I’m back in the mode of thinking about art. Fine art – paintings. Out of any artist I can come up with, Van Gogh’s art is the most intimately communicative of his state of being. You can see what he’s feeling in the colors he uses, the textures of the paint – not just the concept he wants to capture, but his emotions, his connection, his outward expression of inward perception. That’s why I love him so much, and why his art hits me right in the gut when I look at it.
When I saw my first Van Goghs at the National Gallery in London, I reflexively let out this little squeak, almost a distressed sound, and several people turned to look at me, probably to make sure I wasn’t about to upchuck on the heels of that crude display. Sunflowers, a chair, a pair of crabs – fairly simple, innocuous stuff, no hidden messages or symbolic meanings, no profound statements or grand, sweeping canvases, and yet, there’s a poignancy in these paintings, as if he’s left pieces of his self inside the images, with their shaky edges and thick slaps of paint.
One of my favourite paintings, not at the National but at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, is The Walk – Falling Leaves. I first saw a picture of this painting many years ago, when I was reading Jean Paul Sartre’s “Nausea,” and it seemed to me the perfect representation of Antoine’s confrontation with existence in the park, a sort of melding and separating that he experiences between himself and in particular, the trees, and describes as the melting of a veneer, a residue of “soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, a frightful, obscene nakedness.” He’s frightened, horrified, and also mesmerized and grasping for understanding within himself, in the deepest resonance he can manage.
Van Gogh’s paintings seem to me to exist on this level of revelation. In The Walk, the trees are lovely and majestic representations of a fall day, and also twisted and blackened around the edges and at the roots, grasping at the earth as their temporary death approaches. They are, as Antoine explains, a breathless understanding, a “belonging… that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea.” The objects and landscapes he painted belong in that same way: the chair a part of the quality of the man, the sunflowers a class of yellow objects, external things he managed to capture without changing anything in their nature. They live in a way that, as Antoine explains, inconveniences us – or me, at least. A wonderful, breathless, squeaky inconvenience.
I think that’s the best individuals can hope for when searching for some form of elevation. I think it’s a mistake to believe that a sense of achievement ultimately comes in the form of spiritual comfort. Or no, that’s not quite what I mean to say. I guess it’s the thought that we’re really getting anywhere by seeking comfort that is the mistake.
Not that I think Van Gogh was an enlightened man. I think he was a troubled man, battered by his own emotions and his inability to control all that he thought and felt, until he picked up his palette. Then, there is evidence of controlled chaos on his canvases. Controlled chaos is the true awakening of the “spirit” as it’s known. I’m not suggesting this comes with self mortification or the slashing off of body parts – not the sense of being in the way as Van Gogh felt himself to be – nope. Controlled chaos is the trick of it. To see with an “artistic eye” the abstractions of life, to allow ourselves to actively experience the horror, and obscenity and the nausea, and then to be able to find our way out of the park, stand opposite of the image, and smile back as it smiles at us. To be conspirators in the depictions.
That’s what his paintings are. That’s why they are so much more than paintings.