Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
The Starry Night
Transfigured Night (13 min)
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What gives this star-filled night its haunting power? A doomed painter’s madness or a carefully planned strategy? More on http://www.artsleuth.net
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For every episode, CED produces a fictitious interview to elaborate on points made in the film, or simply provide a little (self-) criticism. Côme Fabre, a young heritage conservationist and ENS graduate, worked with us on the script for this video. One of the questions we ask ourselves in this interview is whether, perhaps, we are trying too hard to reclaim Van Gogh for sanity.
CED > Aren’t you trying to make the painter more rational than he really is? You tell us that his Starry Night (1889) is a carefully constructed and calculated picture, and that this applies equally to its composition and its brushwork. Its restless and tormented sky, far from being just a projection of the painter’s inner self, or indeed madness, is also - you tell us - part of a strategy to restore the sky’s “sublime” power as symbol of the divine; to assert the value of faith, as compared with the deceptive lights of the modern city? Must we simply stop talking about Van Gogh’s “madness” or his subjectivity?
Côme Fabre > Of course, there’s nothing strictly rational about Van Gogh’s landscape, but the point we thought worth emphasizing was the extent to which his pictures are inter-connected, and serve an intention he describes at length in his letters. What we were trying to show, generally, in the film is that Vincent Van Gogh is far more interesting than the tear-jerking stories people love to hear about him, which make him sound like some kind of saintly martyr: how he quarelled with Gauguin, cut off his own ear, was locked up in an asylum, was always short of money and starved of affection, committed suicide, and all the rest of it. Research on Van Gogh has advanced considerably in the last few years, particularly thanks to systematic analysis of his letters, which we try to quote in the film, but which you can read in full on a dedicated website (vangoghletters). The man you find in the letters is sensitive, cultivated and sincere, and also has a lot of humour in his make-up. He’s an expert on theology, but without a trace of bigotry; he’s as a much a fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies as he is of Voltaire’s biting irony in Candide. He relies on his brother Théo to keep him in touch with the latest developments in the art world, and with the Paris art market, whose workings he knows inside-out; and then, a few lines further on, he’s suddenly telling him - frankly and without hypocrisy - about his sex-life and health problems. Even in his lifetime, there was a huge gap between the way he was seen by his few intimate correspondents, and the people who knew him only through his paintings. When the Parisian art critic, Albert Aurier, gave him his first good write-up in March 1891, Van Gogh thanked him - but one gets the feeling that he wasn’t too happy at being compared to a circus animal, or some puzzling and dangerous visitor from another planet. You should read Aurier’s article (en français; en anglais): it’s amazing how Van Gogh’s art inspires him to the weirdest flights of fancy - he compares it to the work of “a brutal-handed giant”, “a child-like spirit” or “a hysterical woman having nervous convulsions”! Aurier was no fool, he knew perfectly well that all this nonsense had nothing to do with reality. It was just a marketing strategy to get a certain kind of Parisian art-lover - the kind who liked the symbolists, and was always on the look-out for the novel, the odd, the esoteric - interested. In a sense, Van Gogh’s death a few months later was the icing on the cake: his suicide put the final touch to the public’s image of him as a weird and solitary madman. That’s how the legend of the mad genius got started, long before gallery guides repeatedly papered the walls with it in the later twentieth century. Of course, the legend itself ties in completely with our hackneyed preconceptions concerning artists - ever since the Romantics, they’ve been seen as oddities. It will take a long time to correct that false image, and get the public interested in a “different” Van Gogh. This film is just one small contribution, among others...
CED > You compare Van Gogh’s Night to the work of earlier painters, who depicted natural disasters or storm-shredded skies (think of Greco’s clouds) - which suggests a certain continuity with his predecessors’ subject-matter. And yet, in all those earlier pictures, you have the feeling that there’s still some link with reality, while Van Gogh is obviously bent on distorting it - on going over the edge and into excess. His starry sky no longer really looks like a starry sky. Aren’t you playing down this “expressionistic” side of his work, and the break it represents with the art of the past?
