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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 3: Post-Impressionism (I) - Van Gogh and Colour

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    • 06/12/2006

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)

    I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. – Van Gogh

    Art legend holds that Vincent Van Gogh had a brief musical career, lasting a few minutes. Convinced that there was a deep connection between color and music, he decided to take piano lessons. During his first lesson, he banged down on various keys and, depending on the note that he produced, yelled, "Prussian blue! Chrome yellow!" His teacher fled, terrified, deciding that she was dealing with "a madman". Thus ended Vincent's musical career.

    In 1885, Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters, seen below, bringing to a climax the first phase of his art career, which I discussed in the introduction: that of "social realism" in painting, or social documentary of the plight of peasants.


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    A couple years later, having moved to Paris to live with his brother, he produced this landscape, Wheatfield and a Lark:


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    Could these two works be by the same artist? What had happened to Van Gogh?

    What had happened was that, while in Paris, he had seen, for the first time, the works of the impressionists. He was also introduced to the art of the Japanese, the product of a tradition unlike that of the West. These encounters with color and with the East had a galvanic effect on Van Gogh. As the above painting shows, he quickly mastered the techniques of the impressionists. And the focus of his art had changed: Whereas before he was committed to being a "peasant painter", he had now become interested in art as art, in the interplay of color and light for its own sake.

    Like others at the time, he was gradually drifting away from a concern with the subject of paintings and toward a preoccupation with the painting itself. But, unlike others, he would never truly abandon the subject, because Van Gogh saw painting as a humanitarian enterprise, and thought that art for its own sake was pointless. This conviction put him at odds with the ideology of the impressionists, and it was also at variance with the observation by Zola that we have already seen, in which it is contended that for artists subject is a mere pretext for painting.

    This tension between concern for subject and preoccupation with the formal elements of painting would enable Van Gogh to produce canvases of unsurpassed originality. One can look at a lot of impressionist art of this period and gradually come to see that, while all of them have their elements of individuality, nevertheless they begin to seem, in their broad outlines, curiously alike, suggesting that impressionism was evolving toward another school, different from academic classicism yet a school nonetheless. But no one can look at a Van Gogh and mistake it for the work of someone else. There is no school in Van Gogh: there is just Van Gogh, schooling us.

    It seems that Van Gogh had the personality of someone who must take everything to extremes. With him, it was all or nothing: there was no midpoint, no midtone, as it were, to his undertakings. When he was an art dealer, he tried to persuade people not to buy the pictures that he was charged with selling, because he had deemed them to be inferior. When he was a preacher, he gave away all his possessions. When he discovered absinthe, he couldn't stop drinking it. And when he discovered color in his career as an artist, he took it to heights – extremes – that no one had seen. For him, color became visual absinthe: it was intoxicating.

    Holland Meets Impressionism Meets Japan

    The years 1886 and 1887, when Van Gogh lived in Paris, proved to be the seedbed for the crop of art that he would reap in 1888, in Arles, France. Van could not settle on a "method" of painting. He was constantly absorbing new influences, and attempting to fuse them into a coherent whole. He started out in the tradition of Dutch painting, a tradition that stretched back at least to Rembrandt, with a muted palette, dark, somber colors and a focus on portraits and realism. When he encountered impressionism, he felt a need, not to go over to the new art, but to combine it with what he was already doing. And finally, in discovering the Japanese, he wished to combine their way of doing art with impressionism and with Dutch realism. This was going to be a tall order. Could he do it?

    Here is a Japanese print that Van Gogh actually owned:

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    The difference between Western and Eastern art is obvious. The Japanese were not concerned with realism as such, but with broad, unmodulated color fields, sharp contour drawings (that is, a concern with outline) and decorative composition. These concerns are at odds not only with academic classicism and Dutch realism, but also with impressionism. Would it be possible to fuse all these competing artistic strains into a new art?

    Yes. Van Gogh did it. Arguably no one had ever accomplished such an improbable fusion before he came along, and maybe no one except Picasso has done anything like it since.

    I suggest that the following two paintings, of the art dealer Pere Tanguy, represent the turning point of Van Gogh's career, on the road to Arles:


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    In the first canvass, we have Holland, impressionism and Japan fused into a single work. We see Holland in the thickly painted and molded hands and head, and in particular in concern for shading in the latter. We see impressionism in the broken brush strokes of the clothing, and in the color variations of the lighted side of the face. And we see Japan – literally – in the background, a set of Japanese prints that Tanguy had in his shop. The composition is also Japanese in its decorative arrangement of elements and in its flattened surface, de-emphasizing the "depth" of canvas that Western artists were so concerned with - the need to create the illusion that a canvas was a window looking out on the world. We also see Japan in the contour drawing, the outlines: Van Gogh has outlined Tanguy's upper body and legs in bright red! Who would have thought to do such a thing? Even the Japanese restricted their outlines to black.

