“My Own Portrait in Writing”
Self-Fashioning in the Letters of Vincent van Gogh
Art historians, biographers, and other researchers have long drawnon Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence—more than eighthundred letters—for insights into both his personal struggles andhis art. But the letters, while often admired for their literaryquality, have rarely been approached as literature. In this volume,Patrick Grant sets out to explore the question, “By what criteriado we judge Van Gogh's letters to be, specifically,literary?” Drawing, especially, on Mikhail Bakhtin’sconceptualization of self-awareness as an ongoing dialogue between“self” and “other,” Grant examines the ways inwhich Van Gogh’s letters raise, from within themselves, questionsand issues to which they also respond. Their literary quality, heargues, derives in part from this “double-voiceddiscourse”—from the power of the letters to thematize,through their own internal dialogues, the very structure ofself-fashioning itself. Far from merely reproducing the narrative ofthe artist’s personal progress, “the letters enable readersto recognize how necessary yet open-ended, constrained yet liberating,confined yet unpredictable, are the means by which people seek to shapea place for themselves in the world.”This volume builds on Grant’s earlier analysis of VanGogh’s correspondence, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh: ACritical Study (AU Press, 2014), a study in which he approachedthe letters from a literary critical standpoint, delving into keypatterns of metaphors and concepts. In the present volume, he providesinstead a literary theoretical analysis of the letters, one that drawsthem more fully into the domain of modern literary studies. In his deftand keenly perceptive reading, Grant deconstructs the binaries thatsurface in both Van Gogh’s writing and painting, discusses thenarrative dimensions of the letter-sketches and the recurring themes offantasy, belief, and self-surrender, and draws attention to VanGogh’s own understanding of the permeable boundary between wordsand visual art. Viewing the letters as an integrated body of discourse,“My Own Portrait in Writing” offers atheoretically informed interpretation of Van Gogh’s literaryachievement that is, quite literally, without precedent.
This is an exciting and inspiring book: it is both intellectuallyambitious and humanly challenging. Ideally, in my view, it couldstimulate an effort to work towards a revised and reinvigoratedcurriculum with Van Gogh's letters being read alongside some of thewriters the great artist most admired.
I’d also like to see if I can’t make my own portrait inwriting. First I start by saying that to my mind the same personsupplies material for very diverse portraits.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Dialogical Structure of Self-Fashioning
1 The Painterly Writer
2 Binaries, Contradictions, and “Arguments on BothSides”
3 Reading Van Gogh’s Letter-Sketches
4 Imagination and the Limits of Self-Fashioning
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