In my world, the boundaries between worldly success, insanity, and the divine were thin lines, semi-permeable and, at times, seemingly nonexistent. This sense of reality had been passed down through the lives of my relatives and ancestors. Though these are not characteristics of an ordinary life, when I first beheld the life of Vincent Van Gogh, I came to recognize the intertwining patterns within each.
Arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on a bright morning in June 2019 was exhilarating. After we’d disembarked and gathered our luggage, soon we were whisked through eye popping modern architecture outside the old town center in a Mercedes limo. Past avant-garde buildings surrounding the core of magnificently preserved medieval and delightfully Dutch golden age structures. We checked into our hotel only to wait over cappuccinos for our suite to be prepared. After freshening up, my wife Heather and youngest son Cooper, recently turned sixteen, had a late breakfast and then were off again, meandering through the city towards the renowned Van Gogh Museum.
There is a distinct thrill of exploring particular cities for the first time—it was becoming a familiar and frantically exciting pastime to explore the ancient roots and modern adaptations that composed each metropolis. The adventures of those first days, having barely slept on those transatlantic flights, always added a dream-like lens through which both memory and experience were filtered. We walked pebbled, cobbled and bricked streets, pot smoke wafting ubiquitously. There were cyclists everywhere, swarming the roadways and bike lanes, cell phones in hand: FaceTiming friends, taking selfies, talking, riding and weaving one-armed through the dangerous sea of other cyclists, pedestrians and cars.
The city was not only charming—it was extraordinary, bragging more canal miles than Venice. Under a perfect sky we walked towards the museums, buoyed by promises of soothing reveries and exotic cocktails later that evening as we floated upon the canals. I imagined ducking our heads under quaint stone block bridges as the smell of marijuana brought back memories of the seventies, during the times I had found community with hippies and other escape artists—before I had returned to the faith of my childhood and rediscovered the peace I had lost. In these communities, I hid from my deficiencies in the crowd of the counterculture as I waited and pressed for more sustainable paths to be revealed beyond the world of modern philosophers and self medication—booze, pills, white lines, weed and promiscuity along with disassociating incursions into the worlds of art and music.
In the early 80s, after leaving the college campus life behind, I had taken a position with a real estate syndicator, and by the time my first son was born in 1987, I had already been set free from an expensive, nearly ten-year long cocaine habit, and had flushed my last ounce of weed down the toilet to celebrate his birth. That’s when I got serious about making a decent living in the world of commercial real estate and finding my way back to Jesus. There were still plenty of highs and lows after that, but chemical mood changers had little to do with it outside of an occasional beer or some wine of a quality that got better with the years of modest prosperity. And now here we were, our seventh trip to Europe; fifteen plus countries, not to mention countless cities and villages, along with an abundance of Caribbean territories and islands and a virtually infinite world left to explore.
Our jet lag made Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum that first afternoon a nearly hallucinogenic experience. After touring much of the collection, we posed in front of a gigantic blow-up of one of Van Gogh’s famous sunflower still life paintings, brush strokes and pallet knife cuts of color and texture as thick as our arms. We had pushed through museum narratives that still swirled in my head: Descriptions of time and place and paintings; a chronological story pattern and insights into Vincent’s brilliance and torment that I had a feeling I already knew something about. The amazing thing wasn’t only how much of Vincent’s art had been made from observations of a world he perceived through heightened senses and vacillating sanity, but that he practiced his art at all in the midst of periods of abnormal perception. His pursuit of his craft was prolific even when his mind was spinning out of mortal orbit perhaps into some cosmic consciousness. The visual characteristics of his work, colors and brushstrokes and pallet knife movements of paint and textures radiated a unique level of detail and energy I imagined seeing from the other side of his eyes. I too saw the world in a unique way—which at times set me apart: for decades I was unable to communicate what I saw, but in Vincent’s work I had felt a connection to the divine.
My wife Heather had barely slept on the flight and now stumbled through the vertigo inducing architecture, holding tight to stair rails, a voice inside telling her to get back outside, to the sculpture-filled gardens with delightful topiaries that surrounded the nearby famous Rijksmuseum—the recent recipient of a nearly four hundred million dollar renovation.
Giant metal spiders outside, children screaming with delight, we were in the sun again now heading back towards our hotel, following conflicting directions, proposed routes constantly shifting on cellphones with batteries about to die.
Throughout that first day, I thought about how Van Gogh had been one of my great influences which began at nineteen years of age as I studied art in Palm Beach. There was a certain power I felt in what was perhaps his best known painting, “The Starry Night” and it convinced me he had seen beyond this world, somehow gotten closer to the divine than many dared to tread. That was when I had first peered into Vincent’s insanity and believed I had not only glimpsed a piece of his beautiful and tormented life, but that his life had given me insight into my father’s world and perhaps even my own. These lives, I believed, brimmed with psychic energy that could throw us off course, into other worlds—into altered states so different than those we took for granted.
