Van Gogh: Prodigal Art

Art in the Autumn #2   — via Daily Prompt: Facade

Stolen Van Goghs recovered, Associated Press

I woke up this morning to the news that two Van Gogh paintings, stolen 14 years ago, have been found in Italy.  (The news blurb can be found here.)  After 14 years, there was no expectation that these paintings would ever come back home to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and it’s fair to say that the museum director was absolutely giddy with excitement when the news broke: “‘The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for,'” said museum director Axel Ruger. ‘We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years.'”

If Mr. Ruger had a fatted calf at hand, or if artwork was inclined to dine, for that matter, I’m sure a great feast would be in the works.   In fact, I imagine that a great feast and homecoming celebration are in the works anyhow–centering around the returning art, but fattening up the people who are ecstatic to welcome it.   How could you not celebrate the return of two Van Gogh paintings?  At the very least, you must revel in the return of the property: reportedly worth over 30 million dollars.  But beyond the quantifying, there is the qualifying value of Van Gogh.  The beauty, the daring, and  . . . that other thing about Van Gogh.  That thing, that hard to explain thing.    van-g-starry

Is it me, or is there something radically personal about Van Gogh and his art?  In every way, he and his art are prodigal.  And because of that, they are life.  Your life, my life, each moment of life that is extravagant.   The simple beauty of the crisp starry night that we had here in Florida last night– so mundane, I suppose, but so vibrant when you actually look up to notice it (and though the sky is not swirling, the breeze on your cheek gives the world that effect, if only you will notice).    van-gogh-1

Or the moment when you look in the mirror and actually see yourself today, as you are and without judgment, erasing the 20-some years of what you thought you looked like (and maybe  what you still look like in the right light, with your hair done just so, and your makeup expertly in place)– but at 50 years old, in the stark morning light, before you have raised your facade to meet the world, you find new movement to your face and new tones in your skin.  The jowls are sliding here, the eyes crinkle there, the furrows are surely evolving from expression lines to permanent fixtures.  You see the shade of your ancestors in your own face– and you recognize the movement and energy, and changing moods, of Van Gogh’s own self portraits.   (Some people try to uncover a descent into madness in his shifting self portraits– I see only lighting, only mood, only the natural movements and shifts of life. Changeable; life is nothing if not changeable.)

On the prodigality of his art, it is interesting to note that the two works that are returning home are early works– a traditional seascape and landscape with church.  They are lovely, but don’t show the hallmark of his later works–the lavish, thick paint (a month’s wages spent on one painting!) and movement that so well expresses mood and vigor.  If the earlier works capture moments in everyday life, the later works both capture and release those moments, those energies.

Sure, his work is pretty and bright, but that’s not what instills such fervor in his followers.  Why has my family pursued him in Paris, shadowed his footsteps in Arles, and greedily devoured his work in the form of a birthday cake?  What inspires that devotion?

We shadowed his footsteps in Arles.
We  devoured The Starry Night, in birthday cake form.

It’s the capture and release that gets us.  The energy remains.  We feel the life, experience the life, rather than just observing it.

Self portrait, after ear mishap.

Or maybe it’s the sheer prodigality– in every sense.  Van Gogh went full throttle into his art–whole tubes of paint smeared across a canvas, skies that move and refuse to stand still  on a static canvas, and his proclivity for running headlong into his own canvases (on good days and bad, with ear or without).  Full throttle.

Did you know that Van Gogh left school early (out of financial necessity) to work as a dealer in an art gallery?  When that life turned sour, he threw himself into his faith and began to teach and then minister in the Church.  But in time it was clear that he didn’t fit the Church’s mold and he was released from his post.  He turned back to art, but as an artist, not a dealer.  Full throttle, he painted himself into the canvas, he became the creator.  

But, eventually, disaster.  The well told tale is of an unstable artist who died at his own hand, mad and destitute.  But that’s just one narrative, and recent investigations have brought that story into question. . . because, even in death, he won’t stand still.  Prodigals have a way of returning.

And, today, we can celebrate the fact that their art does too.

In the streets of Arles.
In the streets of Arles.


Salzburg in Sepia

Tucked below the headlines of terror yesterday was another sad note, from a very uplifting life.  Charmain Carr, the actress who played Liesl in The Sound of Music, has died.  For all of us who love the movie, or love the story and spirit of the real von Trapp family, or love the city of Salzburg– and this must surely include a lot of us– this news is sure to prompt a moment of reflection.

I offer a small tribute here:  photos of Salzburg and the Villa Trapp in a muted sepia.

The Hohensalzburg Fortress rises over the city streets.


St. Peter’s Cemetery, Salzburg. Familiar from the movie Sound of Music, and a beautiful, poignant place to visit.  The von Trapps didn’t actually have to hide out here, but it’s a lovely and historical spot.  We walked through two days before Christmas, and families were placing small Christmas trees before the larger graves and preparing the trees with candles to be lit for the holiday.  


Another remarkable view from St. Peter’s, with the Hohensalzburg looming large.


Outside of Salzburg, at Hellbrunn Palace. A quiet spot for anyone who is, or feels like they are, 16 going on 17.  For a time, the gazebo was open for visitors to come, sit, enjoy, and maybe (maybe?) sing a little.  After an elderly woman fell and broke a bone–apparently having slipped and fallen while reenacting the scene where Liesl leaps from one bench to the next, all the while singing– the gazebo was locked for good. (An unfortunate end to her escapades, but I bet it was totally worth it.)    Today, you may pay your respects, but you may no longer sing and dance. 