    The second painting is even more Japanese and impressionistic, with less Holland in the mix. Shading is de-emphasized, and Van Gogh has also adopted the expedient of molding the volumes where we would expect shading to be with color. Look carefully at the hands, and you will notice that where we might expect to find shading in muted, toned-down colors, we instead find pale violet. Impressionistic brush strokes and broken color swarm over the canvas like tribes of ants on the march, particularly defining the clothing. But the whole figure has been flattened and gently merged with the background, giving the picture an all-over, decorative feeling, rather than separating the figure (foreground) from the prints in the background. The background itself is full of delightful touches, with Van Gogh abstracting down the Japanese prints and even, in the lower left and right corners, turning to pure color invention in a way that anticipates nonrepresentational color painting.

    Van Gogh's original heroes were Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Delacroix and the peasant painter Millet, and by this time elements of all four, plus the Japanese and the impressionists, were abounding in his work. No one else at this time (that history has recorded) was even attempting to pull off such improbable fusions. Van Gogh's discoveries in Paris would set the stage for his accomplishments in Arles, in the south of France, where he moved in early 1888. Almost as soon as he arrived, he painted this portrait of a local peasant woman:


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    The whole of Van Gogh, up to that moment in time, is on display: his humanitarian concern with ordinary people, especially peasants, as exemplified by the old woman's captivating expression; the Japanese arrangement and color choices; and the impressionistic broken brushstrokes. But he painted this picture in the dead of winter, and in the months ahead the sun of Arles would arise like a revelation. And when it did, Van Gogh would himself have yet another revelation: That color could be used, not just realistically or impressionistically, but symbolically, and even arbitrarily. When he made this discovery, he would produce what art historians generally regard as his greatest and most influential works.

    As we have seen, Millet was one of Van Gogh's heroes, and in the introduction, we saw comparisons between Millet's work and Van Gogh's early peasant paintings, which he himself would later dismiss as "brown gravy" paintings. This famous Millet painting, the Sower, particularly influenced Van Gogh:


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    He returned to the theme of the sower many times, and in the full summer of 1888 he knocked out the following variation on a theme:


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    Whoa! What's this? It's certainly not your grandfather's sower! It's all done in yellow and violet! What's more, Van Gogh had the temerity, not just to paint the effect of sunlight on objects, which was the main concern of the impressionists, but also to put the very sun in the sky. He was now using color symbolically, and he had leapfrogged the impressionists. In looking at Van Gogh's work in 1888, one can have the sense that his creations make impressionism seem as fusty, timid and dated, as the impressionist works made the academic works seem. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote that he wished to use color forcibly, even arbitrarily, as a means to express himself. But we should be careful not to read too much into the term "arbitrary". By this, Van Gogh meant that he no longer would let himself be too concerned with local color; the way colors really seem to the eye. It didn't mean that he would just use any old color in any old way. In fact, Van Gogh had adopted a method from color theory, and he was pushing this method to its extreme. While breaking the rules of painting as defined by culture, he was paying close attention to the rules of painting as dictated by color. Color, not culture, was Van Gogh's god.

    Complementary Contrast as the Foundation of Van Gogh's work

    Recall, in the discussion of impressionism, we touched on color theory, and learned about primary colors and their complements, also known as secondary colors. When you put a primary color alongside its complement, it creates what is known as complementary contrast, and the effects are powerful. Why this should be so is another subject, and touches on the philosophy of color, including issues pertaining to the ontic status of color, which I'll address in a later essay. For now we can stipulate that primary colors in juxtaposition with their complements have certain effects, and Van Gogh exploited his knowledge of these effects to produce a series of paintings that changed art history, and influenced an explosion of pyrotechnic color in the 20th century. Let's see what he did.

    Van Gogh's yellow-violet sower composition is an example of the complementary contrast of yellow and violet. Recall that yellow is a primary color – containing no color other than itself -- and its complement, violet, is a 50:50 mix of the two remaining primaries, red and blue. Artists had long known of the effects of complementary contrast (but none had taken this knowledge to the logical extreme that Van Gogh did). Briefly stated, when primaries are in juxtaposition with their complements, the inner character of each color is somehow reinforced or magnified. Thus yellow, when next to violet, seems brighter, more intense, and purer, than when it is juxtaposed with any other color. And violet seems darker, more robust, and more vivid when it is placed next to yellow, than it does in any other juxtaposition. Artists say that the yellow-violet complementary contrast exemplifies, in color, light-dark contrast, and only the contrast of black and white is more dramatic in this regard.

