Tag Archives: Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh – Die in the Summertime

29 Jul

“Every time I stare into the sun
Trying to find a reason to go on
All I ever get is burned and blind…”

(Chris Cornell, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart)

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890

Exhausting heat of summerr day. Golden wheat against the electric blue sky. A crooked, brown path through the wheat that leads to nowhere. Crows flying aimlessy, low above the wheat field – without direction, without control. Their hoarse cawing disturbs the otherwise heavy silence in the field. No trace of wind. The sky is turning a darker shade of blue with each passing moment. This is not the tender, soft baby blue sky from a Monet painting. This is not a tame wheatfield. These wild, energetic, passionate brushstrokes are not for the faint of heart. Thick, quick, short strokes are a work of an artistic maniac who is led by emotions that arose from a soul as troubled and dark and deep as a waterwell. Dark clouds are pressing down down to the ground and it all feels dense and claustrophobic.

This very dramatic painting was painted on the 10th July 1890, and is, unfortunately, not the last painting Vincent van Gogh painted, although it is one of his best and one of his most emotionally raw. Vincent died on the 29th July 1890 and there is a tendency to see this painting as Vincent’s suicide note because of the obvious ominous, disturbed mood, and while I agree with that I think it also shows the very thing that Vincent strove to capture on his painting; all the life, energy and vibrancy that was inside him, despite the depression, in his own words: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. (…) Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners…”

This brooding wheatfield was a visual expression of a huge stream of feelings swelling up inside the artist; the feeling of enormous, incurable loneliness and immense sadness. It might be unusual to use yellow to portray sadness, but this is not the cheerful, harmless yellow we might find in a painting by Fragonard. The ripeness of the field may also symbolise the ripeness of the artist’s life and after ripeness comes either death or decay. The crows add to the ominous feeling of dread and the arrival of death, or the end. As is typical for the paintings he made in the summer of 1890, he used a double-canvas and this horizontally elongated canvas helps in creating the dramatic mood because the sky is pressing down to the field whereas in a vertically elongated painting the sky would have much more space to breathe and shine. It is also important to note that the unusual long form of a painting was typical for the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which Vincent loved, admired and took inspiration from. This form was just one of the many ways in which he experimented with his art and used the Japanese influence. The final days of Vincent’s life were days of extreme sadness and extreme creativity and this painting, although not his last one, is the explosion of this creativity.

The title of the post comes from the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Die in the Summertime” from their third album “The Holy Bible” (1994):

“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die”

Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

Vincent van Gogh – Orchard in Provence

11 Apr

“Trees should be allowed to grimace.”

(Vincent van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh, Orchard in Provence, 1888, pencil, pen and reed pen and ink, watercolour, on paper, 39.5 cm x 53.6 cm

This seemingly simple, spontaneous and even impulsive little pen and ink sketch by Vincent van Gogh is actually a very important and very beautiful portrait of trees which are all part of the orchard in Provence and yet they are also individual creatures with their uniquelly twisting, contorting branches and leaves. Vincent van Gogh always painted directly from nature and he was a very passionate and observant individual, but this way of seeing and portraying the trees came from the artists of the Far East. Their philosophy, when it came to portraying a tree, was that it was not enough to paint a tree as it was before your eyes, but to capture its essence, its uniqueness, its spirit. The tree had to resemble a real tree, but the artist had to transform the physical appearance of a tree into a poetic portrait of a tree which would speak to the viewer of its character. European tradition of copying from nature and achieving perfection was the complete opposite to the philosophy behind the art of the Far East. The Chinese painter and poet Su Tung-po who lived in the 11th century wrote “Above all, trees, bamboo, and so on, possess a constant, characteristic form, and furthermore express a principle, which it is possible to offend gravely against; if the artist falls short of it, the transgression is far worse than if he fails to render the external form adequately.” I think we can all agree that this is true, how often have you seen something that is painted correctly, without a flaw, and yet is has no soul? Vincent’s sketch is soulful and rich in expression and you can tell he drew it with ease and confidence, there is no hesitation there; his twigs and swirling tree tops look almost like some beautiful, strange calligraphy. Also, it is important to note that the patches of white watercolour that you see stand out against the tan colour of the paper but that is because the paper changed colour over the years.

Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles II

27 Mar

“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”

Vincent van Gogh, Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), c. November 1888

In this post I’ll present you the continuation of the art discussions which Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had in Arles. You can read the first part of this post here. As I have already said, Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. In the first part of their discussion, Gauguin focused on criticising Vincent’s sunflowers and here Gauguin will focus on lecturing Vincent that he will never be a true artist until he can gaze at nature, then return to studio and paint from his memory/imagination rather than directly whilst being in nature. I still cannot fathom the audacity of Gauguin to say such things, but it is interesting to read it. The passages are, as I’ve already said, from Irving Stone’s book “Lust for Life”. Vincent did indeed listen to Gauguin and tried out his advice on painting from memory and the result was the painting you can see above, “Memory of the Garden at Etten” or simply called “Ladies of Arles” which looks different from Van Gogh’s other paintings. It’s vibrant and interesting, but I still prefer his typical style of painting, exhibited in his wheat field with crows and his paintings of sunflowers and starry nights. I do like all the little dots and dashes of red on the woman’s clothes and of turquoise on the cypresses. And now here is the discussion:

The painters whom Gauguin admired, Vincent despised. Vincent’s idols were anathema to Gauguin. They disagreed on every last approach to their craft. Any other subject they might have been able to discuss in a quiet and friendly manner, but painting was the meat and drink of life to them. They fought for their ideas to the last drop of nervous energy. Gauguin had twice Vincent’s brute strength, but Vincent’s lashing excitement left them evenly matched. Even when they discussed things about which they agreed, their arguments were terribly electric. They came out of them with their heads as exhausted as a battery after it has been discharged.
“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”
“And another thing; you would have done well to listen to Seurat. Painting is abstract, my boy. It has no room for the stories you tell and the morals you point out.”
“I point out morals? You’re crazy.”
“If you want to preach, Vincent, go back to the ministry. Painting is colour, line, and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature, but that’s all.”
“Decorative art,” snorted Vincent. “If that’s all you get out of nature, you ought to go back to the Stock Exchange.”
“If I do, I’ll come hear you preach on Sunday mornings. What do you get out of nature, Brigadier?”
“I get motion, Gauguin, and the rhythm of life.”
“Well, we’re off.”
“When I paint a sun, I want to make people feel it revolving at a terrific rate of speed. Giving off light and heat waves of tremendous power. When I paint a cornfield I want people to feel the atoms within the corn pushing out to their final growth and bursting. When I paint an apple I want people to feel the juice of that apple pushing out against the skin, the seeds at the core striving outward to their own fruition!”
“Vincent, how many times have I told you that a painter must not have theories.”
“Take this vineyard scene, Gauguin. Look out! Those grapes are going to burst and squirt right in your eye. Here, study this ravine. I want to make people feel all the millions of tons of water that have poured down its sides. When I paint the portrait of a man, I want them to feel the entire flow of that man’s life, everything he has seen and done and suffered!”
“What the devil are you driving at?”
“At this, Gauguin. The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses, and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and a grape are one. When I paint a peasant labouring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, into corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life. That alone is God.”
“Brigadier,” said Gauguin, “vous avez raison!”
Vincent was at the height of his emotion, quivering with febrile excitement. Gauguin’s words struck him like a slap in the face. He stood there gaping foolishly, his mouth hanging open.
“Now what in the world does that mean, ‘Brigadier, you are right?’”
“It means I think it about time we adjourned to the café for an absinthe.”

Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles I

21 Mar

“Those violent yellows, for example; they’re completely disordered.”
“Is that all you find to say about my sunflowers?”
“No, my dear fellow, I can find a good many things to criticize.”

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers – Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. It seems that the two painters were already too mature to take advice and their art styles too developed to change. Their approaches to painting and their life philosophies were very different; Gauguin thought Vincent was nothing but a romantic fool and he despised his thick visible brushstrokes. At the same time, Vincent loved to paint directly from nature and didn’t agree with Gauguin’s “painting from memory” technique. The painting above is Gauguin’s portrait of Vincent van Gogh as the painter of sunflowers. Vincent didn’t like the way his face was painted because he thought it made him look like a madman, and that’s coming from a man who had cut off his own ear a month later… It is perplexing how Gauguin wasn’t impressed with Vincent, why I cannot imagine what joy and privilege it must be to sit beside Vincent and gaze at him painting sunflower, gaze at the very birth of the painting, take in all the gorgeous shades of yellow. I would have loved that. In my previous post I mentioned that I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life” and in this post I wanted to share a dialogue between Vincent and Gauguin about art:

