Van Gogh's Van Goghs
During spring break I had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh's Van Goghs exhibit at LACMA, and this experience has given me great insight into his works. As the exhibition was organized by the different stages in Van Gogh's artistic career, I was able to trace the development of his body of work as he traveled throughout the Netherlands and France. His paintings were always primarily an expression of his emotions using various means, especially color, to articulate his inner self. Van Gogh was also inspired by the various environments he worked in during his career, and this is reflected in the evolving style of his art and the way he adopted different styles in his quest to express himself. By using his subjective reactions to the world around him in his paintings, Van Gogh was able "to be 'original . . . to perceive, to face and to show 'truths' hidden from or disregarded by contemporary society" (Frascina 146) and be a truly 'modern' artist.
While he worked in several styles, Van Gogh was primarily a member of the Symbolist group in that he conveyed his subjective reaction in paintings rather than only an objective reality. "The sense that works of art could give form to his private experience, which in turn might be communicated directly and forcibly to others, was never to waiver" (Kendall 19). To Van Gogh, his true mission was "to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart" (Letter 218). This conviction was to show itself forcefully in the expressiveness of his body of work. To sympathetic contemporaries such as Aurier, Van Gogh "reveals himself as a powerful, virule, bold, often brutal yet sometimes naively sensitive man . . . he is an inspired enemy of all bourgeois sobriety and scruple, a kind of giant more suited to moving mountains than rearranging ornaments" (Harrison 950-51). The hallmarks of his art remain the passion and emotion that he put in it.
To me the most striking manner in which Van Gogh was able to express himself was through his strong colors. "Colour preoccupied him even during his Dutch years when earthy tones dominated his paintings . . . [and it] is a more regularly insistent theme than drawing or composition" (McQuillan 114). Throughout his lifetime, Van Gogh expressed admiration for the colorful, emotional works of the Romantic painter Delacroix (McQuillan 42), demonstrating his interest in color as a way in which a painter can find expression. Like Delacroix, he uses colors to reveal his emotions more than as an objective truth: "instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibly" (Letter 520). To me, Van Gogh was always sensitive toward the use of color, and, in looking at the exhibit, I found the change in color from period to period to be both striking and significant. Critics often noticed Van Gogh's colors before any other formal elements. In his article, Aurier states "We have all experienced his colours. They are unrealistically dazzling. He is . . . the only painter to perceive the chromatic nature of things with such intensity" (Harrison 952). Van Gogh's sensitivity to and use of color are important in illuminating the expressive quality of his art as it progresses.
Upon entering the exhibition, I saw Van Gogh's first group of paintings which were done while he was in the Netherlands, which culminate in The Potato Eaters. This period of learning was very important as it "set the foundations for Van Gogh's later work: there he worked out his early artistic aspirations" (McQuillan 35). At this time, the strongest influence on Van Gogh came from the Hague school, which sought a revival of Dutch art (McQuillan 92). This is evident in the earthy palette and peasant subjects of the paintings of this time. To Van Gogh, "one must paint peasants as if one of them" (Harrison 898), showing empathy and understanding. Van Gogh's strong interest in the peasants and their plight is evident in his letter, where he writes that he has tried to put across "the idea that these folk, eating their potatoes under their lamp, with these hands they put in the dish, have been digging up the earth . . . [He had] intended it to remind one of an entirely different way of life than that of us civilized people. For that reason [he] would not at all desire that everyone simply find it beautiful or good" (Harrison 897). He expresses sympathy for the world of the peasant through the way in which he paints them. Also, even at this early time, Van Gogh's art is distinguished from the establishment, "not simply by these differences of appearance, but more profoundly, by the very different ways in which they position and characterize the spectator, both socially and psychologically" (Frascina 196). Through his "unfinished" techniques, he alienates bourgeoisie would-be patrons in favor of giving "the native truth of his art and the integrity of his vision" (Harrison 950) to his peasants. This is accomplished through the use of a rough impasto technique of paint application and color. As "a painting of a peasant should not be perfumed" (Harrison 898), Van Gogh uses the appropriate earthy colors and a seemingly clumsy application of paint to lend a "smell of bacon, smoke, [and] potato steam" (Harrison 898) to the work.
