Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Van Gogh Moment during the Covid-19 Crisis


A "Van Gogh Moment" during the Covid-19 Crisis

By Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

There were iron bars on the window of Vincent van Gogh's room at the hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy, France. But when van Gogh looked out of that window and began to paint scenes of an enclosed wheat field and the surrounding hills, the iron bars vanished. Van Gogh had managed to break through the "quarantine" of his confinement at the Saint-Rémy medical facility without even leaving his room.

Today, vast numbers of people all around the world are experiencing varying-degrees of quarantine or "lock-down" due to efforts to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Van Gogh's experience in 1889 serves as a lesson, both inspiring and cautionary, for us all.

I had a "Van Gogh moment" recently which is helping me grasp the importance of reacting to illness, anguish, isolation and fear with some form of creative response. This is the "single candle" lit amidst the darkness or, in van Gogh's case, painting profoundly moving works of art even as his hopes for success and happiness were repeatedly dashed.

My "Van Gogh moment"  occurred during a food shopping expedition. Anne and I made our plans to go to the supermarket with a deliberation appropriate to the situation. We decided to walk via back streets instead of the main avenue. Maintaining the recommended social-distancing would be easier that way and we would have a chance to check out a number of the lovely gardens in our neighborhood.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Garden View (above) and Wild Violets (below)

The universe responded. it was a lovely day, with a "John Constable sky" overhead. Everywhere we looked, the gardens, flower boxes, even cracks in the sidewalk were bursting into life. Carefully-planted pansies vied for our attention with wild violets, clinging tenaciously to the wall of house.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Tulip Mania (above and below)

One of our neighbors utilizes a vintage cast iron bath tub as a flower bed. It reposes on their porch and puts on quite a show throughout the year. The tulips, lush red with velvety green leaves and stems, have been especially dazzling this year. 

Each tulip is a mini-universe, the "life force" in them surging forth as their petals open. It is hard not to give way to hyperbole when attempting to describe flowers as beautiful as these. Even the level-headed Dutch went crazy during the "Tulip-Mania" of the 1600's.

Vincent van Gogh certainly felt nature's life-force when he arrived in Provence in February 1888. He was intent on establishing the Studio of the South, a workmanlike substitute for his utopian dream of going to Japan. Just as van Gogh set up shop in Arles, winter changed to spring and he took his easel, canvas and paints on forays to the surrounding fields and orchards. The results were astounding, marking the transformation from the dark-toned landscapes of his early years to a realm of light.

Vincent van Gogh, The Pink Orchard, 1888

In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh shared his thoughts about this extraordinary series of trees in the springtime and drew sketches of the finished works he would soon be sending for potential sale. Sadly, none sold during van Gogh's lifetime.

                        Page of Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh,                       showing a sketch of Small Pear Tree in Blossom, April 1888

Vincent van Gogh, Small Pear Tree in Blossom, 1888

Van Gogh also mentioned in this letter to Theo how he intended to dedicate one of these paintings to the memory of their uncle, Anton Mauve (1838-88). Holland's leading realist painters, Mauve had unavailingly attempted to teach the basics of salon-style painting to van Gogh. Except for Theo, van Gogh found it difficult to collaborate with anyone but, such was his great heart, he did not forget a favor.

Van Gogh's mood swings never deterred him from wanting to succeed professionally and  to create inspiring art. To Theo, he wrote that he considered these depictions of blossoming fruit trees as subjects "that cheer everyone up." But in an even more revealing letter, this time to his sister, Wilhelmina, van Gogh wrote from Arles:

"We need good cheer and happiness, hope and love. The uglier, older, meaner, sicker, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent."

Van Gogh certainly needed cheering-up when he was admitted to the Saint-Paul Hospital in Saint-Rémy in May 1889. No further commentary is needed about the bust-up with Gauguin. It does to be underscored, however, that van Gogh, sequestered at Saint-Paul, used his lifelong devotion to beauty to reply to life's challenges and disappointments. With his paintbrush, he declared a resounding "yes" to the universe.

