Vincent and The Starry Night
After a period of mental instability which may have been brought on by his friend Paul Gauguin’s decision to leave Arles, Vincent Van Gough agreed to enter the St. Paul Asylum at Saint-Remy in May of 1889. It was there in the asylum, while waiting for the sunrise through the bars of his window, that Van Gogh got the idea to paint The Starry Night. "This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," he wrote to his brother Theo. This was the genesis of the painting that he worked on for two days in June of 1889.
The Starry Night was not a document of what Van Gogh saw outside of his window on that early morning. As he mentions, nothing was visible except the morning star. Since he was not allowed to paint in his bedroom, the painting was largely painted during the day in his studio room below. Much of it is from his imagination – an “abstraction” as he called it. Abstraction in painting as Van Gogh meant it, was something he and Gauguin had discussed as being a painting which was painted from the mind without looking at nature. Van Gogh had decided that such painting was a dead end. In fact, both he and his brother Theo had concurred that The Starry Night was a failed experiment in “abstraction” that should not be pursued. They both agreed that Van Gogh’s paintings from life were much stronger and that life was the proper inspiration for a painting.
Many analyses of The Starry Night attempt to identify the village buildings, and the astronomical objects pictured in the sky, to what Van Gogh would have seen outside of his asylum window. There have been studies tracking back the astronomy that would have been visible on that Saint-Remy June night in of 1889. Trying to look for a documentation of reality in this painting takes away from the artist’s intention of finding a way to see beyond the walls of his confinement, beyond the bars on his window, and out into the freedom of the openness inside his mind. Van Gogh tried to take a blank dark sky with only one visible star in it and paint a dynamic visual impression of it. To that end, none of the astronomical depictions has any basis in what was happening in the artist’s creative vision at the time. The landscape of village and trees are invented. The swirling forms near the center of the painting were put there to create a sense of movement and add visual interest, while echoing the roiling action of the mountains and trees. The entire painting is alive with this flaming, nervous energy tumbling about, that creates a mesmerizing experience of the invisible forces of the universe.
What is interesting to me is that both Van Gogh and his brother decided that the painting was a failure, but it has now become an icon of Impressionist art. It is now one of the most recognized paintings in all of western art. It has also become as much a part of the mythos of Van Gogh as his letters and unsuccessful career. By all contemporary accounts, Van Gogh was a difficult person, who had bad hygiene, drank to excess, experienced personality swings and a needy desperation for companionship. Theo had to pay Gauguin to stay with him in Arles. Despite all of this, a romance has built up around Van Gogh as the epitome of the true suffering artist. This has been crafted from his dedication to his art, his intense letters written to his brother and various film depictions. I must also include his large body of work which although it was not appreciated during his lifetime, has become revered mostly through the mythos of the artist, and has become the ideal of what art should be.
I have a skepticism of the romantic ideas of Van Gogh have been perpetuated in the years since his death. The suffering artist is a destructive stereotype which puts the driving force of an artist’s career into the control of others. There is persistent fallacy that Van Gogh was self- taught. He was not. He was taught drawing and painting by his uncle, who was an art dealer. He attended art classes and ateliers while living in Paris with his brother. In fact, he discovered the style and bright color of the Impressionists while in Paris, which helped him to shed the dark, muddy palette he had developed during his first phase of painting. It was his personality that caused him difficulties. Whether his anti-social behavior was the result of mental illness or just an adversarial attitude toward life has yet to be determined. While employed by his uncle as an art salesman, he refused to sell a customer a painting because he believed it was inferior. This resulted in him being dismissed from the position. It could be argued that he had high standards. It could also be argued that he was acting outside of his role in the job. But it is telling of his difficult nature that he would not compromise on certain ideals regardless of the consequences.
The Starry Night resides in the Museum of Modern art where it is on permanent display in the gallery dedicated to the birth of modern art. These days, there is always a small crowd gathered around it, not so much admiring it, as consuming it for its notoriety – and taking selfies with it providing the backdrop as proof it was duly seen. On one recent afternoon, while wandering the Museum of Modern Art galleries, my partner Raymond and I noticed the crowd surrounding the painting. Drawn by the quantity of persons, we soon realized that most of the people were standing there to absorb the romance of the artist and his work and be photographed in its presence. In a moment of whimsey, Raymond took out his cell phone and called up a video of Don McLean’s sentimental song “Vincent” to provide a soundtrack to the mood and provide a statement on the consumerism that has been constructed around popular art.
“Vincent” was composed by Don McLean in 1970 after being inspired by a biography of Van Gogh. The song was released a year later and became a hit in 1971. The song has had a strong influence on the public perception of Van Gogh as the misunderstood artist at odds with an insensitive public and added to the artist’s mythic reputation. It was in this state of mind that we decided to play the song in front of the painting that it memorializes. Our playful intervention on the commercialization of art did not last long, as the guard who is stationed near the painting for its protection informed us that we needed to be quiet and to please silence the sound on our telephone while in the gallery. We complied and turned it off – MOMA is not very relaxed when it comes to impositions on its collections, but the misinterpretation of Van Gogh and his art still stands.
The self-taught genius is a potent archetype in human society. There is an ideal that greatness can be achieved without the expense of University and the study of getting a degree. If we must suffer, the hope is that our suffering is not arbitrary and useless. There is the belief in the myth of a savior coming to discover our talents and make them known to the public. What we see in Van Gogh is someone who suffered for his art, found a savior in his brother, and eventually found redemption from those who doubted him by his present international renown. What we dismiss is all of the hard work Van Gogh poured into his art – it is estimated that he created three paintings a week to account for the number of works that exist by his hand today. We discount his education in art. We choose to forget that much of his suffering was of his own choosing because he decided to be difficult and contrary. Van Gogh’s contribution to western art has been immense. Ignored in his lifetime, he now brings in crowds to his exhibitions and his paintings command among the highest prices at auction. Because of this it is profitable to encourage the mythos that surrounds Van Gogh. For me, it is the work that withstands the scrutiny, not the embellishments of his life.
© 2019 Arthur Bruso