JENNIFER M. SCHAFFER
Beauty is one thing. Weird beauty – beauty in ugliness, beauty in unexpected places, beauty produced under unbeautiful conditions – is another. While Amsterdam’s Vincent van Gogh Museum was largely a let-down, one painting – “Undergrowth” – was not. Painted during van Gogh’s stay at an insane asylum in Saint-Remy, the painting portrays the home’s unkempt, mossy garden. Prohibited, for his own safety, from leaving the asylum, van Gogh’s choice of subjects was drastically limited, and the painter chose to spend his time and his canvases on the unruly growths of the garden. The result is an astonishingly tender painting – tender in the way van Gogh’s paintings so often are, as a consequence of the care with which van Gogh’s brush stroked his canvas. Even the angriest strokes, even the strokes which must have given van Gogh heartache, contribute to this sense of tenderness and of obsessive care. In the Vincent van Gogh Museum’s filled-to-capacity galleries, only a few paintings are given proper room to breathe – the rest, including “Undergrowth,” are crowded together. Placed at the corner of a wall in the gallery featuring van Gogh’s final paintings, “Undergrowth” would be easy to pass by accident from afar, easy to let in one eye and out the other. However, this reviewer, having long been possessed by the textures of van Gogh’s canvasses, found herself in front of the painting up close. And from up close, “Undergrowth” is a painting that cannot be passed, cannot be ignored.
Placed two feet before one’s eyes, “Undergrowth” is a kaleidoscope of blacks, blues, mossy-greens and sickly tans. The painting is neither cool- nor warm-toned, oscillating between patches of reddish undertone and chunks of dominant blues. The bottom nine-tenths of the painting are impressionistic to the point of near-abstraction; from up close, before learning the title of the painting, this reviewer felt as though she had fallen into a thick, deep swamp covered with dead leaves. The small brush strokes are layered over and over and each point in different directions; the eye swims across the canvas in search of a focal point and van Gogh leaves us to drown, save for the top tenth of the canvas, where colors and strokes become more precise, more representational, and more consistent in hue. The top tenth, depicting the woods beyond the garden, is wholly warm, in straw-gold and burnt orange, giving the sense of a distant, warmer world like a set of soft, open arms waiting for someone else. Yet it is the bottom nine-tenths where the eye returns and the mind boggles, trying to make sense of the strokes, trying to see what is beneath, trying to understand this compulsion towards weird beauty.
Understanding fails to come, until the painting is left behind and returned to a second time. This time, the viewer knows where they are heading, knows which corner holds the painting worth the price of admission. This time, the viewer may see “Undergrowth” from afar; and from afar, “Undergrowth” is an entirely different painting. It makes sense. It is a garden. The form of trunks, whorled as they may be, are self-evident; the direction-less brush strokes comprise thick patches of moss and flowers. The world shown is dark and musty, chilly and wet, but it is a world recognizable. It may even be Beautiful. But as soon as the canvas is approached and seen from up-close again, it returns to its state of chaos, of weird beauty: the world of a man stuck in an insane asylum but allowed his paints.
Van Gogh is an artist I cannot write about without dipping into the personal. Two years ago, I saw Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night Over the Rhone” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I was 18. I stood, completely mesmerized, before the canvas for an hour, and fell into a severe depression from which I did not emerge for several months. Two days ago, I visited the Van Gogh Museum and saw “Undergrowth,” which van Gogh painted while in a state of severe depression, of partial or total madness. It was obsessive in its strokes and texture, dark in its colors, sure in its sense of distance from warmth, and completely compelling in its chaos. “Undergrowth” is weird and beautiful and weird-beautiful; I stood before it at age 20, and felt very happy to be alive.