From his bedroom window at Saint-Paul, van Gogh looked out upon a small, enclosed field, planted with wheat. Then, in the room he was permitted to use as a studio, van Gogh depicted this otherwise unremarkable patch of earth, over and over, at every time of day and in every weather condition, including driving rain, as we see in the second version, one of the most treasured works of art in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Vincent van Gogh, Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Rain, 1889

Eventually, van Gogh responded to the care at at Saint-Paul but his recovery was marked by relapses. It was from the same window that he watched the night sky which led to painting Starry Night in June 1889. 

It is open to interpretation whether this fabled painting was a visionary work combining spirituality with art or merely an experiment with a more abstract style. What can - and should be - stated is that great art and therefore sincere feeling are not exclusively determined by proximity to a particular vantage point. It is not where we are or even what we are looking at that proves if our creative response is of merit.

In a time of personal suffering, quarantined from the world, Vincent van Gogh created Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise and Starry Night in the same tight quarters, a psychiatric hospital, let's not forget. 

Could van Gogh have done that, if there were no shimmering wheat field or wide expanse of sky beyond his bedroom window?  Could he have painted a masterpiece if the only plot of ground he had to look at was an overgrown, ill-tended garden? 

Vincent van Gogh, The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889

That is exactly what van Gogh did create with his painting of the hospital garden at Saint-Rémy. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this secluded place. Yet, in van Gogh's handling, this scene shimmers with life. The funky little bench by the side of the path offers us a place for a moment's reflection - or an hour's - under the shade of the straggly trees.

Most of us don't have ready access to a view of Provence beyond our bedroom window. With a little searching or maybe just plain luck, however, we can find a couple of trees, a tiny garden, even window box planted with flowers that is close to home, close at hand. For a few moments, we find refuge from the stresses of life, now made more difficult by Covid-19.

During our round-about walk to the supermarket, Anne and I spotted such a landmark, a cherry tree. We have walked past it, heaven know's how many times. But on that afternoon, it was gloriously in bloom, a "universe" unto itself, flowering into life.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Spring Street Scene, Philadelphia

As I said earlier, it is hard to resist hyberbole when gazing on such a sight.  But there was no denying how incredible was the billowing mass of cherry blossoms or the delicate beauty of a single flower. When the sky, which was constantly in motion a-la-John Constable, shifted from bright blue to the soft gray of a passing cloud, the whole atmosphere changed. What was true for the Saint-Rémy wheatfield was true for the cherry tree in our Philadelphia neighborhood.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Spring Blossoms

Anne and I enjoyed our "Van Gogh moment" and then it was time to go to the supermarket. When we made it back home, the news about the Covid-19 pandemic was bad and getting worse all the time. Does a "Van Gogh moment" or any other kind of epiphany matter under such circumstances?

I believe such moments of reflection, of returning to the primal elements of life mean a great deal. Right now, we are seemingly enduring a diminished existence. Yet, the Covid-19 crisis is offering us the opportunity of focusing upon what is essential. Even under the shadow of a terrible calamity, we can nurture the flame of living.

Here is a final quote from Vincent van Gogh on a method for finding meaning in life, valid in all seasons and circumstances, but never more so than now, during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

If one studies Japanese art, one sees what it is that an incontestably wise and philosophical man spends his time doing… He studies a single blade of grass. But that blade of grass leads him on to paint every plant, then every season, rolling landscapes, then at last animals and the human form. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short for him to do it all. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Introductory Image:

Vincent van Gogh, (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Pink Peach Tree. Oil on canvas, 80.9 cm x 60.2 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh,  (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Pink Orchard, 1888. Oil on canvas: 65.0 cm x 81.0 cm.  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)  Page of Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh with sketch  of Small Pear Tree in Blossom, Arles, c. April 13,1888. Pen and ink on paper, 21 cm x 27.1 cm.  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Small Pear Tree in Blossom, 1888Oil on canvas, 73.6 cm x 46.3 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise, 1889. Oil on canvas: 72 cm (28.3 in) x  92 cm (36.2 in). Kröller-Müller Museum KM 106.596  Source: The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  Rain, 1889. Oil on canvas: 28 7/8 × 36 3/8 inches (73.3 × 92.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.  # 1986-26-36. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890) The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy. Oil on canvas: 91.5 x 72 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum KM 101.508

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