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)

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Van Gogh’s “colorblindness” and the subjectivity of perception

Color simulation
Vincent Van Gogh, “Wheat Field behind St. Paul Hospital with a Reaper” (1889)

I recently read an article on ArtInfo about a medical student in Japan, Kazunori Asada, who wrote an essay claiming to have proven that the artist Van Gogh was colorblind. The article– entitled “Japanese Scientist says Vincent van Gogh Was Colorblind– But Does it Matter?”– discusses how Asada was inspired by an experience at the Color Vision Experience Room at Hokkaido, which is “an immersive simulator that makes it possible to perceive color the way people with different types of colorblindness might experience it.” Asada ran several images of Van Gogh paintings through a color simulator, and you can see one of the results on the right. The gorgeous reds are eliminated and the painting overall looks to be more of a cool yellow.

The author of the article, Kyle Chayka, brings up several really excellent issues/points: 1) The images Asada used were digital images, therefore subject to the color variance of the individual computer screen (i.e. his computer could have been picking up more red than another computer would), or that of the scanner which scanned these reproductions picked up more red, or that of the images themselves, which may have been printed with a higher content of magenta in the ink; 2) Asada’s judgment that the “corrected” color simulations demonstrate more “‘brilliance with very delicate shades and lines'” (as opposed to an “‘incongruity of color and roughness of line'”) is extraordinarily subjective; and 3) the question of how one judges creativity. I found the following passage to be particularly moving:

How can we argue that van Gogh’s paintings look better through a filter? To assume that the painter’s provocative artistic choices were simply the result of a medical condition is to completely disregard his own creativity. Van Gogh’s colors are meant to clash; the unorthodox pairings were part of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist aesthetic. Or were Paul Gauguin and André Derain also colorblind?

The article concludes with the question of whether genius-artists are innovative because of their biology or because they are creative pioneers, and he ultimately leans towards the latter. While I too prefer this sentiment– I personally think that the claim that Van Gogh was colorblind is absolutely ridiculous and unsubstantiated (if he was colorblind, he would have exhibited a similar color palette in his entire oeuvre, but his earlier works utilized more subdued earth tones)– a part of me wants to play devil’s advocate. What if he was colorblind? Beyond saying that “it doesn’t matter,” what can deficiencies in vision show us about our own perceptions of the world?  Continue reading