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Van Gogh Teaches Us How To Keep Life Interesting

Vincent van Gogh, <em>The Road Menders</em>, 1889
Walter Larrimore
Courtesy of The Phillips Collection
Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889

The two paintings are unmistakably by Vincent Van Gogh. Both show a street scene in the south of France, dominated by sturdy trees with limbs thrust upwards. Both show the sametrees and the same houses and pedestrians — almost.

The Road Menders and The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Remy) were painted by Van Gogh in May 1889. They're so alike that they are sometimes called "copies." In fact, they're different: strikingly different in color, subtly different in detail.

Vincent van Gogh, <em>The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy)</em>, 1889
The Cleveland Museum of Art / Courtesy of The Phillips Collection
Courtesy of The Phillips Collection
Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889

These two works of art will be brought together on Saturday at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., along with others that showcase Van Gogh's habit of creating what he called "repetitions." They're variations on a theme, in one case as many as nine paintings or drawing of the same subject.

I learned of the exhibit by reading Henry Adams' article, "Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker," in last Sunday's New York Times. In writing about the two "Menders" paintings, Adams reports the differences between them and explains which one was created first and how we know. He also notes the tendency for some "overly vigilant scholars" to suspect that some of Van Gogh's copies were fakes.

Van Gogh's repetitions are not fakes — nor, I don't think, are they best called "copies." As the Phillips exhibit underscores, they are better understood as a vital expression of Van Gogh's artistic process. In letters to his brother Theo, Adams tells us, Vincent communicated that he "viewed the repetitions as an opportunity to improve and clarify his initial composition."

At first, I concluded that what Van Gogh did with his repetitions was actually not all that extraordinary. To reach an accomplished level with some skill requires anyone to put in intensive hours of trial and error, success and failure. Musicians practice for hours a day; writers endlessly revise the pages they produce. But then I realized that Van Gogh's repetitions are not really about practice in the conventional sense. They're about looking at one's finished, visible-to-the-public product and deciding to do it again, almost the same, but not quite.

Maybe there's a cool life lesson here for all of us in our day to day lives. It's tempting to be highly self-critical once we ourselves have created something. We may scrutinize the final product intently. We may ask: is it good, bad or merely mediocre? We may wonder: why can't I get things right the first time? We could instead, though, embrace and take delight in an iterative process.

Think of what we do in the kitchen. We find a recipe for a fine pasta dinner, make it one night with thiskind of tomato sauce and another night with thatkind, tweaking the quantity and ratio of spices, the type and tang of tomatoes. Best of all is when we do this not only for the sake of our taste buds, but also for the in-the-kitchen fun of experimenting and sharing the results.

Gathering with friends to make music or dance, we may play again certain pieces, trace the same paths again with our bodies, over and over, but with slight variations each time. This shared exploration can become a way to create together fresh material as we go along.

Finished pieces of writing may also be reworked. In my writing-intensive science courses, where an assignment might be to respond in an essay to some peer-reviewed article or book, I find that many students expect that their first try is good enough. "I worked hard," they might say. "And I like the result." I ask them to think differently. When I require revisions in their "completed" work, it's not only to correct the grammar or fix scientific errors. It's also to issue an invitation: move those words around, reshape those sentences! Then you can appreciate what happens when a new mosaic of meaning emerges from the previous one.

The Phillips' celebration of Van Gogh's repetitions, beginning this weekend, is a catalyst for reflection. The expression of our own creativity needn't be all about intense striving to turn out a perfect, finished-forever product. Much of the joy is in seeing that what we make today becomes a basis for new things tomorrow.

Barbara's most recent book is How Animals Grieve. You can up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.