“What is the matter with the colours in my pictures?”
“My dear fellow, you’re still floundering in neo-impressionism. You’d better give up your present method. It doesn’t correspond to your nature.”
Vincent pushed his bowl of soup aside.
“You can tell that at first glance, eh? You’re quite a critic.”
“Well, look for yourself. You’re not blind, are you? Those violent yellows, for example; they’re completely disordered.”
Vincent glanced up the sunflower panels on the wall.
“Is that all you find to say about my sunflowers?”
“No, my dear fellow, I can find a good many things to criticize.”
“Among them?”
“Among them, your harmonies; they’re monotonous and incomplete.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Oh, sit down, Vincent. Stop looking as though you wanted to murder me. I’m a good deal older than you, and more mature. You’re still trying to find yourself. Just listen to me, and I’ll give you some fruitful lessons.”
“I’m sorry, Paul. I do want you to help me.”
“Then the first thing you had better do is sweep all the garbage out of your mind. You’ve been raving all day about Messonier and Monticelli. They’re both worthless. As long as you admire that sort of painting, you’ll never turn out a good canvas yourself.”
“Monticelli was a great painter. He knew more about colour than any man of his time.”
“He was a drunken idiot, that’s what he was.” Vincent jumped to his feet and glared at Gauguin across the table.
The bowl of soup fell to the red tile floor and smashed.
“Don’t you call ‘Fada’ that! I love him almost as well as I do my own brother! All that talk about his being such a drinker, and off his head, is vicious gossip. No drunkard could have painted Monticelli’s pictures. The mental labour of balancing the six essential colours, the sheer strain and calculation, with a hundred things to think of in a single half hour, demands a sane mind. And a sober one. When you repeat that gossip about ‘Fada’ you’re being just as vicious as that beastly woman who started it.”
“Turlututu, mon chapeau pointu!”
Vincent recoiled, as though a glass of cold water had been thrown in his face. His words and tense emotion strangled within him. He tried to put down his rage, but could not. He walked to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

Vincent van Gogh: Sun, Heat and Vibrant Colours of Arles (from Lust for Life)

17 Mar

“The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling, liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world.”

(Irving Stone, Lust for Life)

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888

One of my greatest joys in these early spring days is noticing and gazing at the trees in bloom, the same trees which were sad-looking and bare for months, and enjoying the golden rays of sun caressing me and promising ever warmer days. The joy of feeling the warm sun on your skin cannot be put in words! When it comes to art, my mind instantly went to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, his delicate almond blossoms and blooming orchards, I need his yellows and blues like I need the air to breathe. I was reading some of his letter again and also I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful novel “Lust for Life”, first published in 1934, which is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh. I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s just so beautifully written and it absolutely sweeps you away. Irving Stone was just a great writer, I also read his novel “Agony and Ecstasy” about the life of Michelangelo, and I loved it as well, and I am not even interested in the art of Michelangelo and I think that speaks for the brilliancy of Stone’s writing. So, I decided to share passages from the novel which I found particularly interesting and accompany it with Van Gogh’s paintings and my own thoughts. After spending some time in Paris and living with his brother, Vincent, a man from the drab north, felt an inexplicable aching and longing for sun and in spring of 1888 he arrived to Arles, a small town in Provence, and that is where some of his most exciting, most vibrant paintings were painted. Here is how his arrival and first impressions of Arles are described in “Lust for Life”:

He dropped out of the third-class carriage early in the morning and walked down the winding road that led from the station to the Place Lamartine, a market square bounded on one side by the embankment of the Rhône, on the other by cafés and wretched hotels. Arles lay straight ahead, pasted against the side of a hill with a neat mason’s trowel, drowsing in the hot, tropical sun. When it came to looking for a place to live, Vincent was indifferent. He walked into the first hotel he passed in the Place, the Hotel de la Gare, and rented a room. It contained a blatant brass bed, a cracked pitcher in a washbowl, and an odd chair. The proprietor brought in an unpainted table. There was no room to set up an easel, but Vincent meant to paint out of doors all day.

He threw his valise on the bed and dashed out to see the town. There were two approaches to the heart of Arles from the Place Lamartine. The circular road on the left was for wagons; it skirted the edge of the town and wound slowly to the top of the hill, passing the old Roman forum and amphitheatre on the way. Vincent took the more direct approach, which led through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb he reached the sun scorched Place de la Mairie. On the way up he passed cold stone courts and quadrangles which looked as though they had come down untouched from the early Roman days. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. To avoid the torturing mistral, the streets wound about in a hopeless maze on the side of the hill, never going straight for more than ten yards. There was refuse in the streets, dirty children in the doorways, and over everything a sinister, hunted aspect.

