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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 peasantsdimly-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 peasantssimple 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.

  • InThe 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 calllight pollution”:

  • artificial light blinds us to the stars

  • and even invades the citiessurroundings - 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 - themathematical 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 thedynamic 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

Art...

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ArtSleuth 1 : VAN GOGH - The Starry Night (final version) - MOMA

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    HurT_TW posted on 2015/02/02
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