By Léo Azambuja

Vincent died more than 130 years ago, in complete poverty. He shot himself in the chest, and took about a day and a half to die. It was the end of the troubled life of an artist who left an immeasurable legacy. Along Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, Vincent is one of the most famous artists who have ever lived. Today, at least five of his paintings are worth more than $100 million.

You know him as Vincent van Gogh. But he didn’t sign his paintings with his last name — mostly because he thought it was too difficult to pronounce — and instead, he simply wrote Vincent on his masterpieces.

To experience Vincent’s art first-hand was something extraordinary to me. And I have only seen one of his paintings in person, years ago at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, now known as the Honolulu Museum of Art. So, when I found out the show “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” was coming to Honolulu, I immediately signed up for updates, and got tickets as soon as they became available.

My father is an extremely talented artist, still painting and taking commissions at 83 years old. As such, my siblings and I grew up surrounded by art. Some of my earliest memories include making art, whether it was drawing, coloring, painting, or making clay or papier-mâché sculptures.

We had tons of art books, magazines and encyclopedias while growing up. We were taken to countless art exhibits in every stage of our childhood. Among all the artists I learned about, one stood out since I was a young child — that crazy red-headed man who had cut off his own ear. But he was so much more than that.

Vincent suffered from mental illness most of his adult life. He may have had a troubled life, but to me his paintings are uplifting, even when they depict the simple lives of peasants, some of his favorite subjects. His paintings still speak deeply to my heart 131 years after he died.

Vincent painted flowers, portraits, still life, street scenes, cafes, nightclubs, landscapes and seascapes like no one else. To me, art movements aside, his choice of colors and the immediacy and heavy weight of his brushstrokes denounce a deep passion for his art, a desire to find salvation through raw emotion, a relentless pursue of attempting to translate feelings onto canvas.

Vincent’s younger brother, Theo van Gogh, was a successful arts dealer, credited with promoting Impressionist artists of the caliber of Claude Monet and Edgar Degas when they were still unknown. For a brief period in 1886, the van Gogh brothers lived together in Paris, and during that time, Theo introduced several artists to Vincent, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Rosseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pisarro, Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin.

After Vincent decided to pursue a life as an artist, giving up a brief career in art dealership, Theo supported his older brother for the rest of his life. The relationship between the two brothers was instrumental in bringing Vincent’s art to fruition.

In the last few months of his life, Vincent finally began to experience a level of recognition and success. His work was shown in collective exhibits and received high praise from other artists such as Paul Signac, Monet, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, and also from renowned art critic Albert Aurier, who said Vincent was a “genius.”

At that point, however, Vincent had spent about a year at the Saint Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, and it was there that he painted his famous Starry Night, among several other less known but equally expressive paintings. During his time at the asylum, he had several relapses.

Vincent left the asylum in May 1890 by his own choice. On July 29, 1890, he died of a gun wound self-inflicted two days earlier, while painting in a field close to his home. He was 37 years old. He remained close to his brother even after his death; Theo would die six months later from a brain ailment, at 33 years old.

A few years after Theo’s death, his widow released an incredible amount of correspondence between the two brothers — more than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo, and another 40 from Theo to Vincent. The letters show Vincent was an exceptionally cunning, hard-working artist who did everything for a reason.

According to Theo, Vincent’s last words were, “The sadness will last forever.” Vincent’s most famous paintings are full of joy and color. But there are quite a few reflecting his suffering, sometimes literally, other times figuratively.

I saw the show “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” in Honolulu last July. It starts with a maze of illuminated panels telling a little bit of Vincent’s life. I admit I was a little uncomfortable walking through a spotlessly clean and air-conditioned room while reading beautiful panels glamourizing the miserable life he lived. As I entered the large room where the so-called immersion experience happens, I was shocked by a sea of cell phones raised up and registering the gigantic, animated images projected on the walls and floors. I wondered what Vincent would’ve thought of all that.

A few minutes later, I was able to let go of any negative thoughts, and aligned myself with the real reason I was there, to experience Vincent’s art in an immersive way. I stayed longer than most, and confess I even pulled out my own cell phone to register some images, shamelessly and guilty-free.

There was a little gift shop at the end of the exhibit. Although I was tempted to buy a souvenir, I decided against it because I thought it would be disrespectful to Vincent’s memory. Or maybe not, but I didn’t want to dwell on it, and instead I used my hard-earned money on a bottle of bourbon, a much better tribute to my hero. He would have approved it, that I know.

I would be happier if there was a real painting from Vincent at the end of the show, but it was still an extraordinary experience.

If you want to see the exhibit, visit vangoghhonolulu.com to find out more about it. It looks like the show will be up until Sept. 26.


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