International Writers Magazine: Understanding Van Gough:
Goghs Spicy Little Secret
been so done. You're wasting your time!", was the
not so subtle reaction from my ten year tenured, LACMA touring
docent, wife, in reaction to a Van Gogh story idea I had based on
pictures taken in the Fall of 1999 when we toured Southern
France, "Following Van Gogh". Actually it was a specific
photograph taken in Arles, our trips take off city, that sparked
my thought line.
as it was, one hundred-and-ten years earlier, when something in
Arles sparked Van Gogh to write his Paris-based art dealer brother,
Theo, that Arles would be a wonderful place to begin an art
school in the South."
What was it that
so attracted Van Gogh? One clue was in photos taken 6 am one morning,
just as the first beams of sun were bringing to life the colors of the
morning market, especially the spices. Laid out on a table top, tray
by tray, the array of multi-colored spices had suddenly turned into
a spectrum from deep, rich orange to luscious lemon, yellow.
It dawned on me as I looked at the photos, that those glowing early
morning spices were something Van Gogh saw each and every morning.
Looked at it up close, each spice seed and berry resembled a little
dab of paint. But, stepback and they became a harmony, a
mélange of design layer after layer of color
in what to me could easily become a pallet of sunflower toned paints.
Thats what I believe Van Gogh recognized in Arles, just before
he actually did create, what I call his sunflower pallet. Another photo
taken out the window of a moving bus shows one of the sunflower fields,
which ringed the city. Millions of individual, eye-popping, sunflowers
forming a single, unbroken panorama of color.
Seeing those pictures again, I remember thinking back then, that the
overall effect was almost psychedelic! Certainly hypnotic! And, I realized
that I was cleverly talking myself into believing I had really
uncovered the spicy little secret behind Van Goghs change
of palette in Arles. It was good an answer as anyone elses.
Especially when later I learned that Van Gogh had other secrets to share
as well. As we left Van Gogh in Arles and headed for our Oise river
cruise, with an enroute bus stop to visit the Avignon Palais des Papes,
I was totally unaware of any of this.
If we had been living in a parallel time frame, while our tour was exploring
the French Popes castle, Van Goghs life had become total
Sturm and Drang. His letter suggesting the opening of an art school
to brother Theo, was the key to the chaos. Though he did find
a suitable house with studio and painted the exterior sunflower yellow,
the only artist who showed was Paul Gauguin, thanks to brother Theos
bribing him by agreeing to become Gauguins Paris agent. From day
one, there were screaming arguments, culminating into almost open warfare
when Gauguin brazenly painted Van Gogh as awkward and confused while
addressing a sunflower still-life. Vincent screamed, It was him...my
becoming mad! And so it went. Until, in a final fit of pique, Van Gogh
cut off his ear.
restored a short period of peace as in a drunken moment they presented
the ear to a bar lady, spurring the rumor of a Van Gogh romance.
However, peace was short lived. Soon Gauguin went packing back to
Attempting to return sanity to his life, Van Gogh checked himself
into the St. Remy sanitarium. There, on another bus stop, we caught
up with him. Seeing nothing remarkable in either his room or from
his iron-barred windows. While there, Vincent painted a number
of interior sanitarium scenes, a self portrait and a sketch of himself
at the hospital entrance.
saw all. Our stay was short. Looking at another page of 1999 reflections,
other positives began to percolate coming from Van Goghs Arles
stay. It was in the initial glimpses of his newly- constituted
sun-flower kissed palette. You can see them in his Starry
Night, a sun-flower still life and his painting of
La Jardin de La Maisor DeSante A Aires,seen on a nearby tourist
St. Remy, a now healthier Van Gogh was traveling again, heading
north,painting as he went. It was one those road paintings
that clued me into another Van Gogh secret. In his painting,
The Bridge at La Point de lAnglois, Vincents
take was to show off his new sunflower palette. To my camera,
the bridge is dark and with the white- washed house behind it, I
could have shot it with black & white film.
