Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night

by moods & appetites
October 13th, 2008 2 responses »

 During nightly walks along the promenade, I often wondered who should have painted the scene: long streams of twinkling light reflected in the slight waves of the Hudson, occasional ferries, and the distant shoreline of Staten Island. Monet would have done a decent job, but he would have insisted to paint in daylight. Turner would have been bored unless one of the ferries was burning. No, Van Gogh was the only one who could truly understand the atmosphere necessary, but I came to that conclusion only after seeing the “Colors of the Night” show at the MoMa.

I had always been somewhat skeptical about whether Van Gogh deserved his fame, so I came to the exhibit with the intention of seeing the paintings as if I had never seen them before. As with any famous painter, the danger is that their reputation will overshadow their work. In the first two rooms, I was hoping that there would be something more than the dismal landscapes that he produced in the beginning of his career. Indeed, I thought Van Gogh would have been horrified to find them there himself, because he only considered his latest works to be acceptable enough for exhibition. Nevertheless, they provided a valuable contrast with later paintings that are the most characteristic of his known style. The only painting that I found interesting was The Cottage, because it is the first one where he plays with a perspective that gives the scene an emotional charge, one which he develops subsequently, if not quite in the same way.

When I saw The Sower, I realized that the reason why Van Gogh is so celebrated is because he painted in an utterly unique way, and I don’t think there has ever been another artist that has recaptured the same spirit in their art as he did. It is too simple to base artistic merit in originality, but Van Gogh established a powerful connection between his technique and his subject. The Sower, to me, was a canvas for trying out new visual ideas. He grew frustrated as he added more color contrasts, suggesting that although he was just starting to carry out a new technique, he wasn’t sure of its scope or potential.

Van Gogh certainly did not paint in one particular way in all his other work, but The Starry Night over the Rhone seems to me the climax of his ability and impact. It is a complete work, confident in its own subtle brilliance. Reproductions don’t do it any justice because he does the impossible: he captures the essence of the constantly changing light on the water with brushtrokes. The light is not constrained by the edges of the canvas or the viewer’s perception. It continues to flicker even though the layers of paint are unmoving. The painting transcends its technique yet evokes its indescribable meaning because of it.

I found the ink paintings to be fascinating, because they provided some sense of how Van Gogh was thinking about line quality. The letters were somewhat useless, though, because they only showed that he had average handwriting and that he had the habit of including sketches. The exhibit itself was well-done overall, as it gave insight into the process that was going on in Van Gogh’s mind, even if that was only my perception of it.

Van Gogh inspired dress by Max Azaria • Vincent’s lady

2 responses to “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night”

  1. Takeshi

    I enjoyed reading your reaction to the exhibition, and Van Gogh in general. Your observations about his attention to lines and brushstrokes reminded me about his fascination with Japanese prints, which consist of flat planes of color, challenging traditional, Western modes of representation. He was indeed always experimenting and testing the limits of one’s vision.

  2. Katrina

    Thank you for your comment! Yes, his interest in Japanese prints is definitely a big part of his art. The 1888 version of The Sower in the exhibition directly employs the use of a close-up object like a tree to be in the foreground of the painting. Also, “The Dance Hall in Arles” has a strong Japanese aesthetic and uses the flat planes of color. Actually, when I first saw it, I thought there was an Escher-like effect in the way he did the figures. At first glance, I thought the backs of the ladies’ heads were headless people with ties (very bizarre, I know). I think the Japanese influence was instrumental in achieving a unique artistic vision for him, and it’s interesting to see how much artists of the time were inspired by the Japanese aesthetic.

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