Transition Culture

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2 Sep 2013

What Van Gogh can teach us about education and learning

The Artist on the Road to Tarascon

While many people’s summer reading might have consisted of the new Dan Brown book or perhaps the JK Rowling book that wasn’t by her and then was, mine focused on Vincent Van Gogh.  As we focus for this month’s theme on education and learning, the thought I was left with was how did he get so good?  How did he become one of the world’s finest and most influential artists?  Did he do a “How to Become a World-changing Artist” course at university, then pursue that to Masters level before embarking on his PhD, accumulating a huge student debt in the process?  And if not, how did he get to be so good, and what might we draw (if you’ll pardon the pun) from that?  

One of my summer reads was Vincent Van Gogh The Drawings, a gorgeous catalogue of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  His pen and ink drawings are much less known than his rich and vibrant paintings, but they have been known to move me to tears with their sheer beauty.  This blog post is as much a pretext to share some of those with you as well as it is an opportunity to reflect on learnings about education.  The other book I read was The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford, which I really recommend.  How, I wanted to know, did he end up able to draw (and paint) with such skill, such insight, such focused passion?

Van Gogh decided he wanted to be an artist in 1880.  Inspired by the engravings in newspapers, he wanted to earn a living as an illustrator. He was also inspired by an artist who taught drawing at his school. He started out by copying the work of other artists, learning from ‘how to draw’ books, by copying statues of nudes and reading whatever he could get his hands on about anatomy and perspective.  At that time, most artists at the time (Renoir, Manet etc) undertook a rigorous artistic training and became skilled craftspeople.  Van Gogh, and others such as Gaugin, took a different route.  As Martin Gayford wrote in The Yellow House, Vincent was “self taught, and that made [him] more open to innovation of every kind:stylistic, spiritual, technical”.    

An early drawing of Van Gogh's from his time in Holland.

Formal education didn’t really suit him, although he did give it a go.  He enrolled at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels, but there’s no evidence he went much.  We don’t know if he went to any lessons, mostly worked alone following, according to the Drawings catalogue, “a course he mapped out for himself”.  He wrote in his letters that “drawing is a hard and difficult struggle”, but he kept at it, through a period of deep religious fervour which ended when he lost his religion due to his family blocking a proposal of marriage he had made.  

 He spent time drawing and trying different approaches out through experimentation.  He later tried the academic route again, enrolling at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp.  During his time there he took his drawing exams and passed despite hating academic teaching.  By far the bigger influence on his work though was studying colour theory in his own time from books, spending time in museums studying Rubens and buying lots of Japanese woodcuts at the docks, a new art form which was to profoundly shift his approach.  He spent time with his cousin-in-law, the painter Anton Mauve, who taught him to paint in oils and watercolour, but they fell out.  He sought out inspiration and learning where he could find it, and devoured it.  

The last straw for him in his volatile and adversarial relationship with academia was the advice he received in Antwerp from one of his lecturers that he should spend another year just drawing from plaster casts, rather than from real life.  As Phoebe Pool writes in Impressionism: 

“Considering how few years he had to live and what magnificent use he made of them, it is fortunate that he paid no attention to this idiotic counsel”.  

He began using brighter colours, inspired by Japanese prints (he later said “all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”) and his exposure to Impressionist painters, but it was when he subsequently moved to Paris that colour came into his life, sweeping away the subdued, earthy colours of his previous work from his time in Holland. He came to Paris initially because he wanted to exchange ideas with other painters and because he wanted to see the work of the great masters and other traditional painters.  He also wanted to learn about colour and how to add it to his work.  He went to an exhibition by Monticelli which dazzled him with colour, and met Pissarro who inspired him to use brilliant, pure colours. He hung out with Impressionists and studied colour theory, becoming what he called a “fervent colourist”.  Pissarro later said that as soon as he met Van Gogh he felt that he would either go mad or surpass all the leading artists of the time, “but I didn’t know he would do both”.  

In Paris, colour started to arrive in Van Gogh's work
His skill and fluency as an artist grew rapidly, and the transformation in his work during his time in Paris is remarkable.  After 2 years though, Paris all became too much for him.  He longed for “some place of retreat where one can recuperate and get one’s tranquility and poise back”.  He moved to Arles in the south of France, with the intention of starting a ‘Studio of the South’, a community of artists, living in a monastery-like setting, painting into being a new artistic movement that would redefine art.  The light and colour he found there affected his work, reminding him of his Japanese woodcuts.  
Orchard with Arles in the background

In Arles he continued to experiment.  He pushed the boundaries in terms of how he used colour, and he picked up the reed pen, which we cut himself from local reeds.  He had used reed pens in Holland, but he wrote to his brother Theo in a letter that accompanied his first reed pen drawing (‘Orchard with Arles in the background’, above):   

“These drawing were made with a reed sharpened the way you would a goose quill: I intend to make a series of them, and hope to do better ones than the first two.  It is a method I tried in Holland some time ago, but I hadn’t such good reeds there as here”.   

