I had the pleasure of attending an exhibition today that animated the artworks of Vincent Van Gogh. Through visual storytelling, we followed the progression of Vincent Van Gogh’s life from The Netherlands to Paris. I also recall the first time I saw a Vincent Van Gogh painting, which was in Canberra in 2010. The Starry Night was touring, and had landed in the Australian capital.
“Art is to console those who are broken by life.”Vincent Van Gogh
Later in my life, I’d visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Vincent Van Gogh is a stunning artist. Yet his works also speak to people who may not have an obvious interest in painting. Often, when I ask people who their favourite artist is, Vincent Van Gogh is a popular answer. When they hear how sad his life was, I believe many feel empathy towards a suffering human being.
Yet calling Vincent Van Gogh a ‘sad’ or ‘suffering’ person feels off. Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings have brought happiness to many people. Yet it’s not the kind of happiness that one gets after watching a funny movie. It’s more profound. Instead, the Dutch artist acknowledges through his paintings that happiness often compliments suffering.
That is nuanced thinking. Many confuse happiness with pleasure, or believe that happiness is only ever possible if suffering declines. The tragic truth is that suffering is part of life, and always will be. But perhaps we can still find happiness in what matters to us, or even something as simple as a vase of flowers.
His paintings often use bright colours, with distinct brush strokes. In Sunflowers, he uses bold yellows (a favourite colour of his) with darker browns and reds. The background is blue. Overall, the painting suggests the happiness one finds in nature. In Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo, he comments that the sunflowers ‘grows in richness the more you look at it.’
Such is the strength of Van Gogh’s art. His paintings capture not only our eyes, but also our time. You can spend hours looking at Van Gogh’s work (and many have). That’s because every time you look at his work, you’ll discover something new to appreciate and love.
Another powerful quality of Vincent Van Gogh is that he truly loved art. That may seem obvious. After all, Van Gogh was a painter. Yet in the 21st century, proud declarations of love towards art are uncommon. Many are sceptical of grandiose concepts of art and beauty.
If you study aesthetics at university, you may read journal articles arguing that adult media is ‘art.’ Likewise, the concept of ‘beauty’ is often dismissed as a social construct, or so subjective that it doesn’t matter.
This is cynical for countless of reasons. On the other hand, Vincent Van Gogh presents a fantastic attitude.
“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s dedication to painting is spectacular, and a great message for artists everywhere. I look at Vincent Van Gogh, and I see a man who combined his unique vision of the world with artistic flair. He did it with courage and conviction: two traits required for all artists. Was Vincent Van Gogh afraid to be his true self? Probably.
After all, he is human, and so are we. Creating art, or even having the willpower to be curious and brave, is difficult. And I think that’s part of the beauty of Vincent Van Gogh. This is a man who understood how tough life could get, and yet he responded with imagination and grace.
“I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove.”Vincent Van Gogh
I also believe people respond well to Van Gogh’s imperfections. With growing awareness surrounding mental health, we can better understand Van Gogh’s plight. Personally, I like that his art invites a vulnerable side from the viewer. Van Gogh truly put his heart out for the world to see it, knowing full well that invited judgement and even nastiness.
In the 19th century, where the world was becoming harder and shaped by machines, Van Gogh’s art only reached its appreciation levels well after his death. Yet there is a softness in his art, and also a form of self-acceptance. And I think that’s the happiness that Van Gogh prized most.
Not the shallow kind of pleasure. Because of that, Vincent Van Gogh’s art is happy because it brings happiness to others, as well as encouraging everyone to be their best selves.
A less explored aspect of Van Gogh’s art is the technical skill. Not only did he create new pigments, but his art is marvellous from both a subjective and an objective sense.
The art is both exciting, innovative: but also delicate and lovely. That explains why Vincent Van Gogh calls on us to have courage: “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” And I suppose the question is, what will you attempt?