exhibit is Vincent’s attempt to communicate gospel reality to Bernard. He writes:

“You do very well to read the Bible - I start there because I’ve always refrained from recommending it to you … Lived as serenely as an artist greater than all artists-disdaining marble and clay and paint-working in LIVING FLESH. I.e.-this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings or even books … he states it loud and clear … he made … LIVING men, immortals … this great artist-Christ-although he disdained writing books on ideas & feelings - was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word-THE PARABLE above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig-tree, etc.)”

To van Gogh, such a quest for the living parable was no longer possible via the church. Growing up in a family of pastors, and once desiring to become ordained, Vincent’s passion for the poor, and his desire to communicate the gospel via paint originated in the church. But while the church, especially the Dutch Reformed church, remained central in his life, he stood outside the tradition, alienated from her in experience and in theology.

Consider the Starry Night, the famed landscape he painted in Arles. Notice that at the very center of the painting is a white Dutch Reformed church, which did not exist in Arles. Vincent imported a church building of his childhood, pasting it into the landscape of Arles because he wanted to create a parable of his own life.

b. Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” without the church building. I used Photoshop to erase the church building. Visually, the painting loses its potency and dynamism.

If you are to take out the church (place a thumb over the church, or see my Photoshop version b) from the painting, the whole painting falls apart visually. It is the only vertical form, aside from the dominant cypress tree on the left, which juts out to break the horizontal planes. The cypress tree and the church are two forms that connect heaven and earth. Without the church, the cypress tree takes over the swirl of movement, and there’s no visual center to hold the painting in tension between heaven and earth.

Notice, too, that homes surrounding the church are lit with warm light, but the church is dark. Van Gogh’s message: the Spirit has left the church (at least the building), but is alive in Nature. If you follow the visual flow of the painting, your eye will cycle upward, but still anchored by the church building. Our gaze will end up on the right upper hand corner, at the Sun/Moon. Notice it is not just a moon, but a combination of the sun and the moon. Vincent wanted to show that the Spirit of God transcends even Nature herself, that in resurrection, in the New Earth and Heaven, a complete new order will shape things to come.

Vincent wrote to Bernard:

“But seeing that nothing opposes it - supposing that there are also lines and forms as well as colors on the other innumerable planets and suns - it would remain praiseworthy of us to maintain a certain serenity with regard to the possibilities of painting under superior and changed conditions of existence, an existence changed by a phenomenon no queerer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, or of the white grub into a cockchafer.” (B8, 23 June 1888, Letters 3:496.)6

The synthesis of sun/moon represented, for Vincent, this “superior and changed condition of existence,” as he developed a visual diction of transformed experience. In other words, he “saw” the transformation before it happened, and by faith painted the world to come.

Again, Vincent was able to “translate” the “Word became Flesh” gospel into visual forms aided enormously by his cross-cultural and multi-lingual training.7 Wrestling with another language, or mastering writing makes one sensitive to the limitation of one’s own language, and allows greater empathic capacity to relate to another of a different culture. I began to feel kinship in this experience with Vincent, as I myself wrestled with my bi-cultural upbringing, and with the lack of mastery of either language for a long period of time in my youth. I, too felt this longing for the universal language, and art provided a respite from my frustration in navigating between two cultures.

Vincent’s alienation from church and society, his exilic and lonely existence only added to the urge to break through the cultural and linguistic barriers. But especially in his case, Art and language flow out of the same source, and complement each other. To be sure, he experienced the void within, but he also believed that the source of fulfillment was in the Creative God who delighted in his creation.

“But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things … one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper better and more. That leads to God, that leads to unwavering faith.” (The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, To Theo, July 1880, Touchstone, pg. 124)

To him, there is a direct relationship between painting and loving God. The exhibit makes it clear, though, that he also loved to write letters, and to communicate the intent of the heart to others. This overwhelming desire to reveal his heart forced a unique synthesis. Every artist, too, wrestles with the limitation of one’s existence: and attempts to unite fragmented pieces into something whole, as an offering to the world. Rather than narcissistically dwelling on ego, Vincent wanted to commune, and communicate with humanity.

