Rewrite with Van Gogh

The new van Gogh “Repetitions” exhibit at The Phillips Collection brings to mind one of the most important tools for painters and writers alike: the rewrite. Van Gogh’s repetitions are rare in the art world, because each “repetition” is a fully formed masterpiece.

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Road Menders, The Phillips Collection

These “repetitions” are works that writers can learn from. There was an age, from the invention of the printing press until the rise of the personal computer, when writers needed to worry about perfection – even in a first draft. They didn’t have the freedom to write and rewrite as we can now.

However, even with this modern convenience, students still agonize over a first sentence. They try to form the paper in their minds completely before plunking out even a single letter. Of course, we are all susceptible to this kind of perfectionism. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to conceive of a complex argument, complete with introduction and conclusion – before even choosing a font?

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Large Plane Trees, Cleveland Museum of Art

Perhaps we can learn something from van Gogh. He saw the merit in painting and repainting the very same subject. This is a wonderfully scientific approach. He maintained a constant: the subject matter, while varying only small aspects of his approach: commitment, viewpoint, and characterization.

Van Gogh’s commitment to the work seems to grow from draft to draft. The first of two works was often more cursory, and seemed to have been completed in haste. By the second time, the brushstrokes were more finished and the lines stronger. Similarly, in the second draft of a paper, we become more confident in our ideas.

Van Gogh’s viewpoint was also revised from version to version. He changed his angle slightly to find a more interesting or compelling standpoint. This happens in writing as well. We may begin a paper thinking that we feel one way about the topic, only to discover midway through the project that our views are, in fact, quite different. In fiction writing, we may likewise begin a story focusing on a certain character, only to find that the true hero is operating in the wings.

A similar shift characterized the collecting of The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. He eschewed, even criticized, modern art – until he began to collect it voraciously. He wisely defended this about face, explaining: “Consistency is at best a stiff-necked virtue.

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