Clifford Edwards, Ph.D.

Professor solves the mystery of Van Gogh's 'ghost paintings'

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Vincent Van Gogh created roughly 2,000 paintings, yet one artwork in particular apparently caused Van Gogh such consternation that he painted and destroyed it twice.

In a new book, Virginia Commonwealth University religious studies professor Clifford Edwards, Ph.D. – the author of five books on Van Gogh – solves the mystery surrounding these so-called "ghost paintings," and argues that they are essential to understanding Van Gogh, his religion and his artwork.

In "Van Gogh's Ghost Paintings: Art and Spirit in Gethsemane" (Cascade Books), Edwards takes the reader on a journey that begins in a Zen master's room in Japan and ends at a ruined monastery in southern France as he investigates the lost paintings, and why Van Gogh felt he had to destroy them.

Edwards, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently discussed his new book.

"Van Gogh's Ghost Paintings: Art and Spirit in Gethsemane" by Clifford Edwards, Ph.D.
"Van Gogh's Ghost Paintings: Art and Spirit in Gethsemane" by Clifford Edwards, Ph.D.

What exactly were Van Gogh's ghost paintings and why were they important?

This is my fifth book on Van Gogh over the past 20 years. It's taken me that long to get to the artist's deepest purposes. This little book makes the claim that what is "absent" from Van Gogh's life-work, particularly what he purposely "destroyed," may be at least as important as the paintings he has left us. No one has taken up this task before. Should I reveal here the two paintings at the center of this mystery, the ghost paintings that Van Gogh counted of critical importance yet destroyed? I'll only give a hint or two, as the book invites you to join me on the journey to locate the "ghost paintings" and to solve the mystery of their destruction. Here I can simply say that Vincent considered them essential to paint, but equally essential to destroy.

Why did Van Gogh destroy them?

That is the question I think each reader will be able to answer by the end of the book, and I think each of us will be able to reflect personally on similar creations or endeavors vital to our lives that we felt we must "erase" before our own death or "erasure."

How did you go about your own solution to this mystery of the destroyed paintings?

The mystery is hidden "in plain sight" in the several volumes of Van Gogh's letters, but it took me almost 50 years to recognize what Van Gogh revealed about those paintings to his brother and to one artist friend. Solving the mystery tells us a good bit about life itself. Perhaps more of our own life is hidden in what we erase, in the gaps we purposely leave, than in the obvious content open to public view.

What led you to undertake this rather unusual piece of research ?

As I will describe in the book, a Zen master named Kobori Sohaku in a temple in Kyoto, Japan, challenged me to solve a koan that led me on my life-long study of Van Gogh. The koan asked me to compare a famous Zen painting and a Van Gogh painting. Master Kobori asked: "Mu-ch'I's 'Six Persimmons' and Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'—the same or different?" I've worked on that koan or "puzzle" for almost 50 years. But perhaps I had to have lived into my 80s to arrive at this book's attempt at an honest response. I promise that I invite the reader to follow every clue and revelation that led to my solution to the Zen koan and the mystery of the ghost paintings.

Were there any special surprises along the way to your solution to the nature and meaning of those critical paintings?

As with most adventures in research, there were lots of frustrations and dark days that tempted me to give up the search and try some other journey. But yes, there were many discoveries that surprised me along the way, and in fact gave me totally new insights not only regarding the life of Vincent van Gogh, but insights regarding the meaning of art, spiritual search, suffering and enlightenment.

I can simply say that Vincent considered them essential to paint, but equally essential to destroy.

And so you do believe there are lessons for today in what you found?

Yes, for me, totally unexpected lessons about life and death, the significance of presence and absence, knowing and not knowing. I'll need to listen to my readers to find whether there are such lessons for them as well. I have high hopes there will be insights regarding life for others. The artist Elizabeth King writes that she found the manuscript to be complex and challenging, but tells me that she was taken by it "into solitude, loneliness, labor, triumph and sorrow." That is far more than I could have asked for. And the religion professor and literary figure Kristin Swenson found a "riveting mystery" and a "heartbreaking and heart-healing journey" in the book's chapters. Those pre-publication comments on "Van Gogh's Ghost Paintings" make the journey more than worthwhile for me.    

Featured image at top: Clifford Edwards, Ph.D.

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