If the report “To Read or Not to Read” is correct, then engagement with arts and civic activities is intricately tied with reading. But we need more than remedial reading classes to get to the heart of the matter. We need a creative milieu that would involve all of our senses, because deeply engaged reading leads to perceptual awakening, stimulation of the core of the intuitive and experiential . We need to teach that languages of any kind are limited in their ability to reach the true depth of our hearts, for the inherent limitation of a language echoes the divides of cultures. Creativity begins with our dialogue at that point of limitation, at that moment of frustration. We need then to help students to move toward a generative creativity, one that entrusts intuitive and perceptual intelligence to lead the way in creating a world that ought to be. The upcoming International Arts Movement’s Gathering “Generative Creativity: Transforming the River of Culture” (you can register now at will explore that further. What reading and writing can teach us is a deeper empathy that leads us to desire the best for others who are entirely different from us, and to long to communicate with them.

“You never really understand a person, “Atticus Finch tells us in To Kill a Mockingbird,8 “until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, and later Scout, are both able to rise above their worlds of injustice, and the hatred that surrounds them, because they had cultivated that capacity to leap into “another’s skin.” To be well read means not just to be able to score high on a reading score, but to develop an attuned empathy that allows us also to “walk around” in another’s story. Love requires all of our senses.

Vincent loved and feared his world. Vincent heard in a contorted cypress tree the whispers of the Spirit: Vincent saw in a flight of crows in a Wheatfield a calligraphic trajectory toward his own mortality. And he saw in a family of poor potato farmers a sacred, warm light he never felt at home. His work embodied this kind of empathy, driven by his own limitations and brokenness. He therefore developed an empathetic language of hope, full of prismatic colors, that invites us to hope with him, and long for a renewed world.

This empathic language requires us to use all of our senses, Therefore perceptual education must be tied into our experience of learning at the highest level, one that makes visual education connect with intelligence. It is no surprise that Vincent sought inspiration from Japanese woodblocks. Japanese language fuses the visual ideograms of ancient Chinese with the phonetic lyricism of the Japanese Hiragana alphabet.9 In their art, especially in the Bun-jin ga tradition, merges various forms merge into one art expression, combining visual, poetic and descriptive.

Perception expert Rudolf Arnheim in “Visual Thinking,” told us so a long time ago (1969) that such a multi-pronged approach should be the norm of education:

“The arts are neglected because they are based on perception, and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve thought. In fact, educators and administrators cannot justify giving the arts an important position in the curriculum unless they understand that the arts are the most powerful means of strengthening the perceptual component without which productive thinking is impossible in any field of endeavor. The neglect of the arts is only the most tangible symptom of the widespread unemployment of the senses in every field of academic study.” Visual Thinking, Rudolf Arnheim, University of California Press, 1969, pg. 3

Arnheim points out that there is an “unwholesome split” between reason and visual thinking today. The post-Enlightenment split between reason and intuition, or emotion, casts a shadow into our assumptions today. Theologically speaking, it is precisely this split that caused the gospel to be communicated as information only, a check list of do’s and don’ts, and not as a cohesive life force full of mysteries and multi-sensory stories. Vincent brings them together. The Gospel as preached by St. Francis, would have meant full engagement of the senses, too. The Word becoming Flesh would not make sense otherwise.

If Vincent had not been such a deeply attuned and dedicated communicator, and a student of foreign languages and cultures, such power of synthesis would have been highly unlikely. He had, to borrow from Howard Gardner, “multiple intelligences.” In his case, visual language developed because of his language interests, and not in lieu of reading and writing. He was painting not because he could not write: he painted these indelible images as part of the total communiqué package. He learned these mark making skills by studying pictograms, and was attuned to “walk around in another’s skin,” in all that he did.

