My friend, artist and Wordpress blogger Brian McGurgan, agreed to write a post for us with his review of the current van Gogh exhibit at the MoMA.
Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night
By Brian McGurgan
awe, energy, and wonderment
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City has a special exhibit on display through January 5th, 2009 called Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night that is well worth a visit. The show has an intimate feel to it and, although relatively small in scale, requires that you have some time to spare since tickets are given out that allow entry at specific times in order to control the flow of visitors. I went on a Friday evening after work when the MoMA offers free admission and evening hours until 8pm but was told that all tickets for the special exhibit had already been given out. My only hope for getting in was to return to the exhibit entry point at 7pm and wait on the “standby” line. Fortunately, I was able to get in and see the show and I didn’t mind too much having to wander about the museum’s other galleries until the standby line was formed.
“…I got up in the night to look at the landscape – never, never has nature appeared so touching and sensitive to me.”
A very nice aspect of the exhibit is that it gives full focus to an interest of van Gogh’s that spanned his entire short career as a painter without delving into the decline in his mental health and the dismal drama that surrounded much of his final years. A visitor to the show knowing nothing about van Gogh’s biography would have come away with only the slightest awareness of his time spent in hospital, but would certainly have understood the depth and sensitivity of his reflection on themes of nighttime. This fascination is expressed, not just in the display of some of his most prolific paintings, but in excerpts of letters and sketches sent to his brother Theo and to other family members and friends. In words from a letter that effectively summarize the feel of much of the exhibit, van Gogh states, “…I got up in the night to look at the landscape – never, never has nature appeared so touching and sensitive to me.”
Van Gogh’s experience of the night was aesthetic – he appreciated the depth of color and the effect of natural and artificial light that nighttime provided – but also emotional and spiritual. He found the night awe-inspiring and a time of solace and inspiration. At the same time, he was not immune to the sense of loneliness and despair that are also too often a part of the human experience of nighttime. While paintings like his famous “The Potato Eaters” (1885) expresses the appreciation van Gogh had for hard-working peasants coming together at the end of a long day of labor, there is also an inescapable sense of disconnect and emptiness in the eyes of his subjects. The feeling of despair and alienation is stronger still in “The Night Café” (1888). Still, one comes away from the exhibit with a stronger feeling for the beauty van Gogh saw in the landscape and towns at night.
The highlights of the show for me included “Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses” (1883) for the rich earth tones, including warm browns and grays in the sky and reflections in water, and "Sunset at Montmartre" (1887), for the beautiful, muted blue and green earth tones and simple composition. Van Gogh used a softer approach in these works than in some of his better known pieces, with less distinct brushstrokes and richly colored neutrals. "The Starry Night Over the Rhone" (1888) was another favorite. Here, the short, wide and mostly straight brushstrokes contrast strongly with the swirling motion of the more famous "The Starry Night". The patches of color formed by these brushstrokes suggest a different kind of movement, giving more of a pulsating, shimmering effect. The limited palette of cooler blues and yellows against deep indigo and cobalt provide a richness that rewards a long viewing of the painting, and the suggestion of the Milky Way expressed in strokes of lighter blue against the darker sky is especially satisfying.
The Starry Night (1889) is the final major work on display in the exhibit. Since it is part of the MoMA’s permanent collection, I’ve seen it numerous times – and usually with much less of a crowd gathered around it. I was struck by how well the painting leads the viewer's eyes through the swirling patterns in the sky, down to the little village at the bottom of the canvas, up the cypress trunk and back up into the sky. The hills and forest seem to undulate like rolling waves. The biggest surprise for me each time I see "The Starry Night" is the extensive use of greens, including a dark cool green in the cypress tree and light cool yellow greens in the sky in addition to the ultramarines, blue-greens, and yellows that dominate the canvas. There’s none of the sadness of Don McLean’s famous “Starry, Starry Night” here – only a sense of awe, energy, and wonderment. While van Gogh’s brushwork is certainly vigorous and coarse at times, and his color sense can seem crude in his less successful paintings, the results are truly stunning when his brushwork and color best come together.
"The Starry Night" is, to my mind, the strongest example of this and his greatest achievement.
If you don’t live near New York and aren’t able to visit, don’t despair. The MoMA has published a very nice catalog to compliment the exhibit and this can be purchased in bookstores or online. The book contains many more examples of van Gogh’s nighttime drawings and paintings then are included in the actual show, and it also provides a historical context for paintings of night with a particular focus on artists like Rembrandt and Millet whose work was an inspiration to van Gogh. I bought the book online several weeks before visiting the exhibit, which allowed an opportunity to “study up” on the works I expected to see. I highly recommend this strategy when visiting a major exhibit – especially for those of us who found that art history classes back in school had a seductive, sleep-inducing quality about them. And if you plan to visit New York in the future but before the show closes in early January, stop by the MoMA anyway to see "The Starry Night", and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the dozen or so paintings by van Gogh on permanent display there.
Colors of the Night pdf. checklist at MoNA - includes the Sunset at Montemarte image that Brian mentions.
Take the Virtual Tour.
Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night