A Story About Vincent Van Gogh

WORDS BY JOHANNA STIEFLER JOHNSON / @JOHANNACITY

On a milky April day, under a hazy film of white and gray clouds, I was making my way toward the home of my friend Sara. Around me the apartments were quaint, all peeling paint and plant-infested balconies. I buzzed at Sara's door and within seconds she had arrived downstairs. We hopped onto a tram that would take us to Valentino Park and the exhibit we were so eager to see. The tram looked like something out of the 1950s: it was round as a Volkswagen, and orange; the chairs that lined the edges inside were circular wooden stools, worn down with age. "Trundle" is the perfect word to describe how the tram moved, with much screeching and jerking; we nearly lost our balance several times.
   At a stop on the edge of Parco del Valentino, we exited the tram to find a meager sun poking through the clouds; the park was cast into a light that reminded me of a pale flower petal, or butter, perhaps. As we began walking through the park toward our destination, we spotted Italians here and there, all taking advantage of the mild weather.
   I was pleased to find that there were not many people at the building where Van Gogh Alive: An Experience was being held. We bought our tickets and, giddy with excitement though not quite knowing what to expect, entered the exhibit.
   Immediately, I was in awe. The first room we walked into was in complete darkness except for six floor-to-ceiling screens placed next to each other at the far end: two on the left, two straight ahead, and two on the right, creating a sort of stage. The two of us settled into position where all six were visible at once, and the "film" began. This film was essentially a slideshow of Van Gogh's paintings created in such a way that a story was told. Throughout, the screens depicted different paintings, fading slowly in and out; sometimes, however, the same painting covered all six of them, which impressed upon me the importance and beauty of that particular painting. Meanwhile, I was aware of delightful classical music drifting through the speakers — this music would change throughout the film, and played a colossal role in my interpretation of what I was watching.
   The film began in Amsterdam, just as Van Gogh's painting career did. Sara translated a short paragraph of explanation that preceded the slideshow. The colors he used followed the trend of many artists at that time — browns and grays, muddy, melancholy. (I'd read a short history about Van Gogh's life before entering the exhibit. Prior to painting, he had been expelled from school after an unrequited love left him depressed and erratic. Following this, he served as a missionary for a short while but was once again dismissed for, apparently, being too zealous in his services. These struggles were evident in Van Gogh's style, and to me they did not depict the Van Gogh — sunflowers and star-filled skies — that I felt I knew. It was very eye-opening.)
   We were then brought to Paris. The preceding paragraph told us that Van Gogh was tremendously inspired by all the beautiful colors he found there, and once again this was unmistakable in the art. Bright pinks, greens, purples and blues erupted across the screens, and the accompanying music was light and joyful. I recognized countless works among them, though it wasn’t until later that I would become fully aware of their acute significance. It was here, too, that the sunflower spree began, yellow lighting up the room, casting us — the audience — into golden light. However, whatever peace Van Gogh found in Paris was not to last.

   The slideshow continued in this way, taking us through Arles, Saint-Rémy, and other cities. Sometimes, the film created the paintings as we watched. The Starry Night, for instance, started as a blank velvety sky, the city building up, stars dotting the sky, and swirls finding their way across the screen before our very eyes. For almost half-an-hour we stood, watched, and learned.
   Then we continued on. In the next room, we were greeted by a series of Van Gogh's self-portraits. I was very struck by them, seeing for the first time the torment that he himself created in his eyes. I wondered if he had done this on purpose, or if he realized that he had done it at all. (For how does one deliberately paint pain? What colors does one use?) I stared at the haunted eyes in every portrait as they filtered across the screens, daunting above me.
   The next room, though the least aesthetic, was the enthralling. I learned things about Van Gogh that I had never known before, and I was absolutely mesmerized. The long hall was lined with panels depicting Van Gogh's most famous works, accompanied by remarkable descriptions of their origin and history.

