Painting of the Day

9 Dec



The Olive Trees. by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Oil on canvas, 1889. Currently on view at MoMA. 

Notes from 

In the blazing heat of this Mediterranean afternoon, nothing rests. Against a ground scored as if by some invisible torrent, intense green olive trees twist and crimp, capped by the rolling, dwindling hillocks of the distant Alps, beneath a light-washed sky with a bundled, ectoplasmic cloud.

After van Gogh voluntarily entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy in the south of France in the spring of 1889, he wrote his brother Theo: “I did a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry sky.” Later, when the pictures had dried, he sent both of them to Theo in Paris, noting: “The olive trees with the white cloud and the mountains behind, as well as the rise of the moon and the night effect, are exaggerations from the point of view of the general arrangement; the outlines are accentuated as in some old woodcuts.”

Van Gogh’s letters make it clear that he created this particular intense vista of the southern French landscape as a daylight partner to the visionary nocturne of his more famous canvas, The Starry Night. He felt that both pictures showed, in complementary ways, the principles he shared with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin, regarding the freedom of the artist to go beyond “the photographic and silly perfection of some painters” and intensify the experience of color and linear rhythms.

My comments:

After reading a fantastic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith titled “Van Gogh: The Life,” it completely changed my conception of Van Gogh, and now whenever I see his paintings I find them very chilling, because they came from a source of acute madness. The biography is fantastic and I highly recommend (it will be one of the many art books I plan to review and post on this blog soon), but it really makes you dislike Van Gogh. I’m not sure if he was mentally sick his entire life or if it only surfaced late in his life, but either way it’s hard for me to pity him after the way he treated his loving younger brother Theo. Van Gogh constantly used Theo for money while refusing to produce salable art even though he promised he would (although ironically now he could have paid Theo back for every debt and much more), and simply acted like a terrible person to his family and just about everyone else around him. 

Nevertheless, I must admit that Van Gogh’s paintings really are amazing. His signature wavelike line, in this painting as in most of his later paintings, weaves through the entire picture, almost as if he painted the whole image using a single line and never letting his brush leave the canvas. The unbelievable amount of paint he always uses make his paintings three-dimensional, and the texture is so inviting that you want to touch it (although if you tried, you’d probably get instantly tackled by at least three security guards). 

I wonder if Van Gogh actually enjoyed painting, or if in all his insanity his painting was simply a product of it. How much was his artistic genius part of himself versus part of his sickness? If it can be attributed at all to his sickness, even if partly, what does that say about mental disease? Why can it be so destructive and yet so creative at the same time?

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara December 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    something new, a genius painter who is insane.

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