If we desire to love the world, and communicate that love, we must use all of our senses, and our “multiple intelligences” to present the best case possible. Communicating in this visual age will require us to read more, and more deeply, than ever before. If Vincent serves us as a test case, his visual language developed as his curious mind and letters began to explore more depth and sophistication. Development of a visual language requires more than learning to depict what we see. We must thirst for deeper knowledge and probe the layers of mystery beneath what we see. Thus, education of any kind, whether theological or secular, must begin from the acknowledgement of deep connectedness between writing, reading and other forms of the arts. “To Read or not to Read,” raises serious issues for education and reading: but after spending time with Vincent, I began to think that the report points to a demise of visual imagery as well, if we do not chart a new course of education.

My guess is that visual images pre-existed in Vincent’s mind, a kind of supra-reality that his writings alluded to, but could not well explain. The potency of such a Reality resonates in all of this images and writings, to the extent that we must begin to admit a deeper connection and relevance, even if we do not believe in that world ourselves. In Vincent’s letters we find a transfixed imagination, a window to see beyond the minds eye into the soul.

The art of the Creative or Aesthetic Age10 must be able to provide similar window. Sciences, arts, philosophy and theology (and even business) must find a common tongue, a reconciled whole. At the same time, such a common tongue must honor and recognize the distinctive limitations of each language and each sphere. We need to see through the window of own brokenness to gaze into a salvific reality that graces our souls. In other words, we need to come up with a “third” language of synthesis that values the whole of humanity, both past and future, both in body and spirit. Just as the Spirit spoke via distinctive languages to bring reconciliation of nations at the Pentecost, Spirit continues to speak today, and is powerfully alive in the language of the arts. Vincent leads the way into this path of discovery. If not for this intervention of the Spirit, language of any kind, including the visual language, will continue to break up into debased fragments, unable to communicate the deepest conditions of our humanity.

Refracting in the beautiful halls of the renovated Morgan, are the letters and coded strokes of Vincent offering a profound mystery that probes the depth of our twenty first century condition. We need Vincent’s beautiful, and sometimes awkward, meditations today because our current state of culture will not even come close to the level of articulation he mastered, even as alienated as he was from the church and society. In order to break the van Gogh code, we must first recognize that art and languages are intimately tied together in a Divine formula. The intuitive epiphany is at the core base of both, lighting the path of our creative journey. If we do not have a nation full of engaged readers and imaginators, we will also lack the creative mind that can mediate communication, or create new languages. We may have all the technology to communicate but have nothing to say to each other. More significantly, we will not feel for each other if we do not cultivate the inner lives of contemplation that reading and engagement with art brings. This exhibit highlights an artist writing and drawing to simply communicate with another artist of his time. And what he wrote tapped into a world that ought to be; a world where barriers of linguistic limitation are removed. Only painting full-time for three years, Vincent offered with such brevity and beauty meditations of such weighty substance. Would we, in a few decades, have the capacity to appreciate such offerings? And will we be able to create, above the clamor of fragmented splintered voices of the art/media world, and continue to trust that light can be resplendent with life, even in the gnarled twist of branches, like in van Gogh’s olive trees?

  1. IAM lecture on van Gogh by Dr. James Romaine, November, 2007, Space 38|39, NYC
  2. See Kathleen Powers Erickson’s At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh, Eerdmans
  4. IAM lecture on van Gogh by Dr. James Romaine, October, 2007
  5. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis, Pg. 3, Hendrickson Christian Classics
  6. Vincent van Gogh, Painted with Words, p. 190-192
  7. I realize that many theologians would disagree, at least in principle, with the idea that the gospel truth can be communicated via visual languages. What I am suggesting here depends on the assumption of what that language is, and ultimately what we consider to the truth communicated. I am not making an argument here that words are unnecessary to communicate the gospel, or any truth claims: I am suggesting the opposite, that Vincent’s linguistic capacity allowed him a rare synthesis, and that words are central to his visual symbolism.
  8. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Warner Books, Pg. 30
  9. One of two Japanese phonetically based alphabets
  10. I want to thank my son, Ty, for suggesting this term