A Date with Vincent van Gogh

BY APRIL KNIGHT

 

     My fascination with Vincent van Gogh began when I first heard my older brother strumming Don McLean’s “Vincent.” A tribute to the Dutch post-impressionist, the song’s imagery was so concrete it played like a montage of colors in my head: thick strokes of blue across a blank canvas, yellow daffodils bending in the summer wind, a dark red rose crushed against fresh snow. When I breathed, I could smell roses and paint.

     So I sought out a photo of the “starry, starry night” in question and saw something else in that scene: a man’s internal tempest spilling out into the world in oil. I did not know this man, but I felt that somehow he didn’t quite belong; perhaps he was even bullied and outcast. I was all of ten years old and the world was still rosy, but for some benighted reason, I decided I liked the man who drew this. I just didn’t know then that he’d beckon for the rest of my life. Nor that I would follow.

     More than a decade later, an internship interview put me on a plane to New York. I had a tight itinerary, so I asked myself: If I could never come back to this city, what would I do? The question was, of course, a formality, a courtesy to Lady Liberty, Ellis Island and the Empire State Building. I knew what I wanted: to see the Starry Night, and through it, Vincent van Gogh.

     The problem was, I wasn’t sure why anymore. Whatever the reason lies buried between layers of time and experience, dormant, a smudgy memory devoid of feeling. By that time, the quest to finally see the Van Gogh was more of a confrontation than a date. I could picture myself storming up to the frame, saying, “Well? What do you want?”

     I could also hear Meneer van Gogh firing back: “No, mevrouw, what do you want?”

     What did I want indeed? Why seek a painting centuries and an ocean away, with a curiosity half-remembered, barely felt?

      So there I was, ambling around the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, tearing myself away from the Dalís, Monets, Picassos and Vermeers I also loved, and in my restless search I almost missed it. I rounded a section of wall set in the center of another sprawling gallery, whipped around — and there it was. The painting of legend.

Van Gogh's "Starry Night." 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

It wasn’t as big as it was in my head, almost unassuming in fact, apart from a camera-wielding crowd surrounding it in a half circle. And yet it rooted me where I stood, literally stunned, I think, and somewhat disbelieving.

Like a shy teenager around a crush, I stalked its periphery, absorbing as much detail as I could from afar before drawing closer. I took in the rich, deep blues of the night sky, dissolving unevenly into lighter tones where they morphed into 11 large silver-gold stars. The golden crescent moon blazed with unearthly light. A west wind billowed in thickly, dominating the heavens. Below it, the sleepy town sat blanketed in silence, but nine windows kept vigil, gleaming faintly in the night. An orchard could be glimpsed in a dark corner, and a slender tree with flowing foliage — pine, possibly — shot up to the sky. There was a sense of anticipation, a quiet unraveling of some cosmic, almost spiritual event.

"Wheatfield with Mountains in the Background." 1889.  Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

“Wheatfield with Mountains in the Background.” 1889. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Van Gogh’s works (more than those of, say, Monet’s or Seurrat’s) have that effect on me, that sense of motion and unfolding, and life — from swaying wheat fields, to flaming sunflowers, to dancing irises. Even his collection of shoes — shoes with laces and shoes without, shoes upright and overturned — gives off a hypnotic, homy, just-taken-off feel. I imagine that if I touched them, they’d still be warm from the last pair of feet they carried.

"Sunflowers." 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Sunflowers.” 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I realized then that part of the appeal was in van Gogh’s brisk, bold staccato strokes, almost aimless and accidental. I paint with a fear of imperfections, so I could see in them the freedom I admire but dare not seize. Van Gogh saw and created beauty in the inexact, the unrealistic, purposely shunning clean edges, opting for uneven transitions and mostly discrete dabs of paint.

Van Gogh's "Irises." 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Van Gogh’s “Irises.” 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum.

This, I think, is life. The passage of our time on earth is never clean and linear, and can’t be portrayed in blocks of color bound by solid lines. It is not exquisite shadings, nor even immaculate renderings of the texture of the skin. Life is how van Gogh paints it, little discrete dabs of imperfect moments that eventually coalesce into a beautiful, living tapestry, much like the living blue painting that hung before me then, that first time in New York.

"A Pair of Shoes." 1887. Baltimore Museum of Art.

“A Pair of Shoes.” 1887. Baltimore Museum of Art.

So I made a little promise to Monsieur van Gogh to come and visit whenever I’m in town. I may not always know what I want out of it, but I’m sure he’s full of surprises, and I intend to keep that promise for as long as I can.

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