Van Gogh's paintings changed dramatically after he went to Paris in 1886. When I entered the next room, I was struck by the change in his palette from earthy tones to colors more typical of the impressionists. "Van Gogh cautiously proceeded to come to terms with contemporary French painting" (McQuillan 47). He borrowed from both the Neo-Impressionists and the Symbolists, and "his palette brightened . . . His brushwork delicately embroidered the canvas with fine strands and dots of contrasting colors" (McQuillan 50). Paintings such as Courting Couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park in AsniÀres and the Self-Portrait With Felt Hat use a "modified version of Seurat and Signac's divisionism, [building] the entire image from dense clusters of color . . . Unlike Seurat's serenely ordered canvases, the result is unstable and near turbulent" (Kendall 73). Instead of getting an objective recording of color through 'divisionist' techniques, Van Gogh uses the juxtaposition of colors for dramatic effects. These paintings both confirm and negate the artistic styles of the avant-garde, and they refashion their innovations in terms of Van Gogh's own artistic vision. Another style of art that Van Gogh adapted to his own vision at this time was that of the Japanese print. Van Gogh was attracted to Japanese art, as his "mental image of the Japanese projected a primitive, religious, natural people. Japan stood in his mind for an ideal world" (McQuillan 132). His copy of Eisen's Courtesan demonstrates a fusion of Japanese art with his own mental image of it. While Van Gogh preserves some of the patterning and linear elements, he also makes significant changes in the use of 'primitive' colors associated with the Symbolists and the creation of a fanciful decorative border. During his stay in Paris, Van Gogh was able to use contemporary styles while maintaining his own personal vision.
Van Gogh's works from Arles are among his most original, and it is this period that one generally thinks of when one pictures Van Gogh. To me, the Arles paintings are an expression of Van Gogh's 'dream of the South' which graphically articulate his associations with Southern 'primitivism.' Van Gogh associated the South with the North Africa depicted by Delacroix (McQuillan 122) as well as Japan (McQuillan 132), and he viewed his visit to Arles as the closest thing to actually visiting these 'primitive' and 'natural' countries. Writing to Gauguin, he describes the excitement he felt on the journey to Arles. "How I peered out to see whether it was like Japan yet! Childish, wasn't it?" (Letter B22). To convey this emotion, Van Gogh used the bright colors and cloisonnier lines that we have become familiar with. The Yellow House juxtaposes a deep blue sky with the yellow of the streets and the even brighter yellow of the house, creating a powerful, 'primitive' feel. Almost all of his Arlesian works use cloisonnier, a style used by Van Gogh and other Symbolists which uses thick lines to separate areas of flat color. The boats of Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are done very much in the linear style of the Japanese print. The Bedroom also approaches this ideal in its colors and cloisonnism. To Van Gogh, "the shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints" (Letter 554). In his Arles paintings, Van Gogh uses his color and style to express his idealized vision of the South.
The last two rooms of the exhibit dealt with the paintings of Saint-R¾my and Auvers. I saw elements of all his previous styles in these works, and to me they represent a synthesis and a rethinking of his artistic career. In Saint-R¾my, Van Gogh "concentrated on landscape, which he often imbued with symbolic allusion" (McQuillan 177). One representative Saint-R¾my landscape is the Wheatfield with a Reaper, in which he identified the reaper with the symbolic figure of Death. The colors of this painting and others such as Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom seem muted when compared to the more vibrantly colored Arles works. However, Van Gogh had not completely abandoned the style of Arles, which can be seen to a degree in Emperor Moth which is done in cloisennier style and may be inspired by a Japanese print (Kendall 123-125). Van Gogh also looked to the past when copying a black-and-white print of Delacroix's Pieta. As his opportuities to paint nature were more limited at this time, "Delacroix served him in a manner akin to nature, an object for the projection of emotional empathy" (McQuillan 123). This 'projection' is achieved by the use of color in the painted copy. Wheatfield With Crows, one of Van Gogh's final paintings, also uses elements from the past and can be seen as 'summing up' his body of work. The colors are strong and it "shares the ocher and cobalt palette - and even its division into heraldic bands of color - with The Yellow House" (Kendall 140). However, its colors aren't as flat as in the previous work, making the effects more subtle. The painting technique which Van Gogh first applied in Paris is also used to a powerful effect. The streaks that make up the wheat and crows lend energy and power to the scene. These paintings, done at the end of Van Gogh's career, powerfully sum up his body of work.
Van Gogh's works convey a great amount of emotion and power, and these qualities would be admired by future artists. Both the German Expressionists (McQuillan 12) and Pablo Picasso (McQuillan 13) saw him as an important figure in the development of their artistic style. To them he remained the "ingenious spirit who has strayed so far from our well-worn paths" (Harrison 952) - the archetype of the original modern artist. This unwillingness to conform remains a distinct feature of Van Gogh's art to this day.
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