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24.5.05

New Edition of Van Gogh Letters

Here is something else I have yet to see picked up in the anglophone press. According to an article (La correspondance de Van Gogh réeditée, May 23) from France 2 Cultural News, a team of Dutch scholars is in the process of a thorough, new edition of the correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh. The new edition began in 1994/1995 and is planned to conclude in 2006, when it will be published in some 15 volumes; a CD-ROM will be released in 2008. Leo Jansen and Hans Luitjen, of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, initiated the Letters Project with "the idea of publishing the texts of Van Gogh as they were written, without any correction or interpretation, almost without changing a single comma." They have been sharing the work—some 600 letters in Dutch and 300 in French—with the Constantijn Huygens Institute in The Hague (my translation):

The scholars met together in Auvers-sur-Oise on May 20, for the 115th anniversary of the painter's arrival in this village where he would eventually commit suicide two and a half months later, at the end of July 1890. The only edition of the Dutch painter's 900 letters has been the 1914 transcription of Johanna Van Gogh Bonger, the widow of the painter's brother, Theo Van Gogh, which is still a major source in spite of its imperfections. "It was very good work for its time, but certain passages, thought scandalous, were censored" and entire passages were simply "forgotten," says Wouter Van Der Veen, a research assistant at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands), who was responsible for Van Gogh's letters in French.

Wouter Van Der Ween also notes semantic errors in the 1914 work, as well as confusion in the "dating of the letters" and the desire to "embellish" or "correct" the painter's writing. "Van Gogh wrote like he painted. To correct his grammar would be equal to correcting the perspective in his paintings," he adds. In order to respect the original text, the scholars, for the first time since the edition of Johanna Van Gogh Bonger, have worked directly from the painter's handwritten letters, made available by the Van Gogh Museum. "Every comma, every period has been put back in. We have also taken into account excerpts that were never published, annotations in the margins, what Van Gogh struck out, and what he wrote in the margins," explains Wouter Van Der Veen.
Obviously, such a resource will become immediately important, not only to historians but for the people who assess and sell works attributed to Van Gogh, which have become highly sought after at auction. The Letters Project will publish each letter in its original language, in parallel with an English translation.

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