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Dancing with Van Gogh

By Gustav BenJava

It seems, I am overly fond of boldly proclaiming: "I want to write the way Van Gogh painted." Oh, not at all that I want to devise spastic nonlinear sequences of words that are hard to follow. On the contrary, I love an intense story with a dramatic social story line, vivid and colorful characters, back drops, settings. Van Gogh’s paintings move me and I want to be moved by them. I want my writing to be moved by them, thrusting itself forward into places people are afraid to go--drawn from the deep well of the human subconscious.

In my first novel Nikki, I seasoned a couple of chapters by opening them with a quote from Vincent Van Gogh. I like to season my novels with quotes in just that way. One at the beginning of every chapter. But particularly, a quote that will in an almost mystical way (like a prayer) shed some light on the true meaning of that chapter. Often the quote I use is cynical when you balance it with the content of that chapter. Often it is intended to be deep and moving, revealing elements of the psyche of a character that has prominence within the next section of text.

One such example from Vincent: "The sea was the colour of dirty soapsuds." What a beautiful phrase Van Gogh spun out of the web of his mind here. Not only beautiful because it gives one a vision, but beautiful because it is so intrinsically unusual. I use this quote to begin a chapter in which I am describing (in Vangoghian intensity) a little ballet performance that I have titled Myhr. For me the significance of this quote is that I intend for something to be beheld as utterly beautiful and yet fascinatingly unreal.

The other quote I use goes even further: In the chapter of my novel I have called "Inside Out." I begin with the word of Van Gogh:

"I am also very busy of late drawing horses. Yesterday, I heard someone behind me say: That is a queer sort of painter--he draws the hind part of the horse instead of drawing it from the front. I rather liked that comment."
What so moves me about this passage from Van Gogh is that he is pleased with himself for looking at things with a completely different perspective. And here, "Inside Out" begins with my young ballerina Nikki glancing over at her sweater, which is lying inside out on a wooden bench by the back door of a theatre. Inside out, it is nothing more than a tangled mess of multicolored threads. She then begins to turn her own soul inside out by way of self-evaluation of everything that has taken place in this novel. That culminates in the unexpected twist of everything right side in for one last glimmering moment. Then gone like a vapor.

This is what I love about Van Gogh. It’s the way his paintings speak directly to the soul, often bypassing the intellect en route. The vivid colors and stark contrasts lend themselves mightily to his own unique vision of the world. Van Gogh with piercing eyes – looking deep into the soul of everything he found in this world. A vision of a world in which all things are equally beautiful, and even suffering can be escaped somehow through a love of beauty. For Van Gogh it was a personal journey into the unknown. A place where he would explore elements of the world that others wished to ignore: an impoverished coal-mining town, the courtyards of a prison, a beautiful girl he pulled in off the streets and cherished as some rare gem, his own tormented profile with a bandaged ear-stub. Places, things, moments, people that the rest of the world was afraid to look into. Deeply afraid. And yet he penetrated them with his vast vision, and reinterpreted them as something that could in a way be beautiful.

I have not yet attained the esteemed pedestal of writing the way Vincent Van Gogh painted. But I try, and I like to think I am on my way. If anyone ridicules me for painting the hind side of a horse, I shall certainly find myself in good company!

Gustav BenJava is a poet, and author of two novels. He is an avid arts lover and his first two novels are set in the arts world--the worlds of painters and ballet. He maintains a web site devoted to his love for the arts, and a yahoo club where people discuss the arts and freedom of speech, and their importance in the world today. See for more details.

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