Thursday, March 15, 2012

Van Gogh "Up Close" and Monet Too

I took a trip up to the “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few weekends ago.  Saw great Van Goghs and some very lovely other work as well – one wonderful Monet of the side of a river in winter, with ice breaking up. 

Claude Monet, Morning Haze, 1894.  Philadelphia Museum of Art

This reproduction doesn't do the painting justice, of course.  The precision of the color of the misty trees is lost, as are the brilliant blues slicing through the snow in the foreground.  Van Gogh, in particular, is ill-served by reproduction:  I can't bring myself to post an image of my favorite piece from the show, "Edge of Wheatfield with Poppies," since no photo I found came even close to matching its hues.  His colors are wonderful and absolutely distinct -- they seem to defy translation.
More than ever, I had the strange feeling that they – the painters – were talking to me through the paintings.  (Of course they are – writer use words, painters use paint.)  Each viewer, I imagine, hears something specific.  As a painter, I hear about how certain problems were solved, how things (clouds, shadow, edges…) can be expressed in certain ways.  I’d like to think I'm a good audience for their work, for their trials and passions on display.   Having tried and failed with paint so much myself, I feel I can appreciate where they succeeded.   To browse through an art museum can be both like sitting down to a banquet and taking a desk in a classroom:  I feel simultaneously filled up as an aesthete and tutored as a painter.

As I hear all this commentary among the paintings, it feels as if the artists are right in the room with me.  That may be a particularly cool aspect of painting, vs. some other forms of artistic expression:  when you are seeing it (well-restored), you are in the physical presence of that thing the artist created – the very paint laid down by his/her hands.  And something about the materiality of it can seem to stir up ghosts in the room.  (The flip side of this is how hard it is to get in the presence of great painting, and that even when you do, there never seems to be enough time to take it in – I feel like the only way to properly see a painting is to do it every day for half an hour, over the course of a month or so...)

Another great thing about painting, or at least Impressionist painting, is that the artists are talking (with paint) just about what they see -- telling the story of a sensual, light- and color-infused moment in time and in nature.  Those moments are critical to me and my experience in the world, so it's a treat, and something of a relief, to hear (see) some of the artists I most admire attempt to tell about that experience, and to get a glimpse of what kind of heart and soul they put into it.
I disagree with critics who say that Monet’s work isn’t emotional.  I think they mistake emotion for the state of mind of the artist.  Van Gogh’s paintings seem to contain more of his mind and his invention than Monet’s, I would say that.  But Monet, without being a “realist” painter, is closer in a way to his subject, I think.  I appreciate that, because I swoon for subject matter too.  That winter painting of his made me want to sink to my knees – in awe of his ability to bring out the beauty of that scene, to bring it to life on canvas.  Van Gogh’s ramped-up, almost cartoon-y, sumptuous, rollicking versions of nature are thrilling – they’re very tactile, and full of joy. 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889.  The Cleveland Museum of Art
(The velvety blues in the tree trunks, the intense yellows raining down from the sky, the vivid green of the shutters:  lamentably lost in translation.)  While Monet’s are like love songs.  And they bring a moment so close to you – within a hair’s breadth.  Something about his responsiveness to the landscape, to nature, to beauty – something about the love he seems to be expressing – is intensely moving.  It’s other-focused, in a way – it’s like viewing devotion itself.  While Van Gogh is like viewing the mind of the painter – which is also, again, wonderful, beautiful.
Though I don’t think it’s that simple, or even that I’m right.  Thinking back, I feel like the paintings in the Van Gogh exhibit that I most responded to were very much full of love.  Maybe it’s that his intensity can be distracting?  Maybe.  Monet’s portraits of nature are more quiet.  But Van Gogh’s color is phenomenal.  I don’t always appreciate his brushstrokes -- they can feel arbitrary, rather than responsive – but often I really do, for their dynamism.  I'm drawn to his work for its vibrancy and abandon, and to Monet’s for its balance of emotion and sensitivity to subject/place.
An irony, maybe, is that I like best some of Monet’s late works that are like Van Gogh’s in spirit – more loose, more visceral, more slapdash.  And extremely colorful, with big bold marks.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows, 1919.  Benesse Corporation, Okayama, Japan.
Yet Monet always, even then, has that amazing sensitivity, that balance of exuberance and grace.

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