Viewing the actual bridge and his painting of it, convinced me from
that point forward, whatever Van Gogh painted, I would take
my photos in black & white, allowing Vincent and his colorful
palette full stage. Bless him the concept. Even though our time
in Auvers was limited, I was able to put 2 paintings to the test.
des Papes, home of the French Pope, was an interesting stop. In
preparation for the Millennium celebration, repair work was everywhere.
In one hall, my eye caught an Old Testament ceiling; Hebrews with Torahs
in hand. Just under it, beautifully sun-lit New Testament stained glass
windows. For hundreds of years theyve been together in blissful
harmony. Were it only that life copied art.
story/photo book contains the usual. The most interesting photos
are a handsome quay sign Auvres Oise,village de
peintres, showing threegroups of golden painted Van
Gogh style houses, each topped with a golden roof. Then, theres
the Auberge Ravoux, Van Gogh's rooming house. The windows of his
second floor rooms open above the street level restaurant of the
same name. There, pay-as-you-enter, is a tiny room with limited
memorabilia. A photo taken from a distance, shows the lovely La
Jardin De Daubigny, with Van Goghs rendering on an adjoining
tourist sign. Brancusis sculpture placed at a prominent
park setting - portrays a determined-faced, hale and vigorous Van
Gogh, shouldering his pack with protruding easel, striding
in search of a likely subject.
Finally, after a good
walk, we found his likely subject. His final subject. Final canvas.
The tourist sign shows a picture of a field with its upper third, a darkominous
sky flocked with black birds and true to his Arles vision
the lower two- thirds, a field of golden wheat.On the path returning
from this site, Van Gogh shot and mortally wounded himself.
What motivated his
suicide? Auvers-sur-Oise was wonderfully productive for him; he completed
71 canvasses in 80 days. One painting, The Church at Arles, was a test
of my theory, photographing in black and white to contrast with Van
Goghs color. My church is four black and white photos mounted
in what my dear friend and fine artist, Patrick Walsh, would call
a Photomosaic. Van Goghs palette rendered his version
in lighter, warmer mid-tones, adding one small red roof for interest.
Vincents Town Hall, painted on a holiday, July 14, 1890, places
the building aconsiderable distance from his easel. He added two small,
yet prominent trees much closer to his easel, one on each side
of the building, each holding red and blue streamers with a red
& white target shaped close-up decoration, plus seven others hanging
on some kind of wire.
Van Gogh completely
eliminated an oval garden to reveal a red door. In place of the cobble
stones is an impressionistic, red and gold cobble stone look-alike in
multi sized streaks. The steeple belfry looks like a Disney artist drew
it; its almost cartoony. Talk about artistic discretion. On my
next to last Auvers page, I believe I found one additional Van Gogh
secret. He may have created scenes where there was no scene. In this
case, his painting isentitled, LEscalier D Auvers.
What Van Gogh shows in his painting are two nuns in black habits walking
towards us on a country road, which has been painted as seven
colored lanes. In foreground left are two young ladies wearing long
white dresses with black sashes, walking away from us. To their left
is a garden which Van Gogh has balanced, by placing a second created
garden to the right of the nuns. And, right behind the nuns is
a receding landscape with a stone wall. In the background, he
shows a vertical hill, on which at the top, he has placed a white house.
Scene left, to reach the house, Van Gogh has painted a long, winding
banistered wooden stairway. That is his painting. What
did I see in the clearing where Van Gogh made this painting?
A small, perhaps, 16 step wooden stairway with a small tree trunk
Banister, bottom to top. In a completely separate location is a gabled
stone faced home and nearby, a second home. Finally, a standing
alone stone wall.
me, how did Van Gogh ever make his canvass, from what he
and I saw? Talk about an artists creative discretion
and (S-h-h!) his secrets? But, I had no way of knowing when I shot
the photograph of the two churchyard, leaf-covered headstones
where Vincent and his brother Theo lie, was that Vincent had one
final secret, which we saw come to life later on a street in the
crowdedMontmartre sector of Paris.
© David Russell
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