Van Gogh: Prodigal Art

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

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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?

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We shadowed his footsteps in Arles.
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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.

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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.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Van Gogh

Café Terrace at Night

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Left: Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (on Place du Forum)  Arles, 1888

Right:  Same spot,  ‘Le Café La Nuit’ on Place du Forum in daylight, Arles, 2016

The spot may be less picturesque on a bright spring morning in 2016, but it’s still vibrant enough to cast its light into the darker streets.  Notice the yellow shirt on the passerby?  In my mind, it’s really a plain white tee that takes the gold cast once he steps within the fabled space of the Café Terrace .  After he strolls on past,  it resumes its ho-hum identity as a plain white tee.  (How could it possibly be otherwise?)

A little Van Gogh magic– it’s powerful stuff.

 

Engineers and Van Goghs–The Cogs and Brushstrokes of Language

m twain awful german lang

 

Another chapter in my struggle with the German language–a tragicomedy.

I’m back in a rudimentary German class and progress is slow.  I am learning. . . just not quickly.  And it doesn’t help that I spent the first two months sitting next to a Scotsman who looked like a young Paul Newman.  Honestly, Deutsch can’t compete with that.   So I’ve moved seats.

I sit closer to the back of class now, and I find it very interesting how different people react differently to class exercises.  There are only a few of us left in the class–where we started out with 25 or 30 in October.  That number was cut in half by Christmas, and has shrunk even more now.  (Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds German difficult.)  But here’s what I’m seeing:  Some people take nary a note and just listen to the exercises and explanations. Other people write down every syllable spoken in class, never lifting their heads from their notebooks.  Some fall in between (like me)–but each with their own quirks.  One classmate has made copious “cheat sheets” to refer to to help him with articles in various cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative); one has written down every vocabulary word we’ve ever spoken and highlighted the genders of nouns; one rocks back and forth slightly whenever trying to remember the gender of a noun.

Me?  I fall in the middle ground lot–writing and pausing to listen; listening and then trying to catch some notes on paper after the fact.  But my quirk is spacing out.  Now that Paul Newman is less of a distraction, I’m people watching my fellow students’ classroom habits.  But I’m also constantly pausing over the whimsy of the language.  I lost a good ten minutes in class the other day after learning the word “Fernseher“–TV set.  The minute it fell from my teacher’s lips, my hand shot up.  “How does that translate literally?”  “Far see-er.” she said.   How fabulous and retro!  The TV set, that box in the corner of the room that opens a window into other people’s worlds or other cities’ news–the far see-er box.  I was consumed for a few minutes by images of people sitting around the earliest TV’s, like characters in a sci-fi B-movie, gazing at far away places through static and wiggly lines.  Magic!   How great is that?!  I suddenly liked the German language again. . . and then I started wondering about other funny words.   There’s the stuabsauger (dust sucker–the vacuum).  And , oh–Kindergarten!   That would literally mean “children’s garden.”  A place for all of the little buds to grow tall and bloom!  How funny–perfectly logical and spectacularly whimsical and visual all at once.   And then, I started wondering about other words in English that I’ve never really thought about.  Well, “television,” for one.  I suppose that means “seeing from a distance.”  Well, there you go.

And there I went–having missed 5 or 10 minutes of what was going on in class while I pondered the whimsy and logic of language.  And while my classmate studiously referred to his charts and cheat sheets on cases and declensions, while the person to his left concentrated and rocked slightly.

And so it seemed crystal clear to me that there are two basic types of people in a language class:  the engineers and the Van Goghs.  The engineers get the specifics down precisely and probably become very efficient at running the language in the direction and at the speed that it should best run.  They build their language skills cog by cog.    The Van Goghs are a different beast.  We enjoy the broad brush strokes of language.  We are intent on communicating, and would like to do it well–we are just less geared (excuse the pun) toward the efficiency of communication and more toward the bright colors, the swirl and flow.  I tend to fall into the structure of German fairly well (okay, rudimentarily well)–the crazy, slipperiness of German verbs that like to come first, last, or middle of a sentence, depending on the sort of message you convey.  I get that on an intuitive level.  But noun genders, and German cases and article and adjective endings, they are less intuit-able to me.  They take a chart, or a precise cog in the brain (cut to measure and carefully placed just so).  They take a mind that sticks to its charts and does NOT slip, trip, and travel over the whimsy of a word in the middle of class.

It might be nice to have an engineer’s mind when you are trying to communicate with the travel agent or sort out your power bill at the municipal power office, under the stern gaze of the German office worker.  But, all in all, I wouldn’t trade it for the slips, trips and whimsy of the brain I have.    Efficient?  Hardly!  Amusing?  To me . . . and that’s enough to keep me happy, and to keep me going back to German class for the time being.