Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Starry starry night, paint your palette blue and grey"*

The next—sorry to all of you who were hoping it would be the last—installment of the over analyzation of Van Gogh's paintings features The Starry Night at the Yale Art Gallery. (See Sunflowers and The Night Café for others.)

My initial reaction to The Starry Night was that it is, in a word, small. Now, Van Gogh is known as an impressionist who created relatively small works, but really, The Starry Night isn’t much bigger than the medicine cabinet in my bathroom. My theory is that because Van Gogh was so poor most of his life, he didn’t have the money to buy enough paint for larger paintings. If you’ve ever seen one of his works in person, you can see that he really did glob the paint on the canvas. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who couldn’t afford to buy food (and supposedly ate paint for nourishment on occasion), so it’s no surprise his masterpieces are kind of small.

The colors of this painting didn’t strike me the same way the colors of Sunflowers eventually did. The setup of the display didn’t really allow viewers to get too far away from the painting, so that could have had something to do with it (I had to get three rooms away from Sunflowers to see it properly). Still, I had been hoping the yellow of the swirling stars would pop off the dark blue sky a bit more. The painting was mounted on a yellow wall, and this may have altered the colors as well. At the very least, I found the wall distracting.

I asked the usher about the wall, and he said something about how a lot of thought went into choosing the background color, blah, blah blah (I don’t think he really had any idea why it was yellow)! The background may have actually taken away from the way the stars were supposed to pop off the blue sky. My experience with Sunflowers taught me that an unlikely color (like one not in the painting or one that is just hinted at) might work better than one that is already dominant.

This thought led me to take a closer look at the other featured painting called Cypresses. This is a view of the same cypress trees that are in The Starry Night, but it shows them during the day and in a slightly different viewpoint. These colors really popped off the canvas (much like the colors of A Wheatfield, with Cypresses did when I saw it in The National Gallery in London). Cypresses was mounted on a yellow wall as well, and frankly it didn’t do much for it at all. I decided a pale pink wall would’ve really amped up the colors. (I mentioned this to a pair of ladies who were also at the exhibit, and they wholeheartedly agreed with me.)

Then I began to wonder how The Starry Night would look with a pale pink background or even an off-white one. Colors that aren’t really in the painting, but ones that wouldn’t match or clash with it, ones that wouldn’t distract me so much, ones that would have made for a much more subtle background. Too bad I’ll never know…unless The Musuem of Modern Art in N.Y.C. has it on a pale pink background (I doubt it!).

Now, one of my favorite things about The Starry Night is the little village down the hill in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting. It’s dark out, but there’s a few lights shining from the village, indicating a few folks are still up and about. Whenever I see prints of The Starry Night, the village seems so alive to me. I can almost hear the sounds of it echoing up the hill. Seeing this painting in person took a little away from the liveliness of the village.

I’m not criticizing Van Gogh for this because I think it had to do more with the way the painting was framed; you could see the edges of the painting, where the paint ends and the canvas shows. I’m not sure why someone would frame it like that. Maybe so none of the painted part was covered at all. It disappointed me, though. Instead of feeling like I was really there myself—or maybe peering out a window from a little cottage up on the hill—I was just looking at a painting. It took a little of the magic out of it.

Still, the painting was amazing. I definitely glad I finally saw it in person. I can’t wait to see more Van Gogh works. I’ll even settle for going to London again to see Sunflowers!

*Don McLean