by Vincent van Gogh,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings.
“A Song For Occupations,” 1881
I would still rather be a shoemaker than a musician in colors.
Vincent van Gogh,
February 10 or 11, 1890
I wish I were able to see an end to a problem I am absorbed in these days. Whenever I feel I’ve constructed a solid answerfused the pieces like heated shards of glass, breathed life into the colored mess, then let the material cool, congealmy solution breaks into pieces around my feet. Here is my question: what did the painter Vincent van Gogh see in his fellow workers, the miners and weavers? What meaning did he find in painting potato peelers where fingers and knife look identicaljoined with the root-vegetables in their palms? Why paint a sower, head down, walking in a field to hand-spread seed?
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, on September 3, 1888, probably before a long session of work, after his daily breakfast of two eggs, when the work was feverish, nearly a painting per day, the orchards still in bloom, Paul Gauguin coming to stay any day now, “in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.” A simple coarseness in his work mirrored the work of those he depicted: lilac painted in a plowed field; pink peach trees; to see a child take her first steps through a little home’s modest garden, the father bent to the ground without his rake and with outstretched hands. A pair of peasant’s shoes, side by side, on a checkered floor, battered, laces looking like fingers are always imbedded in them, the cracked shoe-tips a book to flip through.
Shoes is layered in cross-strokes of sour-cherry red and rotten-apple yellow and gaseous-glowing blue, all on a field of dried-tobacco brown. The brushstrokes are divided, like cement-mortar carefully spread here and there by a builder’s trowel. These tangled tools make the painting leap out at me. Yet I want to peel its tiny bricks of paint, want to sand its raised veiny ridges. To find what underneath all that work? What did this manwho worked as a bookstore clerk, an art dealer, a teacher, who felt his destiny was to be a clergyman like his father, before finding his mission in painting want to teach us by digging into the working life? When I look at Shoes it resonates through my body as if I’m stomping a shovel into a buried rock. And when I look I feel, feel that I’m not looking at it right, not looking at it fully. A writer I like very much writes that van Gogh painted “analogous to the activity,” that the act of making, the production of reality, is captured in each of van Gogh’s strokes. I see this but cannot grasp it before it falls away. And I go after it again.
It would be wrong, I think, to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steamall right, that’s not unhealthy; if a stable smells of dungall right, that belongs to a stable… Such pictures may teach them something. But to be perfumed is not what a peasant picture needs.
Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, last week of April, 1885
I’m in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It’s my first visit. I’m inching closer to the gray wall, to van Gogh’s Shoes, waiting for the guard to turn away and yell, again, at someone in the next room for shocking Monet’s poplars with his camera’s flash. I feel the need to smell this painting, a feeling I’m a little worried that I spontaneously, and for the first time, have. School-children yell and hop in recognition of van Gogh. Patrons pose, backs before vases of irises with electric-purple petals that look healthy and, at the same time, about to wilt. No one comes into the corner, near the painting, near the fire extinguisher on the ground, near me, mostly because my shoulders align with the frame’s width. A quick glance is all the patrons give.
A simple wooden frame encloses Shoes. It’s the type of frame you might find in your grandparents’ living room around an anonymous crackled canvas of a mill on the river, of ducks taking flight: the hand-chiseled imperfections, the hairline cracks when moisture burrows its way into the lackluster wood, the mottled surface like your grandmother’s hands that have that “sun-steeped, sun-burnt quality, tanned and swept with air.” Clustered in the frame’s four corners are bunches of tiny raised flowers daisies, I thinkand even these colorless adornments are fading, wearing down with time. Or perhaps the frame is in its condition from simply living this close to the shoes it holds within.
The guard shouts; I smell. I pool the air in my lungs the way I smell the cow manure at home, or the purple irises running along my parents’ wood-rail-fenced yard. I’m up against the painting much longer than I planned. I close my eyes. After I’ve filled my lungs with smells I can’t immediately identify, I look to the ground, to the shoes that have brought me back out of the painting. This lady’s black leather cowboy boots are free of wrinkles, the four-sided heels are still sharp all around the bottom. This man seems to ice-skate in his brown, slip-on loafers. I’m a little annoyed. And me and my shoes? My boots with grommets and hooks have I bought these to dress my way into the workman’s club?are designer-made and fur-lined and clunk when I step back. They’re so new I can feel the velveteen-fur inside hasn’t even been matted down. In my dollar-store van Gogh notebook I write: nothing, grandfather, aftershave. I wipe my oily hands on my pants and pencil “father.” I look at my writing. I wonder why this final word took more looking to make its way before my eyes.
