Art In History Art Blog
My most recent post in this series was on Claude Monet, who so completely redefined the artistic enterprise that he set a new benchmark against which future artists had to define themselves. By limiting his focus to the facts of perception he created an unusually direct interaction between the artist and the visual world, but in doing so he effectively excluded the interests of most artists preceeding him, whether "classical" or "romantic".
There was, predictably, an almost immediate attempt to blend his new vision with the traditional concerns of artists. I have already discussed Cezanne, who in this context must be seen as a "classicist": concerned with the structure and order behind our perceptual world, what we KNOW as opposed to what we SEE. The second great "objection" comes from Van Gogh, representing , broadly speaking, the romantic thread in art: the projection of the artists feelings about what he sees onto the canvas.
I can't help but compare self-portraits by these two great post-impressionists. Both are dealing with the new palette set by the impressionists, and reinterpreting the impressionist technique of dabs of color that mimic the dicrete impulses of light and color on the eye. Cezanne has turned them into directional strokes which sculpt the surface and heighten our sense of the solid reality of the subject; Van Gogh has transformed them into restless acts of brush meeting canvas, transfering to the painting the intensity of the artist's feelings. With cezanne, we end up knowing almost nothing about the man; with Van Gogh, we know more than we can be comfortable with..
Van Gogh's intensity and passion go beyond volition to compulsion. In many of his works, it is clear that his intended message of peace and health is overwhelmed by the strength and hopelessness of his longing for it. "Starry Night" is a wonderful example of this: a scene which in its intentions is utterly peaceful - "Oh little town of Bethlehem..." - but in its ultimate effect, is the epitome of turmoil. So violent is the application of the paint that we can barely recognize that it is NOT a storm in the scene, but a storm in the artist's breast. This is matched by everything we know about his relationship with the world: he sought for friendship and love with an intensity which drove almost everyone away.
His many works of sunflowers are another example. Sunflowers for Van Gogh were a symbol of health and hope, an expression of his desperate belief that he had conquered his demons and emerged whole. But when we look at many of these works, we are able to see what he is trying to deny: the lurking presence of decay beneath the outward appearance of health.
One of my favorite works by Van Gogh is his "Bedroom at Arles". The journey to Arles was intended to free him from the poisonous influence of Paris; joined by Gauguin, he would at last be able to enjoy painting, friendship and lasting health. The "Bedroom" is again remarkable for the disjunction between what is represented, and what he projects through the work. It is a simple room with a few commonplace objects, ordinary to the point of boredom...until he filters it through his feelings. The room becomes incredibly claustrophobic, unable to contain the intensity of feeling with which he invests each object, so that one has the irresistible impulse to flee into open space. We have to imagine that some part of him was also prey to that impulse.
Lastly, a late work (ten years after his "early" work!), the olive grove. In the end he knew that he would never be well, and here the agony is more direct. Olive trees are tortured forms in themselves, and are made moreso by the violence and agony of his treatment, as pure an expression as we will ever see of a man's inner turmoil.