Since 2011, I had been writing about my transition back to my faith. I had written about my first experience seriously studying Vincent’s work in an art history class in 1975, and how “The Starry Night” in particular had intrigued me originally as a young boy, and then spoke to me as an aspiring artist: the one with a lost soul who was searching for his path and his voice. I wrote how my father’s confession of his own insanity made me wonder about my afflictions, my genetics. I wrote about that time when I had returned to Florida to get to know my father and myself. I know the words I scribbled in my notebook: Why do I feel this sense of being separated from everything and everyone, even myself sometimes? Is this life just some dark fantasy or the darkness an unavoidable fact of mine? Why is it so hard to fit-in? To feel normal? What’s normal? Fortunately I still have times of peace, waves of hopefulness that wash over me.
I wrote further about how the picture of “The Starry Night” on the slide screen in my art history class had impacted me: A blue swirling sky, bright stars and planets above a village, behind a shadowy cedar—mountains in the distance. The intensity of its intricate beauty overwhelms me with its brilliant vibrations of nature captured on canvas. I imagine Van Gogh in the midst of his insanity staring out of the asylum window, subconsciously trying to heal himself while thinking about how I was trying to do the same. What is this remarkable kinetic style? Connecting shapes and colors with frenetic energy that perhaps resides in his sleeplessness, ‘…a drawing style that seeks to express the entanglement of the masses,’ he said in a letter to his brother Theo. He was seeking a new style of textures with paint practically woven into canvas. He called “The Starry Night” ‘a failure…; to paint stars—a religion’.
Hope was in the stars I thought then, and Vincent, who faced his eternity with a rare clarity— perhaps had seen something we all might hope to see? As I stared at the image in that classroom, I believed I felt his raw emotions and his pain. Was this a summation of the artist’s volatile reality manifest in his quest for hopefulness? His was a familiar struggle.
I remembered more recent times, when Vincent seemed to speak to me again, along with the voices of other artists—those evocative silent whispers. That first day in Zurich, three years before had been similar in some ways to our first day in Amsterdam. From the paintings in Zurich‘s Kunsthaus collection when Heather, Cooper and I began our tour of Switzerland and France with Chloe, our niece, for her graduation present in the summer of 2016. Passing before great paintings in the Kunsthaus, those timeless windows through which somehow the immortals spoke from another world to my jet-lagged receptors. Through Vincent’s self portraits again I saw his desperation. From other artists too, there came whispered messages from fellow searchers, possibly piercing the veil of time and space and mortality. I heard the cries of the tormented, as well as illuminated and inspired souls, sounds of pain and pleadings that lived through their art. These artists were voices that came from across the globe and through the centuries: Chagall’s hypnotic dreamscapes reinventing shape and color; Picasso’s large cubist canvases; and variations of Henri Monet’s garden. And I remembered Zurich’s native son, Henry Fuseli’s enchanted fancy of nightmares, demons, and fairies, maidens embracing mythological creatures as they lay draped in unconsciousness between this world and the next; the largest collection of his work residing back home in the midwest. A week latter in Paris it was Van Gogh’s works in the Orsay and the collections of other greats at the Louvre and the Rodan Museum added too all the others that had spoken to me that summer.
None of my interactions with Vincent had been passive, and each time I stared, mesmerized by the beautiful art as the artists’ spirits acted on me, their souls shifting mine and the boundaries of the apparatus through which I viewed and guided my exchange with this world and the next. I couldn’t help but thinking how God had said to Moses “man shall not see my face and live.” How the face of Moses had shone with the shekinah glory of God upon returning from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments. How the death of Jesus tore the curtain in the tabernacle that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy when God’s presence filled the world with a new covenant.
I believed Jesus’s blood could redeem us all if we would only receive His spirit of grace and truth—the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. I knew what this meant and still, perhaps like Vincent, and others like me, I longed for a visceral emotional connection to the divine. A real and personal relationship with my creator, who despite the miracle of redemption through Christ’s resurrection, was in many ways beyond my comprehension.
Didn’t we all suffer the blindness of the world and the limitations of the flesh? And then there was the life of Vincent: had he painted a soul bridge to the divine, seeing dimensions of the world rarely seen? Perhaps a visual interface with God’s kingdom—a Jacob’s ladder. What if he had chosen to look away and ignore the strange vision he had received? What if I had?
I knew there was more to life than what was immediately in front of me and around me in this world—I always had. Each of us were capable by God’s grace of becoming a unique vessel to contain his Holy Spirit despite our imperfections and worldly natures. But it wasn’t until I embraced the wholeness of my origins in the grace of my redemption in Christ that I came to know the true power of “The Starry Night” and the layer of transcendence that peeks out beneath the layers of paint.