And I’ve known the human-work
that uplifts and cleanses, glassblowers
as miraculous as seeds
which hold the shapes of flowers
ordinary people who rival the ant
Stephen Dunn, “Workers”
My father’s father was a coal miner in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Down in the minehundreds of feet into the colder earthhe heard a canary sing. Notes escaped through the cage the yellow bird had been bred for. So long. A voice echoes, fades. Could he feel the song vibrating from that paint-tube-sized throat as he chipped with his pickaxe? Did the chirps feel like sun warming his hands? When the canary stopped, there was nothing but his thoughts flying in the cage of his head, a candle flickering on his hardhat. Keep the music in mind. Take steps in darkness. Picture feathers, sun. He chipped away at hard seams, veins of earth, compressed below his family, trying to bring the precious pieces of ore to the surface where they could provide warmth, a yellow flame. His pelvis caved in when the mine collapsed, but he walked again. Bruises blossomed like irises. I remember him coughing a lot, smoking his pipe. Black lung. I remember his hair was so black, even in his old age, I thought the mine, its darkness and all it held, had become part of him. He gave me a father. He gave me a piece of coal with an etching of a donkey pulling a cart. Out of all that darkness, my grandfather kept pulling that heavy load strapped to him, step by heavy step, a canary’s song flitting around him, family pictures on the walls of his mind. Maybe this is what van Gogh saw when he was a young clergyman walking through the coal-mining village of Borinage, in Belgium, trying to make his father proud. Soot covered the villageits houses and peasants, its gardens and donkeys. Soot covered the future, made it “mysterious and serious.” Van Gogh, walking from house to house with his bible, his hopeful passages turned away by villager after villager, looked through the window of a family home where children gathered around their mother and waited for their father to come home on a Sunday. A candle glowing against the glass, against the night. “My goal,” van Gogh writes, “is to express the love of two lovers by a wedding of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibration of kindred tones.” He decided to make painting his work, to venture like the miners into the “bowels of the earth…to extract that mineral substance of which we know is great utility.” He was twenty-four years old. He said he would “paint like a nightingale sings. The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well-managed, resplendent.” There’s always a little song, a canary perched inside, when the laborer leaves home. There’s a coming together; there’s a coming apart.
If one hasn’t a horse, one is one’s own horse.
Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, October 28, 1883
We shall draw the plow until the strength forsakes us, and we still shall look with admiration, at the sun or the moon.
Theo van Gogh, letter to Vincent, June 30 or July 1, 1890
In the Met, opposite the wall where Shoes hangs, is a painting by Georges Seurat: Circus Sideshow. When staring into this painting, be careful not to step backwards, without looking, as you try to align all these confetti-sized colorful points. The idea behind Divisionism, borrowing from the color theory of the mid-1800s, is the use of adjacent colors that play off the human eye and let it do the work: the yellowish green of the circus stage’s gaslights next to the color-complementary violet of the trombone player’s head, when viewed from a distance, blend in our vision. It’s as if a rope was tied from the sliding curved end of the trombone, then around your waist, and as you step back, away from the painting, you tighten the sheet of spotted colors, pulling the points closer, together. The visual impression etched in Seurat that night he saw the circus stop in Paris is recreated on the canvas: tiny points of focused visual impression united in the distance of memory. Now keep walking backwards until you feel the bench in the middle of the room. Untie your rope to let the weight go. Spin around. From this distance, say ten yards, all you see are brown shoesempty, uniformly brown shoes. Tie onto Shoes. Brace yourself. The weight will pull you. Van Gogh was highly influenced by Seurat’s broken-tone coloring, in which the spectrum of the painter’s palette is used as well as the realistic “local color,” but he never gave in completely to a certain artistic theory. Van Gogh kept looking down, below his feet, for his working methods. Take a careful step closer. Dig your heels in. At three feet you’ll begin to see worm-like blue lines between the shoes, then red eyes in the eyelets, now yellow stalks of wheat in the laces. The points aren’t so much painted as neighbors, the way Seurat paints; van Gogh’s points are piled atop each other like strata of shifting earth. So when you approach Shoes the canvas doesn’t spread wide, but juts forward to you. Colors not seen from a distancethat cool veiny blueare now before you, as if risen from some dark depth. A little closer yet, yes, forget the guard for a moment and give yourself over: at one foot away, wide eyed and neck craning, you’ll see the red in the shoes’ eyelets staring back and, as Seurat’s color-wheel would suggest, the greenish blue, like a bruise, on the shoes’ dilapidated side panels. Vincent van Gogh hauls his pieces to the surface, piling them atop each other, for us to lean in and see and, if we feel the need to, smell. It’s as if the rope tied to your waist, as you walk closer, allows all those compressed layers to unfold, breathe. Allows light to fall on the broken tone of color, all these pieces cracking open for us.
But in the meantime I am getting acquainted with nature. I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes in a motif; but for all that, I do not invent the whole picture; on the contrary, I find it all ready in nature, only it must be disentangled.
Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, October, 1888
I’ve never been to my father’s place of work. I’ve imagined it quite a bit, picturing what he does, how he endures the hours until he gets to go home. Every day, five days a week, for the last thirty-seven years, my father has gone to work in the same place his father worked after he left coal-mining. My grandfather made gunpowder there; my father is a welder. Every morning my father has coffee with his wife. Every morning he takes a black lunch-kettle: an old pickle-jar filled with soup, a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, a red apple. My father seems to be part of a lost generation of laborers. Every evening he returns from those acres of warehouses and steam-plants with his kettle, his work-clothes neatly folded and rolled inside his white work-towel. All this rolled in a distinct smell. When I was home, living in his house, I’d wait for him to come back, come clomping into the kitchen, the floor shaking under his weight and slow, exhausted steps. He’d toss his bundle down the basement stairs. I’d ask, “How was work?” and he’d smile. His response would almost always be “Good,” and we’d leave it at that, not sure what to say when we’re not working at the same thing, with the same tools. Occasion-ally he’d tell me the intricacies of a job in terminology I couldn’t sort out: TIG and ARC and flanges and flux. He’d say how he had to stand up for his fellow worker that day, going against the boss, a man who occupied a position he had been offered but refused.
It was only recently, trying to see what van Gogh saw in labor, how that radiated into his hand, his painting, that I walked out into the garage that place where sons hold flashlights for their fathers, where sons can be brought into the association of workersto ask my father how he does what he does. Let me hear about your work, let me see how. “My shop?” he said, smiling and surprised. “My shop is about as big as this garage.” He told me about the gasoline-driven welding machine in the corner, the ventilation snorkels that vacuum out the heat, the fans, the table as long and wide as a bedroom, the concrete floor. He explained how welding is really a simple, coarse process: to a base metal add a filler of similar metals. Heat and fuse and cool. Parts and whole. But then he feverishly explained how in van Gogh’s time welders used oxygen and acetylene, a colorless yet pungent smelling gas, which burns with a bright flame, also used in lighting. An open flame ignited the combination. Chromium gas rose from the fusion. Now there’s shield-metal welding, arc-welding. He grabbed an electrode from the shelf above his toolbox. The electrode, he taught me, is a core of steel coated in flux. At work, at his table, with his gloves and helmet, he holds the electrode in a metal grip as surging direct-current flows from the burping and gurgling monstrous blue machine down into his hands.
As he explains this process, which gets more complicated and intricate and jumbled, I imagine that van Gogh would understand this labor better than I, would immediately find meaning and beauty and method in this fusion of metal. How, when my father makes his first tack, a geyser of red and yellow and hottest-white sparks rise then rain to the floor. How all that electricity vibrating in his hand, melting steel with steel in coarse layers, is really a delicate process. I imagine that if van Gogh was in my father’s shop today, his easel set in the corner, his flake white, malachite green, crimson lake, orange lead, carmine, and cobalt readied, he’d want to lean in to see what is happening. Trying to capture the fleeting effect and my father’s skilled, quick hands, van Gogh might smear paint with his brush, red crossed with white. Yellow stars. A background of malachite for polished serenity. He might drop his brush and squeeze paint straight from the tube, as he painted roots. He’d apply the paint in coarse layers, knowing “All the colors that the Impressionists have brought into fashion are unstable, so there is all the more reason not to be afraid to lay them on too crudelytime will tone them down only too much.” My father says I wouldn’t be able to see the weld as the flux coats the weld, like a scab. And I imagine that if I was with my father I’d remove the slag to find a delicate, wavy weld, with a tinge of blue, underneath.
through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
William Carlos Williams, “A Sort of Song”
The second time I go to the Met to look at Shoes I see how the painting’s left shoe, in my looking, is clearly a left shoe: it’s curved and maintaining its original form. The right shoe is contradictory: the top portion where the tongue is, where someone slid a foot in and went to work, still asserts its form. Yet the bottom half, coming to the cracked toe, my nose so close I am warned by the guard, looks as if it no longer belongs to the shoe. If you were to place your hands over the shoes to cover the bottom laces and above, you’d swear these were two left feet. You might think these shoes once belonged to a person who worked hard yet patiently, who worked hard not to be torn apart, in anguish between opposing forces: love and duty; belief in nature under our feet and abstraction; putting ideas into work and working like an old cab-horse with blinders on. And you might wonder how someone could walk in these shoes, day after day, without breaking down. Once again, before Shoes, my looking falls to pieces around my feet. This feels good, right, to keep picking up the pieces, piecing them together again and again so that I may learn to see.
In mid-November 1889, van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, “If you work as if you were making a pair of shoes, without artistic preoccupations, you will not always do well, but the days you least anticipate it you find a subject which holds its own with the work of those who have gone before us.” Looking at the painting, I find my father and my father’s father. I see their work, at once a joy and an injustice, something to leave home for and something to come home from. When my father comes home, throws his work clothes into the basement, I’ll sometimes venture down there. I’ll unroll the white towel and separate the pieces. Down in the dark I’ll smell the towel filled with that over-ripened-apple-old-man sweatpart anxiety, part prideand I’ll see the miner’s faith he has in his work. I’m trying to provide something useful, some sort of song to carry on a dark walk. I’m trying to see and work from the inside out. All the tools I need are already here.
Tim Carr is a graduate student in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in southern New Jersey.