*


Have you ever heard the story of why and how the artist cut off his ear? Let me tell you. Van Gogh had great dreams of sharing a studio with a colony of artists. He was therefore extremely excited when one of his biggest inspirations, Paul Gauguin, came to stay with him in what became known as the "Yellow House" in Arles, France. This visit, however, ended in disaster. When Van Gogh learned that Gauguin planned to return home, instead of remaining there with him, there was a heated argument. The latter was threatened with a razor and he left the house. Not long afterwards he returned with Van Gogh's brother, and they found Van Gogh in a pool of his own blood; a fragment of his ear was cut clean off. Van Gogh had severed a portion of his ear, put it in a box, and brought it to a brothel where he had given it to a prostitute by the name of Rachel.
   This was the description that accompanied the painting "The Red Vineyard," evidently inspired by Gauguin, and the only painting Van Gogh sold in his lifetime.
   After apologizing for the "incident," Van Gogh painted "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear" and accepted that he was very ill.

*

I want to include here an excerpt from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his sister about the painting "Café Terrace at Night." It was very touching to me because I felt as though Van Gogh, clearly internally tortured, mentally unstable and struggling exist in this world, truly found happiness in his art. It touched upon me again the power of the color yellow, especially to him. I was also in awe that he was able to create something in which he himself found so much joy — he was not criticizing it, but describing it gleefully and in loving detail. And how poetic he was! This is what he wrote:

"On the terrace there are tiny figures of people drinking. An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house and sidewalk, and even causes a certain brightness on the pavement of the street, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gable-topped fronts of the houses in a street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet, and there is a green tree. Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron color."

Van Gogh wrote another stunning description to his sister about the painting "Starry Night Over the Rhone."

"It often seems to me," he wrote, "that night is still more richly colored than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky."

I’ve never read anything so beautiful and enlightened.

*

And so we went on. Each paragraph took me deeper into the life of Van Gogh. In 1889, for instance, he was committed to the Asylum of Saint Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh suffered greatly, but sought solace in his art. During his time at the asylum — which lasted many months — he painted Irises and Starry Night, which depicted his view from the asylum.
   At this asylum he also painted one of my personal favorites: Blossoming Almond Tree. This he did as a celebration of the birth of his nephew, who was named Vincent by his brother and sister-in-law. The birth apparently filled him with optimism and he was very moved. I found this fact so touching that almost brought me to tears, both then and now as I write about it!

*

The story of Van Gogh's suicide left a bad feeling in my mouth. This is how it goes.
   In 1890, Van Gogh was released from the hospital and went to stay with his brother's family. His sister-in-law and the baby were both ill, and his brother was suffering from financial trouble. As a result, Van Gogh's feelings of burdening the family were added to his depression, and he was tormented.
   On July 27th, Van Gogh started writing a letter to his brother. Before he got to the end, he walked out into a field and shot himself.
   He managed to stagger back to his house, where his brother and a doctor — who had previously been summoned — arrived to find him on the verge of death. He died in his brother's arms.
   There were scanned photos of the letter, stained with century-old crimson blood, on the plaque.

*

The exhibit ended with several more projected paintings. In one of the rooms, we were surrounded on all sides by Starry Night, which gave the dreamy impression that we had walked into the piece of art. As I stood there, the flecked sky and glimmering stars above and around me, I let my body go still and imagined I was sleepwalking.


When it was over, I felt heavy with all the things I had learned. My mind was saturated with Van Gogh's carefully calculated strokes, swirling and deliberate, chaotic as the inside of his head. I remembered the first slideshow we had seen, and the ending stood out to me. There had been the sound of a gun shot, cutting like glass through the classical music, and a dash of red paint had splattered across the scene. Then "Wheat Field with Crows" had come onto the screen, thus the final image of this film had mirrored Van Gogh's life, for this was his final painting. In a shocking burst and with loud cawing, the crows in the film burst out of their position in the painting and flew, obtrusive and frightening as death, toward us.
   Outside, darkness had begun to fall. Sara and I spoke about the exhibit as we retraced our steps through the park, but after a little while I told her I had something to do and we parted ways. There was, in fact, nothing for me to do, but I did not feel up to conversation. I found a bench overlooking the river and sat there for a long time, eyes fixed on the flow of water while my mind wandered far from it. I thought of many things then. I thought about the fact that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his life, when recently "Portrait of Doctor Gachet" was bought for over eighty-two million dollars. I thought about his adoration of the night sky, and his longing — and extraordinary ability — to recreate it. Most of all, however, I thought of Van Gogh's sunflowers and him beside them, eating the toxic yellow paint.

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