VAN GOGH | A Power Seething | by Julian Bell | Illustrated. 163 pp. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.
As a fledgling artist, Vincent van Gogh hired a carpenter to build a perspective frame: a wire-grid window. He used it to draw the Dutch countryside, his eyes darting between his pencil and the views through the frame. A few years later, van Gogh suffered a spate of psychiatric crises that sent him to an asylum in Saint Rémy, France. There his bedroom’s barred window doubled as a new perspective frame, albeit one with only verticals, through which he sketched the wheat field below.
This “wrenched him out of orthodox perspective,” Julian Bell writes in “Van Gogh: A Power Seething,” a new biography as brief and intense as his subject’s life. A painter as well as a writer, Bell takes full measure of van Gogh’s use of this imposed device. His skewed panorama “made plain his own tangential, left-sided relation” to the land, “even while thrusting the stuff of the crop dynamically forward.” It was a breakthrough. In what could easily be the book’s epigraph, Bell writes: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven.”
The author gets up close not only to the artist but also to the social animal. A 30-year-old lout with no money, no job and no plan, van Gogh retreats to his parents’ home. There he is perceived, he tells his brother Theo, as a “large, shaggy dog . . . with wet paws” who scares his own father. The shouting begins. A few years later, van Gogh severs part of his own left ear. But Bell refuses to view van Gogh as a madman or martyr, quickly asserting that he would rather focus on the “astonishing paintings and letters” than on the “lump of bloody gristle to which a social misfit is no longer attached.”