Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What we can learn from art on a starry night

Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night / 1889 oil on canvas.

I love Dutch art. I feel comfortable and at ease being around it. 

Some of my best life experiences have been spent perusing Dutch masterstroke painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens in museums across the world, in Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Amsterdam, alone, I've spent many enjoyable hours walking through the galleries of the Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage Amsterdam and the Van Gogh museums admiring the Dutch Golden Age of art and much more.

What's not to like or to learn from it?

And, then, there's famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose post-Impressionist work is notable for its "rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold color," that I am very fond of. Van Gogh once said: "If you hear a voice within you saying, 'You are not a painter,' then by all means paint … and that voice will be silenced." 

Art, as I have learned through my travels, teaches us to notice what we feel, and how to think for ourselves. It also helps us learn to see and appreciate the world all around us.

And, yet, art teaches us how to express ourselves in ways that words cannot ~ even though it's said that every picture is worth a thousand words.

In a project designed to engage feedback, the Bainbridge Island (Wash.) Museum of Art asked its patrons of all ages a very simple but matter-of-fact question:

"What can art teach us?"

As you might imagine, many of the responses ~ especially those from children ~ were most perceptive.

One child said: "Art teaches us about life. Art teaches us how to see the world in new ways." 

Another child's response struck a chord with many of my friends when I shared it with them on Facebook:

"Art teaches us that it's okay to color your trees purple." 

I like that response very much.

After all, if coloring our trees purple provides us with pleasure and makes us happy, I say: "Go for it!" 

While van Gogh may not have colored his trees purple in any of his paintings, his work was quite colorful and very artistic. I've always admired his painting "Les Iris", his 1889 interpretation of irises, since we have an iris garden in our back yard.

Of course, I marvel at what is arguably van Gogh's most artistic achievement, "Starry Night", which the artist painted from memory during the day time. It depicts the nocturnal view outside van Gogh's sanitarium room window at Saint Rémy-de-Provence in France. "Starry Night" has become one of the most well known images in modern culture. It became the subject of popular, 1971 song "Vincent" by Don McLean, whose lyrics were written with the iconic painting in mind. "Starry Night" is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

I have learned through studying van Gogh's life and paintings that he was very outspoken when it came to sharing his thoughts about art and its relationship with life, love and religion. After all, during his early years as an artist (1876-1880), he wanted to dedicate his life to the evangelization of those in poverty. 

"The best way to know God is to love many things," said van Gogh. "It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done."

According to van Gogh, there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. "Close friends are truly life's treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves," he said. "With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.”  

Indeed, art teaches us to feel emotion. And, the artistic legacy of van Gogh will forever remain with us through his paintings, drawings and writings. They are everlasting. 

"Love is something eternal," said van Gogh. "The aspect may change, but not the essence."

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