Art Review- Vincent Van Gogh, Painting in the open air.

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Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings exist today as spontaneous outpourings of his creative energy, and his Starry Night is certainly no exception. I was fortunate enough to view this painting firsthand, whilst on a trip to Amsterdam, and can truly say was left mesmerised by the way the artist looked at nature. I was fascinated at how brilliantly he juxtaposed loud and vibrant shades of orange, yellow and red with cold whites and blues, resulting in his paintings displaying great intensity.

Vincent  began painting subdued landscapes in the mid-1880s under the influence of the Barbizon School; the group of plein air painters who are sometimes seen as the precursors to the Impressionists. The viewer is immedietly drawn to the work as the sky and stars pulsate with aureoles of white, green or blue scrolling from left to right across the canvas, moving as the swells of ocean waves towards the crescent moon in its halo of yellow in the corner. The moon and stars hit you as un earthly balls glowing in an orange-yellow light, meanwhile the clouds have begun to whirl into a backdrop of night excitement. Between hills and the sky a band of light green brushstrokes may represent mist rising from the earth after the heat of the day, marking the movement of the picture that is ineffectually checked only by the tip of the church steeple just breaching the line of blue hills, and by the mass of deep green cypresses in the foreground that writhe upward ‘like tongues of fire.’ All nature is in turmoil but still the village sleeps unawares below. [1]

‘Starry Night’ proclaimes its status as a forerunner of both the Fauve and Expressionist movements in 20th-century art. As you arrive at the strange yet hypnotic masterpiece it feels like a summation, as though the whole exhibition has been building up to the climactic moment when we catch our first glimpse of it hanging in the distance. Every millimetre of the canvas is given equal visual weight in terms of the intensity of the colour, dynamic movement, and paint texture. The things of the earth (fields, trees and buildings) merge with those of the sky (clouds, sun, moon and stars). Yet, it still remains unclear whether Van Gogh intended the picture to be read as a pantheistic celebration of the natural world, a wild vision of a universe in chaos, or a bitter reflection on the indifference of nature to man and all his works. ‘Not only is there nothing else quite like it within Van Gogh’s own work, there is nothing else like it in art.’

Another painting I found myself drawn to ‘Cypresses’ had been cleverly placed beside ‘Starry Sky’ proving as a poignant comparison. It is tempting to see these pictures (one at daytime, the other night) as a reflection of the artist’s lighter and darker moods. “Cypresses” suggests joy and living in the moment whereas “The Starry Night” tends to reinforce the feeling that for him life was somewhere else. The two paintings set together in this intimate setting invites viewers to slow down, and look closely at the artworks.

One leaves the exhibition not only fascinated but also intrigued into the extremely complex mind of such a lost soul. As I found myself wandering amongst the views of Arles countryside, to the gardens of the asylum at St Remy where he spent his final days, I felt a sense of longing to transcend back to his time and tell him what a phenomenon he has now become. It is incredible to think that he only sold one painting during his lifetime, if only he knew what his works were to become, perhaps this tortured genius would have hung on a little longer.

[1] Richard Dorment


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