Title: "The Mythology of Vincent Van Gogh"
Editor: Kodera Tsukasa
Publisher: John Benjamins Publishing
Length, price: 461 pages (245 illustrations); $125
Title: "Inventing Leonardo"
Author: A. Richard Turner
Length, price: 288 pages (69 illustrations); $27.50 In these increasingly relativistic -- excuse me, pluralistic -- times, individuals never "are" but "seem." Can anyone truly say what someone (or something) else "is," or is this description only an interpretation, colored by one's background, cultural context and historical assumptions? This is the dilemma of the postmodern biographer, critical of the opinions of others and self-consciously cautious about advancing any of his or her own.
A. Richard Turner and Kodera Tsukasa are both far less concerned with the question of who Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), respectively, were, than how the two artists have been perceived by other artists and the general public over time. Their books offer intriguing insights on how and why myths about these and other artists are made. Both leave readers a bit emptier after the books are put down, for what do we have to hold onto after being told that our received ideas are invalid?
Mr. Turner and Dr. Kodera certainly picked appropriate subjects -- the one, the painter of the most famous work of art in the world ("Mona Lisa"); and the other, the most renowned artist's life (penniless, mental case, praised only when dead).
Dr. Kodera, who teaches at Hiroshima University in Japan, makes clear in his introduction that he chose the term "mythology" rather than the more passive "influence" in order to "show how mythical images of van Gogh have affected people's lives and creative activity over the past hundred years." In the more traditional area of research -- the influence of van Gogh's art on contemporary and later artists -- contributors Fred Leeman and Nakatani Nobuo describe Western and Japanese artists, respectively, who followed up on van Gogh's stylistic leads.
One myth to which a number of contributors refer, stated plainly in Wilhelm Uhde's 1936 biography of van Gogh, is the painter's art "and life here are so closely intertwined . . . that they cannot be described separately." Examining the artwork in terms of pathology has been a long-running strain ever since.
Contributor Andrea Gasten notes: "This vision appealed to existentially inclined artists who saw both life and creativity as a condition of despair and futility." Artists with this view of van Gogh frequently ascribed greater knowledge and powers of insight to him that could be documented. Other, postwar artists were to find in Vincent van Gogh someone who was alienated from society incarnate, a description that may have more appropriately fit themselves than van Gogh. In such a way was his reputation elevated from obscurity -- only one of his pictures was sold in his lifetime -- to what one critic in the 1950s called a "pioneer of modern art."
But the meat of "The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh" is how he has been presented to the public. Eighteen novels, as well as 87 films and videos, have portrayed him to the public, cementing the view of him as misunderstood in life and destined to be appreciated in death.
Sjraar van Heugten, one of the book's contributors, noted that van Gogh did not sell his paintings because he was not pleased with much of his early work and planned to display paintings in his mature style all together at some point in the future. However, "illness thwarted these plans, [although] he continued gain increasing recognition and by the time of his suicide van Gogh was well on the way to becoming a distinguished and marketable artist. . . . It therefore requires a certain sleight of hand to present van Gogh as an unrecognized artist."
Irving Stone's novel "Lust for Life," made into a 1957 movie, has been the most influential mythologizer of the artist, adding emphases to less important aspects of van Gogh's life and falsifying others. Not only did "Lust for Life" perpetuate an image of the artist to a general audience, it influenced other filmmakers who, in their own film biographies of van Gogh, maintained the same myths. Interviews with three of these filmmakers -- Robert Altman, Samy Pavel and Maurice Pialat -- are revealing of the directors' own mythical notions. "For me," Mr. Altman is quoted as saying, "Vincent and [his brother] Theo are one and the same person. Mentally, they are Siamese twins."
Where the van Gogh book is concerned with how a myth is created, Mr. Turner's book examines why. Mr. Turner, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, uses the word "inventing" to describe how the artist has been viewed and interpreted over the centuries, but it means much the same as Dr. Kodera's "mythology."
According to Mr. Turner, just as we all construct our lives, creating our own realities, so was Leonardo da Vinci "invented" by historians who turned the raw material of his life into a picture of the great artist. That picture, that reality and that truth changed from one era to the next.
There seemingly is no Leonardo per se: The life becomes a "text," subject to infinite interpretations, all of which may be deconstructed (as is the artist's life itself) but each true to its own time. The only postmodern answer to this is: It's true if you believe it to be.
"Why is it that essays written on [Leonardo] today inevitably address different issues than essays written a century ago?" Mr. Turner writes. "Can we achieve anything like historical certainty about Leonardo, or does the center of anything that could be called the holding truth about him lie more in the manner in which successive interpretations illuminate the nature of the era in which each was written?"
The first three chapters tell a bare-bones story of the artist's life in a straightforward way. Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrochio in 1467; acquitted of a sodomy charge in the 1470s; set up his own shop by the end of the decade; traveled to Milan, Florence, Rome, Piobino and Cloux (in central France) -- wherever patrons happened to be.
In 1519, Leonardo died, and no one knows definitively where he is buried. Seemingly impatient and restless, interested in mathematics, cadavers and engineering, as well as painting, he left more unfinished artworks than those completed. One of his most famous works, "The Last Supper," began to deteriorate within Leonardo's own lifetime because the artist experimented with the fresco medium incorrectly.
That introduction out of the way, Mr. Turner gets to the heart of the book -- who said what about Leonardo when, and what those judgments reveal about the person saying it and his times. In part, Leonardo was "invented" because relatively little was known about him, and he left few monuments. According to Mr. Turner, though, his life was pieced together by most others for ideological purposes.
Giorgio Vasari began the process in the 16th century, creating "the legend of Leonardo," a "genius but a flawed genius" to explain the unfinished works. Baroque art theoreticians of the 17th century looked fondly upon Leonardo as a practitioner of invaluable rules of painting -- design, use of color, movement, expression -- while those of the Romantic Age saw a rebel against cold rules. The German writer Goethe de-emphasized the artist's religiosity, while Frenchman Arsene Houssaye wrote that "Leonardo is a doctor of the faith and Father of the Church."
Walter Pater's discussion of the "Mona Lisa" in the latter 19th century was criticized then, and by Mr. Turner now, as "an extreme example of the projection of a writer's sensibility upon an aesthetic object," but he did permanently direct the world's attention to the subject's "unfathomable smile." Sigmund Freud conjectured a suggestion of homosexuality from that same smile in 1909. Leonardo moved from defender of the faith or modernist rebel to a tortured figure, struggling to reconcile ideals and reality.
Why so many interpretations? Mr. Turner offers evidence, in the historical context of the various writers, of the cultural premises at play, the agendas of each writer.
Of course, there is nothing wrong or unusual -- or postmodern in noticing -- that each epoch may reinterpret an earlier event or era or individual to fit its own interests and understanding. The purpose of history writing, after all, is to explain something in a way one's contemporaries will understand and to demonstrate how what happened in the past made us who we are today.
It is the fact that these books are more like reviews of other people's writings, and the unwillingness -- born, perhaps of the belief that nothing definite can be written about someone else -- of the authors to set the record straight with new biographies of their own that make "Inventing Leonardo" and "The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh" postmodern. The histories of Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh begin and end as tableaux upon which many writers (and eras) wrote their own story, projecting their fears, prejudices and highest aspirations.
Who were Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh? What essence of these men, these artists, can be drawn from the competing studies over the centuries? What unites scholars rather than divides them? Does anything transcend the agendas? It isn't the purpose or interest of Dr. Kodera or Mr.
Turner to say.
Mr. Grant is a writer who lives in Amherst, Mass.