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Art...
ArtSleuth
The moon,
a church,
a cypress tree.
A picture by Vincent van Gogh.
A peaceful night in the country?
Yet
repose seems unlikely beneath that angry sky,
In fact, Van Gogh painted this nightscape in a lunatic asylum,
a year before he killed himself.
The rebellious cry of a genius ahead of his time?
While his contemporaries succumb to the city’s bright lights,
Van Gogh flees Paris and gives us a stressed-out urbanite’s dream.
So - let us find release in the madness of art,
and reconnect with the quiet pleasures of country life.
Is his frenzied vision of night and stars simply that - a longing for the past?
Van Gogh - The Starry Night - Transfigured Night
Part 1 : Madness -with Method
Is his picture the spontaneous product of insanity?
A rash conclusion:
Van Gogh’s nightscape dates from 1889 - when astronomy is attracting amateur enthusiasts, inspired by a string of popular handbooks,
containing the first-ever photographs of the night sky.
This spiral, for example, is based on a real nebula.
Venus, nearing the end of its cycle, was unusually bright that year
And the moon is just as the painter might have seen it from his cell ...
… before dawn on 25 May 1889
But the view from Van Gogh’s window stops short at a wall.
So he invents a landscape,
adding the cypress and the village steeple,
which give the picture depth
and structure it.
And even the wild spiral keys in the vanishing point, directly below it.
If sanity rules the composition,
surely madness powers the turbulent brushwork?
Van Gogh is working so fast he leaves part of the canvas bare!
In fact, his handling of the paint strengthens the contrast between the picture’s two halves.
At the bottom, the houses are outlined in black, like the figures in a stained glass window,
the trees resemble dense skeins of wool,
and the earth has a carved solidity,
while the sky swirls and surges, like a shoal of fish,
and the starlight spreads outward in concentric waves.
In short, the picture’s pulsing movement is a conscious effect, and Van Gogh uses it to create a powerful opposition between:
the earth’s tangible solidity, and
the sky’s wave-like dynamism.
Viscous as tar, vibrant as flame, the cypress links them like a bridge.
Why does Van Gogh pump all this drama into a potentially peaceful nightscape?
Part 2: Night -danger and deliverance
Van Gogh’s vision of night...
as a star-filled sky,
has been preceded by another - night as a time of release, when the day’s work is done.
A massive contrast with those avant-garde artists who revel in the glitter and bustle of the after-hours city.
Van Gogh takes a very different line
He sees the nobility of the peasants’ dimly-lit meal....
… and the bright city’s dehumanising effect on its denizens.
At first glance, primitive and gloomy ...
This mealtime scene, where the eaters exchange looks and words
in a single lamp’s consoling glow, is a celebration of well-earned rest from labour.
The family is united, like these small houses clustered round a single steeple, which stands for Christian belief.
Van Gogh is not the first to celebrate the peasants’ simple dignity:
his revered predecessor, Jean-François Millet, has been there first.
The sense of communion with heaven and earth which pervades Millet’s “The Angelus”...
makes Van Gogh’s pictures of nightlife in the city seem like visions of hell.
In “The Dance-Hall in Arles”, the light which brings people together has gone, and a swarm of dim lamps have taken over.
Individual dancers seem lost in the whirling, hysterical throng.
This is an all-night café, and an all-night haze of alcohol envelops it.
The complementary reds and greens combine garishly
a billiard table replaces the respectable piece of furniture in the family kitchen:
a passion for gaming has sapped these people’s strength, and also their ability to connect with one another.
The drunks adrift on the edges of the picture seem to be shrivelling, like moths,
in the burning glare of these three false suns.
In these pictures, Van Gogh seems to be using Japanese print techniques to unmask the falsity of modern life.
Exploiting the emotional power of black outline,
sudden shifts of viewpoint,
and harshly contrasted complementary colours,
he pits the star-filled sky’s eternal order against the city’s tinsel and glitter.
But the outcome is uncertain.
The sky may be solid and convincing,
but the stars look pale and insipid …
beside the livid glare of streetlamps reflected in water.
Van Gogh has discovered what we now call “light pollution”:
artificial light blinds us to the stars
and even invades the cities’ surroundings - like this streetlamp, which shows that yet another slice of countryside will soon be absorbed,
or this NASA satellite image, over a century on from Van Gogh, where the earth itself resembles a star-filled sky
Before trying again, Van Gogh retreats from Arles to a village…
where his brushwork changes radically.
The earth becomes as solid and immutable as the heavens,
while the sky and stars take on the pyrotechnic sharpness and dynamism…
of modern artificial lighting.
The result is spectacular but - frankly - over the top: this is genius run mad - yet again!
Why is Van Gogh so bent on glorifying the power of the heavens?
Is forgetting the stars really such a big deal?
Part 3: Night strikes back
Regardless of what Van Gogh and other artists do with it, the night sky fascinates us because it puts us in touch with two fundamental things
beauty and the sublime.
The classic vision of the heavens is that of an immense vault, which is beautiful because it stands for order and perfection.
Seen from afar, the bright and everlasting stars
seem utterly remote from our drab and battered world, where change and corruption are the norm!
Modern physics may have shattered this innocent vision, but the yearning for perfection remains.
Van Gogh sees the star-filled sky as a map, and death itself as a kind of space shuttle.
“The sight of the stars sets me dreaming quite as simply as do the black dots which denote towns and villages on a map.”
“I think it not impossible that cholera and cancer may be celestial means of locomotion...
... like steamships, omnibuses and the railway.”
His two nightscapes are the product of this vision:
The first, where the sky seems a divine and unchanging canvas, and his treatment of the stars is conventional,
and the second, where the cypress - the traditional cemetery tree - evokes death, which transports us from our world to the realm of celestial light.
But the latter also reflects a more modern response to the heavens - a response linked with a sense of the infinite and the immense.
In the world of music, the vault of heaven recurs as the image behind this set design for Mozart’s “Magic Flute”.
But the tingling sublimity which we feel in the Queen of the Night’s aria no longer reflects a yearning for order, but a sense
of our littleness in the face of immensity.
In architecture, too, holes in the vaulting of Etienne-Louis Boullée’s huge Cenotaph for Isaac Newton simulate starlight and make humans ant-sized.
Both celebrate reason’s triumph over imagination : the Queen of the Night is vanquished by Sarastro’s wisdom, and Boullée salutes Newtonian science - the “mathematical sublime”
Immensity is also Van Gogh’s theme in his second nightscape.
He breaks new ground by giving his sky the elemental power, effectively captured by other artists, of:
volcanoes
avalanches
and floods.
He is celebrating, not scientific knowledge, but the willpower
which enables human beings to defy even forces which threaten to destroy them.
This is the “dynamic sublime”, as embodied in minute, but steadfast figures who stand firm against the elements.
In El Greco’s seventeenth-century vision of Toledo, the cathedral forms an unshakable landmark beneath the stormy sky.
Van Gogh shifts these elemental forces to the star-filled sky above Saint-Rémy’s proud steeple,
where reason, not madness, guides his brush, and this nondescript Provençal village acquires mythical status,
as a sublime fixed point in a world rocked and buffeted by the swirling currents of modernity.
Special thanks : English translation Vincent Nash
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ArtSleuth 1 : VAN GOGH - The Starry Night (final version) - MOMA

14415 Folder Collection
HurT_TW published on February 2, 2015
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