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May 1888

Vincent left the Place de la Mairie, walked through a short alley to the main marketing road at the back of the town, strolled through the little park, and then stumbled down the hill to the Roman arena. He leaped from tier to tier like a goat, finally reaching the top. He sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master.

The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhône like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. They had all been tiled in what was originally red clay, but the burning, incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam-brown.

The wide, rapidly flowing Rhône made a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill on which Arles was plastered, and shot downward to the Mediterranean. There were stone embankments on either side of the river. Trinquetaille glistened like a painted city on the other bank. Behind Vincent were the mountains, huge ranges sticking upward into the clear white light. Spread out before him was a panorama of tilled fields, of orchards in blossom, the rising mound of Montmajour, fertile valleys ploughed into thousands of deep furrows, all converging at some distant point in infinity.

Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888

But it was the colour of the country-side that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the colour green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards… such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression.

Vincent took the wagon road to the Place Lamartine, grabbed up his easel, paints, and canvas and struck out along the Rhône. Almond trees were beginning to flower everywhere. The glistening white glare of the sun on the water sent stabs of pain into his eyes. He had left his hat in the hotel. The sun burned through the red of his hair, sucked out all the cold of Paris, all the fatigue, discouragement, and satiety with which city life had glutted his soul.
A kilometre down the river he found a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky. The river was as blue as a well, the banks orange, coloured with green grass. A group of washerwomen in smocks and many-coloured caps were pounding dirty clothes in the shade of a lone tree. Vincent set up his easel, drew a long breath, and shut his eyes. No man could catch such colourings with his eyes open. There fell away from him Seurat’s talk about scientific pointillism, Gauguin’s harangues about primitive decorativeness, Cezanne’s appearances beneath solid surfaces, Lautrec’s lines of colour and lines of splenetic hatred.

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

Karl Nordström – Field of Oats

29 Aug

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

Karl Nordström, Field of Oats at Grez-sur-Loing, 1885

Something about this landscape by a Swedish Impressionist painter speaks to my soul. A field of oats is a seemingly simple, almost humble motif, but this landscape has a poetic and gentle beauty which speaks of deeper feelings. I love the vastness of the field, painted in soft shades of green and yellow, and the way nearly the entire canvas is the field itself; it makes me feel as if I am a part of the oat field, in their embrace. Nordström beautifully captures the oats that have soaked in all the summer sun and are now ripe and ready to be harvested. Touches of vibrant blue and red add a playful touch to the gentle greenness. It is pleasant to think of blue cornflowers and crimson poppies growing among the oats and enjoying the sunny, carefree, summer days. Larks are flying in the upper right corner and a small figure of a reaper with his scythe appears to be harvesting the oats; how tiny he is compared to the vastness of the field and nature.

Nordström painted this oat field in a commune Grez-sur-Loing in north-central France which was a popular hot spot fir many artists at the time; Nordström met his wife Tekla Lindeström, who was an engraver, there and a fellow Swedish Carl Larsson also met his future wife there. Even though this painting precedes Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Sower” (1888) by three years, I see it as a sort of closer to Van Gogh’s painting where a farmer, with a rising bright and shining yellow sun in the background, is planting the seeds and in this painting they are ripe and ready to be harvested. In Nordström’s painting, the farmer’s scythe is almost symbolic of death, for the summer is nearing its end and very soon the very fields where the oats grew and danced in the wind will be nothing but a vast muddy nothingness, only a few broken stems will rise from the autumnal mists. These days my thoughts are tinged with sadness; one more summer is passing and I know that once gone, it will seem like a distant dream. I know that, in winter dreariness, I shall scarcely be able to imagine the sun’s warm touch on my skin. I feel like I spend a thousand years waiting, yearning, craving summer, only to enjoy it for a second until it quickly vanishes. Persephone must feel the same way, sighing longingly, as she descends again to the darkness of the underworld…

Vincent van Gogh – Explosion of Colours in Arles

30 Mar

Van Gogh, born on 30 March 1853, is a painter whose works I greatly admire, whose letters I consider an endless source of inspiration, whose paintings are one of my dearest subjects to write about. He managed to passionately and eloquently express his deep sadness, loneliness and despair and turn them into the most magical, most captivating and intriguing paintings ever painted. With those brush strokes of magical blues and ecstatic yellows, Van Gogh is saying to us that despite all misery, poverty and painful solitude ‘…there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.’

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationVincent van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888

“The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.” (Van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, ill, tired and weary, with hopes of founding an utopian art colony where artists would paint side by side, in harmony and serenity.

