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Thing of the week #3; Wheatfield and cypresses by Van Gogh

April 12, 2019

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The thing with Van Gogh’s images is that in one sense they are a victim of their own success; we see them so often, and in so many different media, and other artists refer to them so much, that we forget how good they really are. So this week, we pause to look at one of Van Gogh’s later works, the Wheatfield & cypresses.

The composition is interesting. The cypress on the right creates a composition like an ‘L’ tilted through ninety degrees to the right. This is counterbalanced by the clumps of foliage on the left, with the distat mountains sloping gradually down to it. I’m reminded of the principle of the ‘steelyard’, as described by Henry Rankin Poore; the essence of the idea is that the further away from the centre of the picture plane and the larger the object, the more visual weight that it conveys. It’s easy to forget, when looking at Van Gogh’s work, that he actually studied traditional means of picture making quite rigorously and intensely, at one point even actually making one of those grid devices beloved of eighteenth century painters. Van Gogh really worked at his pictures.

As to the means of the picture, the mechanics of the image making itself, Van Gogh drew and painted like nobody else. I had a bugger of a time doing the drawing for this, and it’s still not right (I include it mainly so that you can tell which painting I’m talking about. If you want to see a proper version, in colour, try here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/vincent-van-gogh-a-wheatfield-with-cypresses ) His pictures are made of myriads of small marks, each descriptive in and of itself, that somehow fuse overall into a coherent visual statement. Quite possibly no painter ever introduced the line into painting- usually the province of drawing- as completely or as convincingly as Van Gogh. The waviness of the line is echoed throughout the painting, in the cypresses, in the swirling clouds above, through the mountains and into the hash of mark making in the actual cornfield.

And the colours. The relationships of the colours are tied together in an effect that seems inherently natural. The dominant greens, blues and yellows of this painting work together like notes in a piece of music. And yet the colour is also used symbolically- perhaps what he really learned from Gaugin. No mountains are ever really that blue. No sky is ever that green. There’s an exaggeration here, yes, but also an abstraction. The colours are used almost like a child would (and here I mean no disrespect)- modulated and observed, yes, but with a truth that owes more to the heart than the eye.

One cannot discuss Van Gogh without talking about the people he influenced. He has been placed, by people like Alfred Barr, in the line that lead inexorably to abstract expressionism. But I’d say his legacy has been misrepresented to a certain extent; we generally think of Van Gogh’s palette as having been changed radically from his original sombre, Dutch tones to the brightness and glory of the South. But in this painting we can see that for a while before his death, Van Gogh was actually on his way back. There’s a certain fretfulness and sense of anxiety. The colours are not nearly so warm and radical as the paintings he made at Arles. He was still learning, and if he’d lived longer there’s no telling what he might eventually have created.

But for all Van Gogh’s studiousness and seriousness, his work is ultimately as ‘natural’ an expression of his inner being as one could wish for. His work is like a bird’s song; he felt like he painted and he painted like he felt. That, I think, is his last and best lesson for us.

Incidentally, there’s a big Van Gogh exhibition on at Tate Britain until this August. He’s always worth seeing, and I plan on doing so myself. Details here: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ey-exhibition-van-gogh-and-britain

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