CF > Why make a link between Greco’s View of Toledo (c1596/00) and Van Gogh’s Starry Night? One might be tempted to do that, but still find it a bit far-fetched: after all, the two artists are over two centuries apart, and Van Gogh probably never even saw Greco’s Spanish baroque masterpiece. But when we were working on the film, the conjunction instantly struck us as interesting, because you’ve got the same motifs (the wild sky, the steeple/spire at the centre), the same exhilarating yet disturbing atmosphere - and probably the same underlying intention.
The film had to be short, so we decided to focus on the romantic sources of Starry Night, with its reliance on the aesthetics of the sublime. But the brief reference to Greco at the end adds a further suggestion: there may also be a touch of the baroque in Van Gogh. The thing that makes Greco’s landscape baroque is the way it hits you in the face, and jolts or even frightens you - all for the purpose of calling you back to “the one true faith”. Van Gogh’s intentions are less clear-cut, but I think his picture has something of that too. You should never under-estimate the importance of Christian belief for Van Gogh, who had studied theology and tried to become a pastor, like his father. In his letters, when he’s trying to explain what he wants to do in his pictures, the word “consolation” turns up frequently. His aim is to produce images to comfort human beings - a prey on this earth to suffering, anguish and their own passions. But he’s not going to do that with cheap promises, with airy, saccharine visions of a paradise peopled by sweet, otherworldly beings, choirs of angels, and other feathered denizens of the heavenly hen-house. These were the staples of conventional religious art in his day - and totally at odds with the Protestant rationalism of an artist who preferred to take his motifs from the visible, everyday world, and deliberately gave them the rough, direct treatment they’d get from some simple artisan. That’s what he does, for example, in Madame Roulin rocking the Cradle (1889): a rather heavy-set woman, wedged in an armchair against a floral background, and holding a cord she’s using to rock an invisible cradle.
Van Gogh originally wanted to flank her with two still-lifes of sunflowers, and hang them as a triptych in a seamen’s bar in Arles, where he hoped they’d give the drinkers a sense of human warmth and comfort. He got the idea from a novel by Pierre Loti, which describes the agonies of sailors in a storm, praying before a rough china statuette of the Virgin and comforting themselves with thoughts of their wives and mothers on land. But there’s a difference: Van Gogh doesn’t give us the Virgin Mary, but Mother Roulin, a good-hearted native of Arles, who had welcomed him into her home, and whom he chose as a model because she was, for him, a vision of soothing and motherly warmth. The sunflowers were supposed to give the picture the feeling of a devotional image, with its floral offerings, placed there to save the seamen, not from shipwreck at sea, but from shipwreck on land - through alcoholism. Perhaps his Starry Night is another attempt to produce a “consoling” image - modern, secular and this time in landscape form. Van Gogh is inviting us to turn our backs on the illusory lights of the city, reflect on the enthralling, unearthly spectacle of the stars - and also find comfort in the sense of community we get from the villagers’ dwellings clustered beneath their proud steeple. Of course, this kind of moralising may come as a bit of a let-down today, may strike some of us as out-dated and off-putting - but it certainly isn’t at odds with a savagely audacious artistic vision. Van Gogh is showing us that an artist doesn’t have to glorify modern city life to be modern himself. And that, perhaps, makes him a kind of anti-Manet!
Manet - Masked Ball at the Opera (1873) - National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Bar at the Folies Bergère (1880) - Courtauld Gallery, London.
CED > The film focuses mainly on night. Is the brushwork the same in the daytime pictures and portraits, and does it have the same significance? Isn’t night, after all, fairly marginal in Van Gogh’s work?
CF > No, it isn’t marginal - after all, his very first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, is a night piece.