Warm melodies of the south have lured artists from the North for a long time, ever since Albrecht Dürer traveled to Italy in Renaissance. It wasn’t just the architecture, or the art of Quattrocento; monuments of old glory which longed to be discovered. It was something higher, something more powerful; warm sun of the south that spoke to the soul, not the mind. Artists were attracted by the sublime sense of entering the historic land, fascinated with Mediterranean landscape and its warm climate, created for idle time and pleasure. Effects of this ‘art tourism’ were especially evident on the colour palette which became lighter, more vivid, and more passionate, enriched by golden rays of the sun and rich fragrances of the South. For Vincent van Gogh, Arles brought explosion of colours; mauve, ultramarine and yellow, and, in addition, he found the landscape enchanting and inspirational.

In Arles, Van Gogh was able to live out his visions of Japan by simply gazing at the sunbathed meadows and delicate trees in bloom, while in Paris he needed to get absorbed in Hiroshige’s wood-cuts in order to feel that way. His paintings of Flowering Orchards painted in spring of 1888, symbolise this optimism, sudden outburst of joy, a sense of all the wishes becoming true. It was enough for him to open his eyes and feel alive, caressed by the soft southern breeze, kissed by the rain drops, and mesmerized by the beautiful landscapes, interesting people of Arles; beauty of life opening right in front of his eyes. These months were rather happy for Van Gogh, which is not something that can easily be said, as sorrows in his life followed one another.

1888. Vincent van Gogh - Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-MayVincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May, 1888

Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on 23 October 1888, and the two very different painters painted together during November. Van Gogh’s utopian dream of an art colony seemed to be realized, at least for a month. However, the differences between these two painters were insurmountable. Van Gogh was, in comparison with Gauguin, a tactic rationalist, too impulsive, too intrusive, and he indulged himself in wistfulness of his imagination a tad too much. Van Gogh was a romantic, and Gauguin was prone to primitivism, Van Gogh loved thick layers of colour, and Gauguin hated disorder. For some time the two got along, but their relationship was beginning to deteriorate as early as in December 1888. In addition to Gauguin’s arrogance and domineering behavior, Vincent van Gogh, who longed to be treated as Gauguin’s equal, had an enormous fear of being deserted, doomed to solitude and sadness again. Their quarrels ended in that infamous ear incident which happened in December 1888, after which Gauguin left and never saw Van Gogh again.

Van Gogh was a fragile person, full of love and sympathy for everyone around him, and along with his own fears, destitution and self-criticism, Gauguin’s patronising behavior had certainly not helped matters. I prepared for this post by reading his letters from Arles again, and it is clear to me, now more than ever, how every word he wrote expresses optimism and silent but profound hope, and how all poverty and lack of understanding had not hardened his feelings, and how in deepest sorrow he found beauty everywhere he looked. I feel in love with Van Gogh’s soul after reading his letters. They are more beautiful than any book because they are real.

I already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again. In an episode of Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor traveled to past and met Vincent van Gogh. After spending some time with him, the doctor took him to a present day gallery. After Van Gogh saw his paintings and the popularity of them, tears of joy came down his cheeks. I confess it made me cry from happiness too! Too bad Amy Pond rejected his offer to stay with him; they could have gazed at the sunflowers all day surrounded by their red-haired children.

1888. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Gauguin’s ChairVincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s Chair, 1888

As a vision of loneliness, Van Gogh painted his and Gauguin’s chairs in December 1888. Both of them are painted as empty; metaphors for artists that are not there anymore, but once shared their thoughts and feelings; friends have vanished but the chairs are here, empty. Van Gogh’s chair is a modest wooden chair with a tobacco pipe which Van Gogh smoked because Dickens had advised it as a cure for melancholy. On the other hand, Gauguin’s chair is lavishing with books and a candle, indicating education and ambition.

Van Gogh painted his own chair in yellow and blue tones, symbolising light and hope. In the painting with Gauguin’s chair he used red-green contrast which, just like in the painting The Night Cafe, gives a sinister feel to the painting, witnessing darkness and lost hopes of their friendship. The message is clear; Gauguin had brought night and darkness into Van Gogh’s idealistic world. These chairs are portraits in alienation in which Van Gogh expressed ‘…not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow.

With the help of art, the world that seemed threatening and unfriendly was suppose to become his world too. Van Gogh did not want to repress reality, neither did he want to renounce it; he wanted reality to become understandable and accessible. Was this simple desire too much for the harsh world? With these painting Van Gogh proved the audience that ‘Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.’

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.