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by Will Hubbard
Van Gogh and The Colors of the Night
The Museum of Modern Art
September 21, 2008–January 5, 2009
An early farmhouse landscape, 1883. Dark hues, color blocks against the waning light; a motivation to veil the scenes of a youth in Brabant. To suggest that he’s embarrassed, wishes the drama of these places filtered, would be beside the point. To be given the name of a dead brother lends a pallor, but not a gloom. There is no feeling of morbidity.
Rembrandt’s effets de soir, but in the open air. The orange sun is an innovation, as if something valuable and striking were breaking through from behind the canvas. As though something had been overlooked. Pregnancy. The scene is set to break.
Beside me, an older couple fights about whether a painting in the first room is ‘early’ or ‘late.’ Turns out she’s right, it’s late, a point of contrast for the darker scenes. Still, I blink looking at the dates; a mere decade between these two wildly different styles?
He writes to his brother of a walk at dusk: “I had forgotten myself in that symphony.” The handwriting fluctuates between small and large— small toward the end if the page when he wants to make a few extra sentences fit. The anxiety of an incomplete thought. And drawings set into the text, another vow of accuracy. These must have been delightful letters to receive—or maybe they were terrifying.
A traveling pastor passes an evening sketching Au Charbonnage Café, but drawing is still his hobby. His lambs “socialize, share a drink, and buy coal.” An interest in people staying up, getting what they can from the artificial light. Flames compose a scene of otherwise disparate, veiled activity.
A curatorial note reads: “the artist believed that rural laborers stood closer to nature than other people, and were more strongly linked to the cycles of life.” Cycles of life? The artist believed…?
These are phrases meant for imbeciles, and yet they have purpose. The warmth of such early, puerile motivations allows distraction from the psychosis of his later years. Van Gogh’s “night paintings” without Van Gogh’s night—it feels like sitting over a glass of absinthe in the gaslight, tapping a foot on cobblestones. A deceptive comfort.
The Potato Eaters—are they human beings? The frame looks to have been scoured by the two thousand hands of a thousand people, acquiring the mysterious stickiness of long human use. Head of a Woman. It hardly emerges from the dark. She strains to be noticed, pulling away from something. A cell phone call beside me—she repeats ” where are you, where are you, how are you faring?”
The Watch (After Millet) is literally a reworking of a Millet reproduction—an overlay of color and linear light that will make his style. And again with The Cottage, 1885, the sense that the sky is bursting at a spontaneous seam. Is it magma, hell, or a gilded salvation on the other side? Children are playing everywhere, they love the quality of the hardwood for sliding. How will they dream of these pictures (they will) if they never stop to look?
Then the sun comes out, a proper point of reference, rising above French wheat fields, casting the world and it’s labor in discernible lines. Every aspect of a scene has a direction, a flow, as on a contour map. A contour map of visual perception, the directions themselves meaningless except in relation to those adjoining.
In the half-moon space the reverent have made in front of Starry Night, two girls are dancing. But they are not dancing; dancing is simply the only way I can describe it. They are doing something else, something more innovative. One says, pushing buttons on the strange device someone has hung around her neck, “I want to hear what that silly man says about this one.”
The Stevedores in Arles hung over my bed in a room I’d forgotten about. Three men, somehow oblivious to the violence of color crying from the harborscape behind them, engage in the labor of trade. One departs with a wheelbarrow, another pulls a wheelbarrow up a plank onto the boat, a third plays the guitar to make the task bearable.
Less emanates from the later work, despite its luminosity. It is familiar; it has been looked at by teenagers high on mushrooms for fifty years. So masterful that it dashes associations of its possible creation. It is as masterful as an advertisement: perfectly suited to the task at hand, undistracted as a set of arms plunging a shovel into soil.
The only late canvas that gives me pause is the Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital. It is a scene I know from a French film—Bresson maybe, or Lacombe Lucien. Or perhaps it’s just the way of old French hospitals: there is a courtyard where the sick can be seen—they are alive still, and can breathe real air. They are not hidden away to die in an over-lit hallway.
“What I’m Saying” – Koufax (mp3)
“In the Name of Love” – Koufax (mp3)
“Drivers” – Koufax (mp3)
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The consequences of oratory.
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