The elegant Villa Trapp, home of the von Trapp family in earlier times. Now a boutique hotel, a truly delightful, historical, and hospitable place to stay.



Art in the Autumn #1 – Picasso: A Horse is a Horse


Of course.  Of course?

Well, actually, not necessarily.

Take, for example, “The Picasso” in Daley Plaza in Chicago.  It is untitled– which is the first tricky thing about it.  No hints to tell you what it is.  I walked by it for years, always assuming it was a horse.  I’m sure I’ve heard plenty of Chicagoans refer to it as “the horse,”  which looked about right to me.  (The long muzzle, the powerful haunches, the glamorous mane– it all fits.)  But on our recent visit to Chicago, my daughter said, “It’s a baboon.”  That’s all, no debate.  Clearly, it’s a baboon.  Duh.  And, guess what?  I totally see that too.  (How could I not have seen that before?)

However  . . .

it turns out that if you view it from the side as you come around it, instead of straight on . . .


Sculptor’s model.

it’s a woman’s profile.  In fact, at just the right angle, you really see the woman and her cheekbone lines from the front– especially if you look at the sculptor’s model in the Art Institute of Chicago.  The hair, the shoulders, the cheekbones, it’s all there.

Although that model could still be an especially fetching baboon.  Hard to say.

Picasso designed this mammoth statue for the city of Chicago– it’s 50 feet tall and weighs 163 tons.  At that size, whether or not you understand it, you will find yourself looking at it.

dsc_0689But wait– there’s more.  Because it’s a huge piece of art in a huge public space, you will find yourself as part of a community that interacts with it.  People navigate by it, eat lunch by it, stage movie scenes around it (remember the Blues Brothers?), and allow their children to play on it.

Can you do that?  Play on a Picasso?  Is that cool?  Some onlookers clearly think not, but others seem to believe this was Picasso’s intent all along– let the children run and slide on it!

Me?  In my head, it will always be a horse, but Picasso loved bending the lines of life.  I think he’d be thrilled that we are perplexed.  “Keep your eyes squinting at it, your mind chewing over it, your children running up and down on it,” this is what I think he’d say.

Picasso at Home, by Rene Burri
Picasso at Home, by Rene Burri

After all, he’s the guy who said, “Everything you can imagine is real,” and “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”

So Chicago has its untitled Picasso,  a gift given freely by the generous  artist– a little nonsense standing at the navel of a great city, daring its inhabitants to guess its riddle.  Pablo Picasso knew exactly what he was doing. . .because even if we don’t get it, we still get it.

“If I paint a wild horse, you might not see the horse…  
but surely you will see the wildness!”  Pablo Picasso




Chicago: Bean There . . .

Done that?  You can’t say that about a town like Chicago, can you?  You’re never really done with it– too much to see, to do, to take in.  Always changing, always jumping.  Nope, “been there” maybe, but “done that” doesn’t cut it.

And now for the pun:

This is the Chicago Bean.


It’s fondly called the Bean,  but really it’s  Cloud Gate by artist Anish Kapoor.    Dating to 2006, this sculpture stands in Millennium Park and is a crowd pleaser!  It is visually stunning, but it’s also entertaining.  The polished surface reflects the cityscape in a fabulous fish-eye way.

And if that’s not interesting enough for all of us self-absorbed earthlings, it reflects us!   You can dance, goof around, and posture, and you are reflected in the bean.  You can even take a picture of yourself taking a picture of yourself.

More interesting, though, is the way it reflects the larger movements of the people, the community around it.  We were in Chicago this past weekend while a weekend long Jazz Fest was going on in Millennium Park, and the music and the constant movement provided a fascinating “urban dance” in the polished surface of the Bean.   The people were a constant swirl, while the buildings stood static . . . but not so static.

The Bean buildings vs the real buildings. One set swings with the jazz, the other stands tall and serious.
The Bean buildings vs the real buildings. One set swings with the jazz, the other stands tall and serious.

Under the spell of the Bean and the jazz,  the buildings looked like they were swaying with the music too.   And why not– a sunny day in the park in Chicago will do that for you.


Our trip to Chicago was a spur of the moment thing– missing our travels and bracing for a possible hurricane in Florida, we decided to book a flight to Chicago and get the heck out of Dodge.  A little impulsive; a lot fun.

Chicago is a fantastic city.  I lived there for about two and a half years in the early/mid 90’s, and I hadn’t been back since, so I was really excited about this trip.

Had I forgotten my way around the city in the intervening decades?  A bit. . . but maps and cabbies solved that problem.  And, besides, a weekend trip to Chicago only leaves you time for the essentials:  strolls along the River Walk, a visit to the Art Institute, and shows at The Second City.  (And, as an added perk for us, a Jazz Fest.)

I’ll probably post more on Chicago in the weeks ahead, but here are some photos to whet your appetite.

First, a collage of city scapes:


Second . . . city.  The stage at Second City (proving grounds for John Belushi,  Gilda Radnor, Steve Carrel, Tina Fey, Steven Colbert, Dan Aykroyd, Peter Boyle, Chris Farley, John Candy, Mike Myers . . . would it be easier to list comedians who didn’t get there start here?)

The improv stage at Second City–the first show we took in.

More tidbits on Chicago in the weeks ahead.  For now, so long, and all that jazz. . .