The Potato Eaters (1885) - Amsterdam
And Théo van Gogh seems to have thought that MoMA’s Starry Night was just a study, and could have led on to something even more ambitious. In the film, we tried to link it, not just to the other night exteriors, but also to the interiors - which is what the exhibition, Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night, did at MoMA in New York and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in 2008-2009. This gives us a far broader perspective, and helps us to see how Van Gogh’s work hangs together, with the help of elements like the structuring contrast between urban and rural life, artificial and natural light. On the other hand, it’s far harder to systematise his brushwork, since he tries out numerous different techniques at the same time, without ever pinning them to particular motifs. In the film, for example, we see him using vertical blocks of colour for the night sky over the Rhône in 1888 - and using spirals for the same motif a year later.
At the same time, he’s also using spirals for light-coloured backgrounds in daylight - as he does in the Musée d'Orsay’s famous self-portrait.
Anyway, this whole question of spirals is fascinating, and there’s still a lot one could say about it. We compare it to pictures of nebulae in popular handbooks of astronomy, but there’s certainly more to it than that. It’s disconcerting to find Signac also using a pointillist version of spirals a year later, in his strange portrait of the art critic, Félix Fénéon: it’s true the motif comes more or less directly from Japanese art, and is being used to experiment with rhythm in painting - but we may need to chase that further.
CED > In the film, you give various precedents for Van Gogh’s art (Millet, the romantics, Greco), but you never connect him with a definite school, or name later artists he influenced. He seems, in fact, to be a bit of a chameleon: he starts pretty much as a naturalist, is influenced by the pointillists and impressionists when he gets to Paris, and the mature work he produces in Provence (1888-1890) is often called “symbolist” or even “expressionnist”. Are you afraid to commit yourself?
CF > It’s true Van Gogh resists labelling, but that applies to all artists, if you examine the full range of their work. It may be impossible to sum him up in one word, but we can still try with Starry Night: the movement it’s closest to is symbolism. Partly because experts on symbolist art like Albert Aurier were the first to recognise and appreciate Van Gogh’s last period in his own lifetime, but chiefly because Starry Night embodies one fundamental aspect of symbolism: the longing for a lost primal unity between the spiritual and the material. Van Gogh’s letters repeatedly show that he isn’t content with an art - like the art of the naturalists and the impressionists - which simply transcribes visual phenomena, be they social, or physical and optical. Unlike the scientific rationalists, who spend all their time trying to find out how the visible works by dissecting it, analysing it, and breaking it down into ever-smaller pieces, the symbolists are interested in synthesis, and are seeking a whole which can’t be represented, but can be evoked with the help of symbols, colours or certain artistic techniques. Looking at Starry Night, we instantly know that we’re not seeing the weather, but a spiritual landscape, and a visual meditation on the meaning of human life in relation to the forces of nature. In the film, we linked that to the sublime, because the sublime is a clear and familiar concept, although it certainly isn’t wide enough to cover all the picture’s meanings. Quite apart from the theme, however, Van Gogh’s brushwork - clear, expressive and subtly attuned to different motifs - is no longer trying merely to suggest the artist’s unique and personal presence (think of Delacroix’s romantic canvases), but to convey an idea, to give the visible a spiritual dimension: for example, the star resembles a violent and deadly explosion, while the cypress becomes a black flame, a bridge between heaven and earth. Van Gogh’s way of reconnecting and fusing matter and idea is unique to him; it’s very different from the one chosen by his contemporary, Gauguin (another “symbolist” admired by Aurier) - blocked-off areas of colour when he’s painting, and direct incising of wood when he’s sculpting. And yet, fifteen years later, these two very different styles, and examples of non-European art seen in ethnological museums, are the very things which inspire a few young German artists in Dresden to invent a new kind of art which comes to be known as expressionism. Nonetheless, some observers also see, in Van Gogh’s flowing and supple forms, something which points the way to art nouveau. Generally, art is moving so fast around 1900 - with so much exchange and so many new ideas - that it’s hard to identify later developments which definitely grew out of his art alone.
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Erwan Bomstein-Erb (French)
Jane Mark (English)
Video & motion graphics
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