    Color does not objectively exist. This seems like an weird statement, but the truth of it is evident when you realize colors always exist next to other colors, and look different depending on which color they are oriented with. We can easily see this by examining the following color juxtapositions:


    The orange against the blue, is the same orange as the patch against the green, but they look different, the orange against the blue (its complement) being much more intense. By contrast, the same patch of orange against green seems darker – like a different color. Since color is defined by its appearance, and nothing more, we might as well say that these two patches of orange are different colors, even though they were taken from the same lump of pigment (a fuller discussion of color interactions may be found here).

    Since a color can never be lifted out of its surrounding environment and examined in isolation from other colors, there is no objective fact of the matter about orange, blue, yellow, or any other color. Colors manifest themselves only in relation to other colors, and hence the number of colors is potentially infinite. Knowledge of how colors interact with one another is important for any kind of painting, but such knowledge is especially vital for the kind of work Van Gogh was doing.

    If yellow-violet is considered the light-dark exemplar of complementary contrast, red-green is considered the complementary contrast of mutually intensifying chroma. Chroma refers to a color being at maximum saturation, void of any hints of shade or tint. That red and green reinforce each other in this particular way probably has something to do with the fact that these two colors, when converted to gray scale, are exactly alike: If you take a black and white photograph of a pure patch of green against a pure patch of red, the photo will display a single, undifferentiated gray tone. Since they mutually magnify each other's chroma, they can be used, Van Gogh believed, to express the terrible passions of humanity. And that is what he tried to do, he said, in this painting of the Night Cafe, where he frequently drowned himself in absinthe after a long day painting out of doors:


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    Next we have the contrast of the primary blue with its complement orange. This, too, has its own special kind of contrast: it emphasizes, as no other color juxtaposition can, the contrast of warm and cool colors. In color theory, warm colors push forward toward the eye, and cool colors recede. When you place orange against blue, the former maximally pushes forward, and the latter maximally recedes. Orange burns like a furnace, and blue becomes as refreshing as limpid water. And so it is in Van Gogh's exploitation of the blue-orange contrast in this painting of the peasant Patience Escalier, which the art critic Meyer Shapiro declared was probably the only great painting of a peasant ever executed (and light years removed from Van Gogh's own brown-gravy studies of peasants in his early career):


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    The sky of the Arles summer is an orange furnace, and the peasant wears, in his clothing, a mantle of limpid blue water to cool himself. The hands and face combine Dutch realism, the concern for capturing a likeness and a particular expression, with the impressionist concern for broken color brushstrokes. The composition and contour outlines (notice the red outline of the hat) are Japanese. Van Gogh has, again, fused Holland, Japan and impressionism, but now he has added symbolic color taken to a chromatic crescendo, exploiting the rules of complementary contrast to create a smoldering symphony in blazing orange and becalming blue.

    We shouldn't think that Van Gogh tried to systematize or scientize this process. It’s not as if, before executing the Tanguy paintings, he said to himself, "I'll do the hands in head in Dutch, the clothing and flesh in impressionism, and the background and composition in Japanese". The synthesis of competing strains of art that he created arose naturally, instinctively as it were, from the knowledge that he had gained. Similarly, he did not make a system or a fetish of complementary contrast, and indeed he often worked in near complementary contrasts instead, favoring compositions juxtaposing strong yellow with Prussian blue, not violet (Prussian blue being blue-violet, midway on the color wheel between red and blue.) He especially favored this approach for scenes painted at night (it is said that at night, he painted by the light of candles affixed to the brim of his hat), as we can see in the following:



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    We also see his penchant for the near-complementary contrast color key in his painting of the yellow house in Arles in which he lived:

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    When a critic schooled in traditional painting saw Van Gogh's yellow-on-yellow compositions, he yelled, "Everything is yellow! I don't know what painting is anymore!"

    In 1888 in Arles, Van Gogh also applied symphonic color orchestration to portraiture, and we have already seen one such portrait, that of the peasant Escalier. Here are others from that summer, the summer of "the high yellow note", as Van Gogh put it:


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    Van Gogh also executed many self-portraits during his career, and in the most representative of such works during his Arles period, he depicted himself as a Japanese bonze, in homage to the art that he loved and that so influenced him:


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    This is just a sampling, and some of his subjects he painted again and again. In all, we recognize varying degrees of the tremendous art fusion that he had wrought: we see Rembrandt, Holland, impressionism, Japan and symphonic color orchestration based on complementary contrast. Impressionists could not create an art like this because, ironically, they had limited themselves to a system – even as the academics had confined themselves to their own system. Van Gogh was not interested in system, but in synthesis. In this, he presages Picasso, the ultimate synthesizer.

