We artists are always pushing ourselves to do something new, unique, extraordinary. Something that hasn't been seen before. Something that can capture the imagination and passion of others. Something that we can obsess over, pour our hearts and souls into and believe that is a true representation of us and only us and no one else.
But we don't exist in a vacuum. No one does. In reality many of us are influenced by other artists who came before us. Whether it's visiting museums and galleries, or interacting with living artists, or studying them at school, the artists who came before us can be a source of inspiration and introspection.
Van Gogh is one such artist. His work and his unique style continue to inspire artists around the world. One of my favourite discoveries about Van Gogh happened when I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam a few years ago. Turns out that what we now know as his distinctive style and voice took a while to find. Early on, he painted a number of lovely, well executed paintings that are nevertheless not unique or remarkable because they could just as easily have been painted by any other good artist. It's only later on that he found his unique style and his true voice for which we now remember him and his art.
There is a lot of myth and legend about Van Gogh’s life, personality, and art. The most famous being that as a frustrated artist, he cut off his own ear in a fit of anger and passion and that he ultimately died without his work being truly appreciated. Indeed this story is one of the favourite cautionary tales told by many to aspiring artists. Perhaps some of this is true. But perhaps as more information comes to light about his real life and his struggles, some of it just creates a fascinating story and nothing more.
What is absolutely true is that Van Gogh was able to develop a style that has meant that that more than 100 years after his death, he is one of the most instantly recognizable artists globally. To some extent, that amount of exposure has led some of us (me included), to become a bit blaze about his artwork. After you’ve seen countless Van Gogh artworks printed on tea towels, calendars, mugs, and keychains and after you’ve some of his paintings in real life (only to be disappointed by the size of the painting in relation to the size of the crowd gathered around the painting obstructing your view of the painting itself), it’s easy to lose a bit of the appreciation of this artists. And yet, when you look at his later artworks, and I mean really look at them, you fall in love. When you look at them in their context alongside other artworks of the same period, you realize how just how different and unique they are. And how brave he must have been to pursue a style that is so different and received much criticism alongside some appreciation at the time.
To me, there are three main aspects that I particularly appreciate about Van Gogh’s work – colour, fluidity and composition. His colours are doubtless some of the most bold and striking colours in art. His blue skies are truly blue. His golden yellow wheat is so golden yellow, you almost feel the sunlight bouncing off the wheat into your eyes. His olive green trees are truly green in a way that almost feels surreal. His most recognizable works are indeed those with the most fearless use of colour – there are no pale colours. This is an artist who did not deal in nuanced tonality of colour but used it bold, bright and beautiful.
The fluidity of his brushstrokes and painting style is another element that I particularly love. His “tortured” olive trees are one of his most recognizable elements of many of his artworks. The sky is full of movement as painted by Van Gogh. It swirls and moves and twirls around and around. Even his paintings that focus on traditionally immovable objects, such as his Bedroom in Arles painting which depicts a bedroom with a bed and some furniture, is full of movement. All the furniture is slightly off centre and askew and introduces an element of movement (almost as if you’re in a bedroom on a ship in water) to the painting. It’s this movement that lifts paintings that could potentially be flat into a more lifelike and full of life existence.
Van Gogh’s composition was also one of his talents. If you study composition for paintings (or photography), you know the rule of thirds well. Many of his artworks, such as the Sower or Starry Night conform to this rule well and keep the eye moving. And yet many of his paintings seem to ignore this rule focusing on subjects in the centre including his numerous portraits, and other paintings such as Sorrowing Old Man and Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow Covered Field at Sunset. But actually if you look further, you realize that they are not centre at all, that they all are slightly askew and off centre, adding angles, balance, and dispersing the points of interest in the image across the canvas.
In addition to being an inspired and wonderful artist, Van Gogh was also a talented writer. Part of what we know about Van Gogh was due to his many letters with his brother Theo. Many of these reveal the worries and struggles he had about his art and his life, including worries about money and people appreciating and buying his art. And others are more contemplative and thoughtful. One quote of his that I particularly love is his often quoted words, "the way to know life is to love many things." As somebody who has a variety of interests, passions, and curiosity about all sorts of aspects of life and different cultures and countries, I can relate. Love many things! That is a wonderful sentiment. Perhaps I can add that the way to be happy is to love many things! Not sure if that's "the" only way to be happy, but it's certainly one of them.
And so with that, on this day, March 31, 2016 (his “birthday”), I join others in commemorating Vincent Willem van Gogh’s life, work, and lasting legacy.
* Image for this post is of a Vincent van Gogh painting entitled "The Bedroom" created in 1888 and is courtesy of The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.