Van Gogh and life’s true colours
We went to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy the other day. There’s far too much verbiage around about him and I’m certainly not qualified to add to it. It’s just that I was simply blown away by the colour. I’d been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam over 20 years ago, so must have seen many of these pictures before – but it’s amazing how the memory, like sunlight, makes colours fade. The RA show was arranged more or less chronologically. So we are assaulted by his trumpet-like blast of colour as we proceed from the Holland and northern France rooms, and enter the heat haze of Provence. The window shutters are flung open, the cobwebs blown out, the midday sun streams through.
They’re almost absurd sometimes – green sky, blue grass, sickly yellow faces – and yet… they’re alive, they’re real, they’re realistic, they’re true. Few get away with it. But Vincent doesn’t just get away with it – he overwhelms us with it. Like these two from his convalescent retreat in Saint-Remy Hospital in 1889.
l: Cypresses (June 1889); r: Hospital at Saint-Rémy (October 1889)
Inevitably, reproduction (of the hospital in particular) completely fails to convey the vibrancy and movement – but ‘in the flesh’, what hit me between the eyeballs about the hospital is that it is a rainbow. One’s eye is driven by the brushstrokes from colour to colour, from image to image – much as one’s eye is carried in real life by a beautiful scene. And every corner of the spectrum is there, more or less.
Here’s another gem I picked up from Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful The Wild Places.
Writing in 1938, the painter Paul Nash spoke of the ‘unseen landscapes’ of England. ‘The landscapes I have in mind,’ he wrote, ‘are not part of the unseen world in the psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived; only in that way can they be regarded as invisible.’ (p225)
Spot on – we see… but we don’t see. What should be, and is, visible, remains invisible – simply because we don’t look. And this is why great art is so vital. It makes us look, more deliberately. And since the Van Gogh show, I’ve been seeing colour everywhere. It was always there – the places didn’t change; I did. There are obvious lessons to learn here for our reading of texts, not least the text of the Bible. Too often in our reading, we simply don’t look.
So here are a few photos I took over the weekend in Oxfordshire, with a bit of Photoshop fun. All I’ve done is to make the majority monochrome – the colours of the various objects remain completely unaffected.