Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"A Certain Vibrating Light": Vincent van Gogh

In an 1886 letter to the English artist Levens, Vincent van Gogh wrote the following passage (in English, without alterations) from Paris:

...I have lacked money for paying models else I had entirely given myself to figure painting. But I have made a series of color studies in painting, simply flowers, red poppies, blue corn flowers and myosotys, white and rose roses, yellow chrysanthemums -- seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking
les tons rompus et neutres to harmonise brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not a grey harmony.

Now after these gymnastics I lately did two heads which I dare say are better in light and colour than those I did before.

So as we said at the time: in colour seeking life the true drawing is modelling with colour.

I did a dozen landscapes too, frankly green frankly blue.

And so I am struggling for life and progress in art.

In a letter to his brother Theo written from Antwerp, also in 1886, van Gogh's passion for color is again evident in his discussion of painting flesh:

When I compare a study of mine with those of the other fellows, it is curious to see that they have almost nothing in common. Theirs have about the same color as the flesh, so, seen up close, they are very correct -- but if one stands back a little, they appear painfully flat -- all that pink and delicate yellow, etc., etc., soft in itself, produces a harsh effect. The way I do it, from near by it is greenish-red, yellowish-gray, white-black and many neutral tints and most of them colors one cannot define. But when one stands back a little it emerges from the paint, and there is airiness around it, and a certain vibrating light falls on it. At the same time, the least little touch of color which one may use as high light is effective in it.

I just have to repeat that phrase: "a certain vibrating light falls on it." Magical. I can picture the contrasting, complementary colors mentioned in the first quoted letter setting up that thrilling vibration in the eye. I can imagine van Gogh bent over the canvas, toying with the thick colors of paint, stepping back to see how his experimentation is working, then eagerly leaning back in with his brush and sculpting the bold colors. I can see his total, intense absorption in the canvas, in his art.

Reading his passionate, poetic, and heartbreaking letters, I am repeatedly overwhelmed, both with excitement and sadness. His extreme joy in creating art, the delight he took in color, texture, and experimentation, and his love of nature and people, contrast with his vast loneliness, poverty, mental illness, repeated rejection, and increasing desperation. Despite his trials, the writing is beautiful, vivid and moving. I love the detailed way he describes the various landscapes and people. There is such energy to his language. Here is one last color-filled excerpt from a letter to Theo, giving his impressions of Antwerp, written on a Saturday evening in late 1885 or early 1886:

As to the general view of the harbor or a dock -- at one moment it is more tangled and fantastic than a thorn hedge, so confused that one finds no rest for the eye, and gets giddy, is forced by the whirling of colors and lines to look first here, then there, without being able, even by looking for a long time at one point, to distinguish one thing from another. But when one stands on a spot where one has a vague plot as foreground, then one sees the most beautiful quiet lines, and the effects which Mols, for instance, often paints.

Now one sees a girl who is splendidly healthy, and who looks or seems to look loyal, simple and jolly; then again, a face so sly and false that it makes one afraid, like a hyena's. Not to forget the faces damaged by smallpox, having the color of boiled shrimps, with pale gray eyes, without eyebrows, and sparse sleek thin hair, the color of real pigs' bristles or somewhat yellower....

That could be a prose poem.

All of these passages are included in a three volume set of The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a Bulfinch Press Book from Little Brown and Company. The first quote was found on page 513 of Volume II, the second was from page 478 of Volume II, and the last was from page 452 of Volume II.

The photograph of the poppy was taken on Mother's Day, 5/11/08, at the NY Botanical Garden in Bronx, NY. Note the complementary colors: red and green...vibrating light....

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