Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Vanishing Point

I started reading my grandfather's published papers a few weeks ago, while on at my parents' house on vacation. I never met my grandfather, who died of cancer before I was born. All I knew of him was a portrait, a sparsely-lit photograph, that hung in the hallway of what was once his and my grandmother's apartment. He stood at an angle to the camera, holding a lit cigarette in a cigarette holder, hands gloved; he exuded a cosmopolitan, European elegance.

My grandparents had come to the US just after the Nazi Anschluss -- a close call. Both of my grandparents had been trained as psychiatrists, and my grandfather began practicing as a Freudian psychoanalyst at some point after his arrival in the States. I knew little of his work, but enough about Freudian thought to prepare myself for deep disagreements between my grandfather's ideas and my own. I figured I could place him within historical context and treat the experience as an intellectural curiosity.

I wasn't prepared for two things. One: that not only would the papers he authored about female sexuality (see, for example, this) be outdated and mysogynistic, but that they would carry such bizarre, visually graphic descriptions of female sexuality that I would have to stop reading for fear of never enjoying sex or romance again. It makes for an interesting aside, however, to note the dedications on each of the papers. My grandfather had gathered together copies of all his published work into a boxed collection to give to my grandmother. And each graphic, mysogynistic paper was inscribed affectionately in dainty script to the love of his life. Apparently he was able to separate his love for his wife into one compartment, and his biopsychosocial reading of female sexuality into another.

The other thing I wasn't prepared for: I really liked the paper he wrote about Van Gogh's last works. In it, he discusses the impending suicide of the painter as it is foretold through his paintings. The one shown above, Wheat Field with Crows, is one of his last paintings, if not the last (whatever, Wikipedia). The picture is not only dark in color, but also composition: it is done in reverse perspective, drawing the viewer's gaze in to the foreground instead of out to the horizon. As my grandfather wrote, this means that the vanishing point, where in a normal painting the land disintegrates into the horizon and disappears, is here the painter. With this painting, in my grandfather's Freudian psychoanalytic viewpoint, Van Gogh painted a "visual suicide note."


No comments: