Writing Archive

"Van Gogh and Nature" at the Clark

The New Criterion, September 9, 2015 (read there)

As the chronological ordering of Van Gogh and Nature makes clear, fate shot the artist out of its heaviest cannon. As late as 1885 he was still wandering around Holland and trying to make something out of his subfusc, greasy take on Monet. Lane with Poplars Near Nunen (1885) has able passages. The dotting of the autumn leaves is quite fine. But they rest on a sky of smoggy confusion. Had the artist halted here we would not remember him.

By 1888 he had figured out how to synthesize components of Impressionism, divisionism, ukiyo-e, and the Barbizon school into an effective style. Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles (1888) shows a man standing akimbo, holding a newspaper, with other park denizens sitting along or walking down the path behind him. Blues and oranges animate the greenery into a buzz. Outlines of scarlet and Prussian blue contain the vibration even as they suggest energy of their own.

By autumn of 1890 he was dead.

Any new van Gogh show is, to some degree, an exercise in not rehashing the insights of all the van Gogh exhibitions preceding it. (Likewise goes for any new review of said show, as your chagrinned reporter realizes.) All we can say for ourselves is that these extraordinary paintings justify new investigations, probably ad infinitum. The theme of nature is a bit tautological here. The scope of what could have been included under that banner is enormous. But the question of how nature helped determine the configuration of these pictures is worth contemplating.

One way of answering may be an artistic application of apriorism, the notion that certain kinds of knowledge precede experience. Apriorism implies that complex systems, nature included, can only be understood by way of pre-existing insights.

Van Gogh was aware of the surfeit of visual wealth that nature put before him, and he labored by gathering observations until he had a sufficient stockpile of them to interpret them on canvas. But of crucial import to those long hours spent looking were Japanese woodcuts, Barbizon landscapes, the new discoveries of color theory implemented in advanced art at the time, and so on, as well as wide-reaching curiosity about topics ranging from fiction to religion. All of these provided frameworks necessary for the gleaning.

This patient accumulation of impressions, at once voluminous and selective, is how he got away with painting the lawn crimson in Hospital at Saint-Rémy from 1889. It doesn't feel arbitrary, as such maneuvers sometimes do among the lesser Fauves, because it was preceded by twenty sketches and some of the most intense consideration of color ever committed to paper. The catalogue excerpts a letter to Emile Bernard about this scene. He related:

The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun the last glimmer—exalts the dark ochre to orange—small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks. You'll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called seeing red.

As F.A. Hayek, a proponent of apriorism, put it in The Theory of Complex Phenomena (1964):

It is probably the capacity of our senses to recognize certain kind of patterns that has led to the erroneous belief that if we only look long enough, or at sufficient number of instances of natural events, a pattern will always reveal itself. That this often is so means merely that in those cases the theorizing has already been done by our senses. Where, however, we have to deal with patterns for the development of which there has been no biological reason, we shall first have to invent the pattern before we can discover its presence in phenomena—or before we shall be able to test its applicability to what we observe.

Richard Kendall, in the catalogue, situates van Gogh's fondness for the popular and literary treatments of science in the burgeoning interest in such material across Europe. This bears especially on an 1889 chalk drawing of a giant peacock moth, as well as a painting made after it. He plausibly likens its attitude to that of botanical illustration. In any case, it's something with which no worshipper at the altar of plein air would have bothered. Much has been made of van Gogh's heat—his passion and audacious use of color—and perhaps not enough has been made of his coolness, his studiousness and craft.

The Clark exhibition goes some way towards remedying this. But a larger point is on display here, that we can keep on reconsidering van Gogh's works in new lights as long as we care to keep looking at them. Nature having been explored, bring on the next theme.

Word count: 806

Return to Archive