    A frequently overlooked element of Van Gogh's oeuvre, which is now coming into its own with the publication of two books and a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is his drawing. For a long time, and certainly when Van Gogh was active, drawing was downgraded, considered to be, not so much art in its own right, but preparatory studies for paintings – the blueprints of the house, as it were. Indeed, this prejudice was so deep and long lasting that Michelangelo, nearing death, ordered that all his drawings be destroyed (fortunately, they weren't). Today drawing is recognized as art in its own right, entirely self-sufficient. Using the reed pen in 1888, Van Gogh developed a visual iconography of stipples, swirls, dots, blots and hatched lines that somehow, quite surprisingly, mimics color in black and white. Consider his painting The Harvest:


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    Now look at his reed-pen drawing of the same subject:


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    Wow! Personally I'd say the drawing is just as "colorful" as the painting, if not more so.

    Van Gogh painted his bonze self-portrait, which we have already seen, in exchange for the following portrait by Paul Gauguin:


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    This exchange of gifts was preparatory to Gauguin, like Vincent chronically short of money, joining Van Gogh in his yellow house in Arles, to found what Van Gogh hoped would be a permanent artists' colony, the "studio of the south". Gauguin was a bit older than Van Gogh, and had had a colorful life, moving from the merchant navy to become a stockbroker, and then abandoning the business world for art after being exposed to an exhibition of impressionist paintings. He was especially influenced by the impressionist Pissarro, but by the time he joined Van Gogh in Arles, he was moving away from impressionism and toward "abstraction", which for him meant painting figures and landscapes from memory, and interpreting them through a use of color that did not depend on light coming from some direction. In short, like Van Gogh, he was using color symbolically, and his works and those of Van Gogh would prove to be the inspiration for the later fauves, or "Wild Beasts". Below is a representative work by Gauguin, Jacob Wrestling the Angel:

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    The union of Van Gogh and Gauguin proved to be transitory and unfortunate. Gauguin tried to persuade Vincent to quit painting from life and to paint from memory and imagination instead, as he was doing. Van Gogh tried, but could not bring himself to drop a real-life subject, because as we have noted, his conception of art, no matter how much his actual work evolved, remained humanitarian, and to abandon real-life painting seemed pointless to him. The clash of wills eventually led, as I noted in the introduction, to Van Gogh's first bout with mental instability, in which he cut off the lower portion of his left ear. Gauguin departed Arles after that incident, and later would sail off to Tahiti where he would produce what are generally thought to be his greatest works. On online compendium of Gauguin's work, about 145 images including his Tahiti creations, may be found here.

    Van Gogh's breakdown led to recurring bouts of mental instability, during which he was unable to work, and it became necessary to confine him, for a time, to an asylum in Saint Remy – where, during periods of lucidity, he continued to draw and paint, actually producing an enormous number of canvases, as if he anticipated that his time on earth was short. These works included numerous brilliant landscapes and the following jarring self-portrait, which vividly announces the virtuosity of his drawing and painting skills in dramatic tension with the disturbances that were haunting his mind:


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    The last act of a career that would span a mere ten years, during which Vincent produced 864 (!) oil paintings, to say nothing of a vast collection of watercolors and drawings in ink, charcoal and pencil, would take place in northern France, in Auvers. There, under cooler skies, his palette darkened again, somewhat intermediately between his initial "brown-gravy" pictures and the sun-smote canvases of Arles. Some critics have thought that his last works were inferior, or that they showed signs of mental deterioration, but this view today is contested by other scholars, who see signs of a new and important synthesis going on in these works, one to which Vincent himself alluded, saying that he wanted to recover some of what he had learned in the early stages of painting peasants, and apply those lessons to his new conception of color. In addition, one can see, in the late works, an increasing drift toward greater abstraction and even the foreshadowing of nonrepresentationalism. Consider these works from Auvers:


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    Some (though by no means all) of his final work, in Auvers, increasingly pushes toward abstraction, toward the dissolving of subject in a swirl of paint. He has also adopted elements of yet another new style, introducing into his work a lot of curving lines that coil and slither across the surface of the pictures like animate snakes made of pigment.

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