It is from this period that some of what are, for me, his most extraordinary drawings, originate.  Here are a few:

Olive trees
Men unloading sand barges
Hills with the ruins of Montmajour
Garden with flowers (1)
Garden with flowers (2)

But what can we pull out of Vincent’s story that might illuminate our discussions about education and learning over this month?  Firstly, that he designed his own pathway to what he wanted to learn.  He picked, magpie-like, what he needed to learn from different places.  He sought out the books, the courses, the artists, from who he could learn what he next needed to learn.  

He had a hunger for experimentation.  He was open to picking up the reed pen after a long break from it and reimmersing himself in its possibilities.  He threw himself into colour and, having understood colour theory, took it to new levels.  When Gaugin came to stay with him at the Yellow House (the ‘nine turbulent weeks’ that ended with Vincent having a breakdown and cutting part of his ear off), Vincent experimented with Gaugin’s approach of not painting from reality but from dreams, and from the imagination, although ultimately he didn’t adopt it.  He picked at academia, taking what he wanted from it, but not allowing himself to be shaped by it.  He was a great believer in learning by doing, in developing his skills through practice, often turning out a painting a day, as well as drawings and letters.  He also read voraciously, and loved debating ideas, sometimes to the point of almost coming to blows.

Above all, he was passionate.  He wanted this.  He wanted to change art.  He wanted to capture things in the way he saw them.  Although he is often perceived as being the “mad artist”, and he did suffer from episodes of acute mental illness, the most accepted diagnosis is that he was biopolar, experiencing times of extreme exhilaration and of intense despair.  When he was lucid, which was the majority of the time, he was so lucid, saw the world, saw light, saw colour, with such an intensity, that his vibrant, swirling landscapes are not the work of a madman, but of someone seeing the world with an incredible clarity most of us can only dream of. 

I see in his ‘learning pathway’ something similar to mine (although without the severed ear, the absinthe addiction and hopefully the somewhat unpredicatable and volatile character).  I was inspired with the thought that the environmental crisis needed a response, and I sought out the things I needed in order to best equip myself.  That included some academic study, but also seeking out courses in natural building, reading voraciously, courses in teaching techniques, learning computer skills from people who have them, and a lot of time trying it all out: growing stuff; building stuff; having a go.  That time spent putting things into practice is where the real learning takes place. 

It strikes me that the most important thing is cultivating a passion for learning, cultivating that drive, that hunger, that desire to master something, to bring something into your life.  Education has a duty, it seems to me, to engender that passion where possible, from as young an age as possible.  At the very least, it should never, ever, patronise, belittle, eradicate or humiliate that passion where it already exists.  Once that passion exists, like a self-organising system, we seek out what we need, we teach ourselves.  To fail to engender that passion is one of our education system’s greatest failings I think.  

Current trends in education both work for this while also working against it.  At school level, the push is increasingly about passing tests, “raising attainment”, boosting the school’s performance statistics, rather than engendering a passion for learning, and the ability to solve problems.  It’s not about taking risks, it’s about learning what you need to write in order to pass the next exam.  I was speaking recently with former tutors of mine at the university I went to who were bemoaning how students coming in now increasingly want to learn what they need in order to get a good mark, rather than to debate and discuss ideas.  At the same time, degrees and other courses are increasingly flexible, and it is easier to design your own way through and create the pathway you want.  

This month we’ll hear from some of the leading Transition trainers about their experiences of teaching in unusual places, what makes a good trainer, and about some of the new course offerings that are coming along.  We’ll hear about how Transition is spreading in Japan and we’ll hear your stories about the courses that changed your life.  We’ll also have some of our insightful interviews, for example we’ll be starting this month with a conversation with Dr Nafeez Ahmed.  

So while it hopefully won’t be a month that will end up with you choosing a path of living so intensely that you lose all your friends, live in poverty, rarely sleep and end up with local people drawing up a petition to get you driven out of town (as happened to Van Gogh at the end of his time at the ‘Yellow House’), it will hopefully inspire some different ways of thinking about learning, what it is, and how we can do it better.  Clearly the ‘inner’ aspects of Transition will also come through, designed to avoid the not taking care of yourself and burning out that Vincent had down to a fine art (as it were).  

As Isabel Carlisle asked in her article here in July:

“If the future that we are educating young people for is not the future that is approaching, how can we adjust the course of our monolithic education system? What are the skills and aptitudes needed for a world of economic contraction, rising energy costs, environmental degradation and climate change? Have we been charting our course by the wrong North Star?”

 Indeed.  Vincent’s North Star was clear.  He wanted to change art, which he achieved, but only after his death.  What’s your North Star, and how might you most successfully pursue it?  I’ll close with one of my very favourite of Van Gogh’s pen and ink drawings, View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground.  Gorgeous.  Perhaps I’ve found my new North Star.  To be able to draw like that.  

 View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground

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