Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On Van Gogh & Resting

There were many works at the Van Gogh Museum that made me swoon: The Potato Eaters and other works during Van Gogh’s early phase of somber earthen tones and peasant subjects, the copies of Japanese paintings and Ukiyo-e woodcuts, the wheatfield series with swirling clouds that remind one of the explosive brushstrokes in Starry Night, the elegant Almond Blossoms that figured heavily in the merchandise sold in the museum gift shop, not to mention Van Gogh's abundant self-portraits with their perennial pensive expression.

But because I was a student tourist navigating through three floors' worth of Van Gogh works, there was no time to truly stand before each of these works and observe them in detail. I found myself rushing through endless crowds, doorways and staircases, hopping from one brilliant portrait to another mesmerizing orchard painting, half-absorbing Van Gogh's post-impressionistic energy, half-peeking my watch to check whether I was late for my next class event. I was unable to feel truly present until I spotted the enlarged mural version of Van Gogh's The Bedroom (1988) on the second floor. Standing there for a good fifteen minutes, I realized what was so grounding about that particular wall – the quote from Van Gogh's letter to his brother Theo about his preliminary sketch for The Bedroom:

"Looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination."

The keyword was "rest." In the same letter to Theo, Van Gogh said he wanted to "express absolute repose" with the vivid yet calming color scheme of this painting. He applied the lessons he took on color theory in Paris during the formative years 1886-1888, which he explained in details to Theo, "the pale, lilac walls, the uneven, faded red of the floor, the chrome-yellow chairs and bed, the pillows and sheet in very pale lime green, the blood-red blanket, the orange-coloured wash stand, the blue wash basin, and the green window." A basic understanding of complementary colors would enable viewers to see why Van Gogh juxtaposed the "blood-red blanket" or the "faded red of the floor" with the lime-green sheets and chair cushion. The orange wash stand and blue basin achieve similar effects in highlighting each other in a way that soothes the eyes and emanates a restive quality.

The wall with The Bedroom at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

It is important to note that the wide range of colors was Van Gogh's attempt to emulate the Japanese prints he collected and often saw on Parisian magazines. However, Van Gogh's brushstrokes produce an entirely different atmosphere compared to that of a Japanese woodblock print or painting. While the latter often portrays a frozen cut in time of a domestic or natural scene with a signature flatness in colors, brushstrokes and composition, Van Gogh's bedroom is brimming with a nervous energy that cannot be contained within each dynamic stroke and layer of paint. The clever addition of white highlights on the wooden floor or certain objects in the room simulates the constant play of light that never stays static.

"La Courtisane" by Vincent van Gogh. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
(An example of Van Gogh's copy of Keisai Eisan's original Japanese work) 

The influence of Japanese aesthetics also figured in The Bedroom's composition -- the walls aren't quite aligned perpendicularly the way normal walls often are. Japanese prints usually feature interior space with unrealistic proportions and perspectives that nonetheless invites viewers to imagine depth and formulate their own system of perspective. Van Gogh's bedroom also shakes its viewers in a way that some, standing before the painting, might feel their ground tilting slightly as the Van Gogh's floor seems lower on the left and the far wall shifts out toward the street on the right. This disorientation is a result of the fact that Van Gogh's "Yellow House" (his actual house in Arles and the subject for his other famous painting) was positioned at a street corner and thus had to follow the contour of the street. Van Gogh made use of this unusual architecture and combined it with his muses about Japanese compositions. He admired how "the Japanese lived in very simple interiors, and what great artists have lived in that country," and therefore portrayed his room in its utmost sparseness and simplicity with a curious instability within his layered brushstrokes and static objects.

"The Yellow House - Google Art Project" by Vincent van Gogh at Google Cultural Institute. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Looking at The Bedroom within the passage of time also offers a new perspective on the painting that Van Gogh once described in an understatement, "It's simply my bedroom." It clearly isn't. Van Gogh rented the Yellow House in Arles with a grand vision of cultivating a community of artists in southern France, a Studio of the South, so to speak. The space was also in anticipation of his visiting fellow artist and rumored lover Gauguin, so when Gauguin and Van Gogh later underwent a fallout followed by Van Gogh's self-mutilation, the idealistic dream of the art studio also fell apart. The bedroom is therefore not only a personal space of a genius artist but functions to commemorate the height of his talent as well as the melancholic begin of his mental breakdown. After the original 1888 painting was damaged by a flood, Van Gogh kept revisiting the piece and produced two other versions with slight differences in 1889. The continuous iterations imply a certain obsession of the artist with the particular space and simultaneously project viewers into a magical tunnel of time in which Van Gogh madly worked on portraying his Arles bedroom. The discoloration of the doors, for example, also speaks volumes about the erosion of time -- the once lilac doors now only retains a pale blue since much of the red has faded.

Van Gogh's idea of rest surely does not simply mean a state of sleep and inactivity. It places viewers into a different realm, almost out of the continuum of time, to observe the life story of an insane, desperate and absolutely brilliant genius. Viewers could get lost within the few square meters of this bedroom, envision how Van Gogh once rested in that tiny space with only one bed and a couple of chairs, speculate his tense encounter with Gauguin, or simply do nothing. Standing before this painting with an empty mind is enough of a meditative experience worth trying. It is incredible how an impoverished artist with a few brushes and several color tubes could completely re-enchant the concept of rest. The unstable perspectives, carefully thought-out colors and tragic story of the suicidal artist all interweave into a narration that puts us into something close to a dream state. As our imagination focuses on the physical and psychological space of the artist, our mind approaches a state of rest that beauty sometimes achieves: a combination of pleasure and enlightenment mixed with melancholic musing and meditation.

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