Oh, to bask in a bouquet, to meander through a field of sunflowers …
Today’s musings, the telling of my outright full-on love (love!) for that of Vincent van Gogh. Often, I am asked who my favorite artist is, to which I reply “My favorite artist is Vincent van Gogh.” I’m met with a groan or rolling of the eyes much of the time, especially if a fellow artist or designer is the one asking. For, he’s typical. A layman’s choice. His work over saturates many a poster shop, the term “a dime a dozen” coming to mind in describing the prevalence of his work.
What I had yet to learn was that the ability to produce realism was in fact considered preliminary.
At the age of 14, I hated, hated, hated him! His work rather. Any artwork that didn’t seek to capture realism simply sucked in my view. The way I saw it, these artists didn’t have the skill to look at an object or scene and reproduce it in graphite or paint. Instead, they apparently did what they could, creating splotchy, ill-conceived versions of their subjects often with poor perspective and proportion to boot. My thinking hadn’t yet evolved to realize that the art that he and others were creating wasn’t about the desire to recreate reality perfectly. What I had yet to learn was that the ability to produce realism was in fact considered preliminary. For years artists were trained to draw and paint realistically, spending hours recreating works painted by the masters down to the last brushstroke, as well as the traditional still life studies, figure rendering, portraiture and landscape work.
I returned time and again to books filled with works of Impressionism (along with a handful of other “isms”) and still shook my head in disbelief, unable to see an ounce of beauty in the work. I remember the day it all became clear to me. From the 6th grade on, I’d spend hours drawing, shunning a table or desk, opting instead for the floor. More often than not, I’d look up to find myself quite literally frozen in place, the sketch pad laid out across the bed, having knelt alongside it for hours, legs long since asleep, as I realized I’d once again trailed off into my own little world. That particular day, in leu of sketch pad, I stared perplexed at van Gogh’s “Irises.” Light bulb! I’d been perceiving the work all wrong. Having acquired the structural basics, fully versed and equipped in all things realistic, artists wanted more! To push beyond and discover something new! Uncharted territory. A style unexplored and yet to be defined, to be known for originality, a contribution. To create and be known for creating!
Art isn’t about beauty, though, it’s certainly a personal joy when it is. Art is about ideas. It’s not always pretty. Nor soothing. It can tell the truth. With a lie. With art one can mirror the current trends and foibles of society, as many a wry political cartoon may attest. The lie being that the art itself is a recreation of an image, not the actual image.
So, Vincent was the catalyst to my expansion of thought, a widening of view, and for that, I have great affection for him despite his commonplace status. Screw art snobs and the need to offer up a high brow example of artistic depth, yes? I’ve always been a bit sad that van Gogh came off as somewhat of a kook, what with the earlobe sharing and death by botched suicide attempt business. His short life spiraled downward into madness and was filled with many dark times and a lingering lack of self esteem. He sold but one painting while living and was generally considered a failure.
I was overcome to find that he was more than his bleak reputation.
In 2004, the Seattle Art Museum held an exhibition including an extensive selection of his work. I had seen several pieces at other museums on the East coast, but nothing like in this particular exhibit. The first room was full of just his drawings. Detailed sketches on aged brown paper with graphite. In those drawings, I saw that he was by no means just some kooky, dismal failure. He knew how to capture light and shape and perspective. Incredible detail, thoughtful visual tellings of the life he lived day to day. It was like reading an intimate journal, looking at those drawings. Then the next room, all paintings, all color! YAY! The piece de resistance, my favorite painting by him. “Cafe Terrace at Night.” No print does the real thing justice! No words in description. Cobblestone, wrought iron, night, stars, outside dining … le sigh. I began to cry. In a room milling with people, my sister came up behind me, “Deborah!” When I turned, tears welled over. No sobs, I held them down, receiving a nice lump in my throat from that! Ha. I was overcome to find that he was more than his bleak reputation. A published book of letters written to his brother show he was wonderfully expressive and reflective in thought. Seeing tactile proof right there though, on paper and canvas, to almost touch what he touched, it showed that for whatever struggles he had, he was so much more, and it renewed my pride in naming him my favorite. ♦
Cafe Terrace at Night