Vincent come to Korea
Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
18Trip End Aug 25, 2008
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If Vincent had reservations about this trip, Korea did not. Great queues snaked through the cold, waiting to buy tickets, and then shuffled slowly through the revolving doors, coiling back and forth across the gallery foyer, and finally up the stair and into the presence of the master himself.
Perhaps in their excitement and pride the curators got carried away. Perhaps, as Koreans used to living shoulder to shoulder and studio to studio with so very little privacy or personal space, they didn't consider discretion in making plans for their troubled guest. Perhaps Vincent shouldn't have taken his life so young and should have produced some more works. Whatever the reason, the lower level of the exhibition was full of strange little works, works that Vincent probably never intended to reveal to the light of day, let alone this level of scrutiny by so many thousands of fans; paintings that had been painted over again and again; paintings where the perspective was all wrong; landscapes in which the weather seemed to have turned while they were being painted; landscapes in which the canvas wasn't quite big enough for the subject matter.
In all these lower-floor, early years paintings there is a sense of discomfort and tension. Vincent seems to have looked at the works of his contemporaries, and of the masters, and thought 'I can do that' only to find he never quite could. In borrowed styles he painted landscapes that may have been vaguely pretty at the time but which lost that delicate touch in re-creation. In these paintings Vincent was thrashing out the lessons that would have come more painlessly with a formal art education. Between the mash of different styles occasionally a sun or flower would bloom forth in what could later be identifiable as Vincent's unique style. But these flourishes didn't last long, Vincent perhaps too young in his career to recognise any kind of genius other than the genius he was so desperately trying to mimic.
A century has brought Vincent a long way. Today there is no doubt of his genius, the mythology surrounding his tortured career and decline into mental illness and despair providing enough twisted romance to overcome the deficits in these early works. The exhibition halls rather resembled a concert, with those long, eager lines of admirers all jostling for the best position, front and centre, closest to the bright lights, and the rock star they had come to see. In a country as traditionalist as Korea any slight deviation, anything exotic, and especially anyone a bit weird can easily find themselves uncomfortably exposed to the spotlight, and the scrutiny of the curious thousands.
These thousands would turn out for any hint of celebrity, but for Vincent they turn out with a greater passion, they line-up to contemplate him with a greater fervour. The imperfections, the alterations and failings become invisible, so powerfully does the mythology of the artist act upon imaginations and buried desires. The story I am telling of Vincent is not this mythology. The official mythology, propounded in the ubiquitous audio sets and guide books, is of a genius struggling against a disapproving and disinterested world for the recognition he deserves. This mythology doesn't speak of minor works nor of paintings that should never have been exhibited; instead it talks in unspecific terms of the 'artist of misfortune'. It values every work as scrutiny-worthy (and is not as harsh a critic as I am).
It is a mythology that many Koreans can identify with. This a nation where, more than most, you can take art classes your entire life, hold a masters of fine arts, and still end up working as an accountant because your father thinks its time for you to settle and get married. It is nation full of artists and art-lovers, but also a nation still developing and growing at an impossible, breakneck speed. Within such a culture, such an economy, there is no time or space for frivolities like art. It is also a nation of elder-veneration, at a point in its history where the elders have grown up amidst the hard-ship of post-war, post-partition society. Such hardy, arrogant folk can perhaps be forgiven for having little time for painting and other non-strictly-traditional art forms. They are a demographic conspicuously absent from the queue of frustrated and unappreciated artists.
In this nation of artists of misfortune, which is still learning the importance of imagination and originality, it must be so much harder for any sort of artistic talent or genius to find expression, much less recognition. Art is the domain of the young, it is still something to grow out of when you get married and finally achieve hard-earned independence. In bedrooms and studios across the country thousands of canvases must be filling with paintings in a style borrowed from Vincent. His career as I have sketched it must resemble so closely the many brief and abortive careers and forays I painting that Vincent's short visit here has inspired. Out of the many some geniuses will surely emerge. Whether they will ever gain the recognition that Vincent belatedly began to receive is very very uncertain. Perhaps Vincent, the artist of misfortune, is actually an artist of unlikely good fortune.
The upper floor, covering the last few frantic years of Vincent's career, contained more of these problematic paintings that almost but couldn't quite be what the artist so desperately hoped but couldn't make them be. And they too were surrounded by throngs of families, couples and knots of unescorted young ladies, all drinking deep of the official mythology and perhaps contemplating their own far less glamorous mythologies.
And then finally on this floor were those masterpieces that Vincent had promised but never quite executed in the earlier, lower-floor phases. And here the crowd swelled thickest and most chaotic as the relative orderliness of the queue disintegrated completely, and people pushed and weaselled their way to the front and back again. Here Vincent finally but never unreservedly threw of this need to paint pictures that looked like something else, and surrendered to his own blossoming, burgeoning style, the beard of a postman made of the same material as the fields of corn, as the sky and the artist's straw hat. The sky, the stars, the towering cypress tree, and the entire earth and everyone on it sublimating into the same flaming, flowing, flowering substance, the mundane and the exalted alike rendered in bright and impossible colours, and all imbued with the same mad and intoxicating spirit. The crowd drinks deep, remembers details, makes note of techniques, and glories in the success and skill of one of their own, an artist of misfortune so unrecognised he couldn't see his own achievement, but who none the less lived in pursuit of his dream, beyond the reach of any voice of censure or authority, who was in life never free of the burdens of life as an unsuccessful artist, but who in mythology, and in the things themselves hanging on the wall, ascends far higher and gives a hope beyond realism to all his kindred spirits shuffling through the queue, waiting in line, browsing the gift shop, and stepping back out into the cold wind and concrete.