Featured Image: Wheat Field With Reaper and Sun, Vincent Van Gogh
In the light there is a glimmer that sustains a thousand different images.
In that light, you were, and you endured.
The painting, as a shield, as a paradoxical inheritance of memory, as obsession, as haunting.
Today is my mother’s birthday. She died of a brain aneurysm almost 4 years ago. In anticipation of her birthday this week, and of course for my own interests, I visited the From Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Expressionism in German and France special exhibit at LACMA this past Sunday. The day previous, Saturday, I was rear-ended by a car going very quickly in traffic. I consequently had a splitting headache. And then it rained, most elegantly and necessarily, while I read this line from Kit Schluter:
The seasons, like languages, don’t have rules, but habits: are processes of recovery from the ambiguity of their provenance.
Recently, days are spent contemplating the weather, the sky, the clouds, the direction of the light. Is this cliche? I take the proclamation seriously that perhaps, during these fragmentary and transitory days, days of setbacks and enigmas, it is only the weather that is even worth talking about. Being in a car accident is a jolt of adrenaline, and that adrenaline sustains itself in your body for hours, existence for awhile at such a speed that becomes foreign but deferential and gleaned like a detracted downer. But it starts to drizzle, then rain, and fragments that were questions now become dreams, coins of suffering become wet with presence, and everything tastes of whiskey.
So, wandering around a museum, excessively air-conditioned and institutional and full of other people, is an odd experience. You attempt to sit with paintings, to endure and to experience, to affirm and substitute another’s perspective for your own, to allow distortions of reality to become reality, to notice how reality is articulated by such suffering, contradiction, intention, the heaviness of seeing. You attempt to be alone, to ignore the magnetism of other voices and people, to allow the cold temperature to awaken those hairs on your arms so that you might have access to another sense in these few, solitary, and reverential moments.
In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech… The poetic image is in no way comparable, as with the mode of the common metaphor, to a valve which would open up to release pent-up instincts. The poetic image sheds light on consciousness in such a way that it is pointless to look for subconscious antecedents of the image… Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.
— Gaston Bachelard
How to describe the experience of standing in front of one of Van Gogh’s paintings. How to describe that indescribable and inarticulatable feeling of wanting to tear up instantly, the impulse to put your hand on the painting, to feel its breath, the desire to feel that vitality, profundity, and suffering coursing through your own veins, to feel that it is already, to sense new separations between rivers and skies, new connecting threads, new impossibilities envisioned via texture and color. A quote from Kandinsky on the wall of the gallery that he wants, above all, to express: expressionism.
Fire within a firebox.
Clouds within a sky.
Curves along a window gleam
Limits of vision, outside.
Wassily Kandinsky in his seminal text Concerning the Spiritual in Art, writes:
If the emotional power of the artist can overwhelm the “how?” and can give free scope to his finer feelings, then art is on the crest of the road by which she will not fail later on to find the “what” she has lost, the “what” which will show the way to the spiritual food of the newly awakened spiritual life. This “what?” will no longer be the material, objective “what” of the former period, but the internal truth of art, the soul without which the body (i.e. the “how”) can never be healthy, whether in an individual or in a whole people.
This “what” is the internal truth with only art can divine which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone.
Ali Liebegott in a particularly eloquent post, wrote about her experience in front of Van Gogh’s bedroom painting:
When I got to “Le Chambre de Van Gogh a Arles” I stood for a long time. I have always loved this painting. It evokes in me a feeling of calm. As a writer, I too, understand the peacefulness of what the room’s simplicity meant to Van Gogh. In addition, his furnishings match my aesthetic. Looking at the mirror that hangs over the small table with chamber pot and pitchers I was drawn to a few vertical brush strokes of color. I felt my eyes begin to tear up surprised to find those tiny bits of color on the mirror. There’s color everywhere and I love that he represented it in the corner of the mirror, with little vertical lines, like cat scratches. I can’t remember ever crying before a painting before.
About a year ago, Ali Liebegott edited a volume of poems around Vincent Van Gogh. The task of writing something about Van Gogh without writing about my mother seemed impossible. The beginning of my piece:
The piece I wanted to write about Vincent Van Gogh was something that would enact the same kind of emotional travesty that gets thrown onto me whenever I try to look at his paintings, the excess of some kind of psychological & emotional turmoil that has managed to inhabit his works in the form of this thick and heavy residue.
Instead, the only text I seem to be capable of writing involves the image of my mother’s death.
Because I didn’t know that she was going to die, I said goodbye to a yellow face connected to a corpse’s body, already pronounced “dead” fifteen minutes earlier.
The strangeness of encountering Van Gogh now is also the strangeness of being haunted by a ghost, of being haunted by my own failings, to dredge up all the inadequacies and all the joyous moments of a relationship between a mother and daughter, to be reminded of missing someone, of realizing an absence, of a visceral connection with the uncanny colors and bent angles and funny edges that don’t seem real. They’re realer than real.
The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie… Cosmic images are possessions of the solitary soul which is the principle of all solitude.
— Gaston Bachelard
Form often is most expressive when least coherent. It is often most expressive when outwardly most imperfect, perhaps only a stroke, a mere hint of outer meaning.
Perhaps what most appeals to me about Van Gogh’s paintings are how imprecise the brush strokes seem to be, how inexact and how removed from reality, how imperfect and perhaps unobvious, yet, full of intention, genuine emotion, sadness, clarity, puzzlement, wonder, devastation, awe, curiosity, love.
How transitory it all is: art. How devastating. How we are renewed by it and destroyed by it.
One version of reality, of course, is that the sky is blue.
But the sky isn’t blue.
It is green.
When we look at the trees, we only see how alive they are by the light swirls in between the static trunks.
What is the intention of a sky?
A neon sky?
Sometimes a hidden face. Is it supposed to be there?
The repetition of leaves. Of color.
To suddenly understand.
Suddenly I understand.
I am surprised by how affected I am by these paintings by Emil Nolde.
I think about urgency, about blueness, about the devastation and urgent desire of living. To live is to desire, to be devastated, to love, to be destroyed by it all in the end.
The foolishness of poetry. The reverie.
Let’s supposed each brush stroke is an urgent one. Or suppose that each is full of absolute intention, angles, movement, feelings of a raging herd of buffalo. Inside your heart: the water move; your eyes sit and close.
Where is the boundary between blue and green?
Where is the boundary between you?
This is the turning point.
This is the turning point
Strokes that search inwards. Strokes woven thoughtlessly around us, the texture of forlorn gestures and loving ones.
The dust particles get tangled and then settle.
Sometimes, things just happen in life. They just happen.
Sometimes, things are only revealed after death. Sometimes, they are never revealed at all.
Sometimes, the revealing is the end. It is always and forever now the end.
When opportunities present themselves though, let yourself feel, no matter how much skin it feels like you are scratching off.
Trust me, it is worth it.