The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”