Rediscovering my love of art through Vincent van Gogh

It’s been over four months since I have posted anything to this blog. Actually, it’s closer to five. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write; indeed, I’ve started about 10 posts, half of which are still saved in my Drafts folder, but I (obviously) never finished any of them. There are a few factors that have contributed to my absence from the blogosphere: over the summer, I took on a second temporary job (in addition to my regular 32-hour-a-week job) for the CU Museum of Natural History in which I created a prototype mini-exhibition program called Exhibits in the Dorms; I got engaged in June and have been doing some moderate wedding planning ever since; and August saw the beginning of the Fall semester (though I am thankfully only taking one graduate class). Furthermore, my 94-page thesis sucked the will to write for educational recreation right out of me.

Aside from being busy, I have a confession I must make: there are many days where I’m not sure if I even like art anymore. Perhaps even hate it. I still see a lot of art (mainly contemporary), most of which I am thoroughly unimpressed by because of poor craftspersonship and the current market. When I look at a lot of art these days, I see capitalism at work (as art can be a good, unregulated place to invest money and the wealthy can determine who everyone should think is “good”). I see intellectual pissing matches in my graduate classes, where everyone is trying to prove that they are the smartest or that they have the most shocking and important things to say. I see the notes in the margins of my thesis from my advisor, tearing my words and ideas apart.

There’s no point in beating around the bush: I’m bitter. Plain and simple.

I have occasional moments where I am impressed by art, especially if it’s Modern or older. I suppose I can be considered something of a traditionalist when I say that I love meticulousness, a skilled hand, and a strong attention to detail, which, in terms of contemporary art, can be seen in the works of Ben JackelFred Tomaselli or Barbara Takenaga. I also like artists who acknowledge art historical predecessors in their work (albeit in an often humorous or derogatory sense), like Ged Quinn or Kent Monkman. And I love art that pokes fun at the market surrounding it, such as Banksy’s recent stunt in Central Park in which he was selling his own canvases for $60, but since they were so cheap, few people believed it was him or that the works were “valuable.” However, it is Modern master Vincent van Gogh who has managed to move me to tears in recent months and remind me that, yes, I really do love art.

Vincent van Gogh, “First Steps, after Millet,” 1890, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source)

For a long time, I was relatively ambivalent to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Impressionism, but when I got to college, I decided that the genre(s) were too mainstream for their own good and thus uncool (though, ironically, I did have a poster of “Starry Night” that followed me through five years of dorms and apartments). It really wasn’t until I took a graduate course on Degas in the Fall 2012 semester that I began to remember what I loved about Impressionism: the revolutionary use of vivacious colors, often applied en plein air, which had long been near-impossible for painters because of the lack of convenient storage for paints; the repeated rejections from Salons and panning from critics because the focus on color and composition, which resulted in “blurry” images, made people think the painters were going blind (though, admittedly, some of them actually were years later); and the novel ways in which the Impressionists interpreted the world around them, which lacked traditional refinement and solid form.

The life and work of Vincent van Gogh are undeniably popular, particularly in today’s culture. Born in 1853, he was a starving artist whose work was widely rejected and who suffered under the weight of his loneliness and neuroses. This anxiety probably contributed to his early death in 1890 from what is widely believed to have been a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. His works are defined by his vibrant use of color, expressive brushstrokes, and roughly hewn forms. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his paintings are how they exude an almost tangible emotiveness: you can feel his anxiety, his loneliness, and his desire for self-control. And yet, amidst the sadness, he saw such beauty in the world and the people in it, which he translated to his canvases. As a fairly neurotic perfectionist who is obsessed with beautiful colors, I find Van Gogh’s works particularly resonate with me. I am certainly not alone: in 1971, Don McLean wrote “Vincent,” a lovely tribute that sings of his talent and the tragedy of his life. In 1984, Irving Stone published Lust for Life, a biographical novel (aka historical fiction) that attempts to recreate Van Gogh’s life as he lived it. Today, he is one of the most revered artists in Western history, with his paintings dotting museum walls around the world, selling out exhibitions, and selling for tens of millions of dollars.

I hadn’t thought much about Van Gogh since college. In Fall 2012, I was researching the reported vision problems of Degas and came across an article that claimed that Van Gogh was colorblind. My indignity at this research led me to write a whole blog post about it. Then, sometime last February or March, I was trying to drown out the agony of my thesis by marathoning “Doctor Who” on Netflix, and Episode 5.10 came on: “Vincent and the Doctor.”

In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, something– one of Van Gogh’s paintings at the Louvre, “The Church at Auvers” (1890), which has a tiny depiction of a very out-of-place alien– tips off the Doctor that history is amiss in the artist’s time and place. My favorite line from the episode happens when Vincent is lying on the grass with the Doctor and Amy, explaining how he sees the night sky, which then begins to animate itself to his words:

Look at the sky. It’s not dark and black and without character. The black is, in fact deep blue. And over there: lighter blue and blowing through the blues and blackness the winds swirling through the air and then shining, burning, bursting through: the stars! And you see how they roar their light. Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.

The magical movement of the night sky and the allusion to the painting we all know so well is so stunning, describing it almost escapes me. However, it is the end of the episode that makes me glassy-eyed. The Doctor and Amy take Vincent forward in time to the Louvre. The Doctor asks a curator (played by Bill Nighy), with Vincent in earshot, what he thinks about Van Gogh’s art:

… to me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of colour most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.

You see tears in Vincent’s eyes as he realizes that his work not only gains recognition in the future, but that there are people who finally see him for the beautiful person that he was. On that spring night, my exhausted, geeky art historian heart longed for this event to have happened to the real Van Gogh, because he deserves to know how people see him and his work now.

This past August, with my thesis finished and wedding planning underway, I still found myself barely able to talk about art. I read articles Zite occasionally, but I focused more on articles about animals and science. Then I came across an article from The Creator’s Project entitled “Artist Brings Van Gogh Paintings To Life with 3D Animation and Visual Mapping.” It features this video, “Van Gogh Shadow,” by artist Luca Agnani:

Once again, a pop culture interpretation of Van Gogh caught my attention, and I felt something stir in my art-weary soul. “This video makes me feel feelings!” I exclaimed to a close friend. Between the music, “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi, and the animation of the paintings themselves, I again felt like I was seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes. Additionally, I was quite impressed by Luca Agnani’s ability to interpret the painter’s work: he captured his vision, his emotions, and his spirit. This video actually did make me cry. I downloaded “Experience” on iTunes, and sometimes when I listen to it, I catch myself with misty eyes and tight breaths.

I’m still baby-stepping my way to regaining the love of art that I once had. I’m obviously more attracted to references of Van Gogh rather than the experience of his actual works at the moment, which is perhaps indicative of my need to wean myself back into art. Or maybe I’m sick of reading academic interpretations of his work in art history books, as Denver lacks ready access to an abundance of his real paintings. Or maybe I’m just too cheap to give in to the rare blockbuster exhibition of his work. Nevertheless, Vincent van Gogh is an ideal gateway to bring me back to art, for he too felt anxious, dejected, and lonely; and yet, he saw wonder in the colors of the sky and trees, the interactions between people, and in the places he called home. He reminds me that life– and art– are beautiful.


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