“It often seems to me that the night is much more alive
and richly colored than the day."
and richly colored than the day."
-- Vincent Van Gogh,
September 8, 1888
Last year, I had the delicious opportunity, along with a small group from Montclair, New Jersey’s art community, to have a private showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) exhibit on “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night.” We were lead through the exhibit by its curator Joachim Pissarro, who is an Adjunct Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, as well as, Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Art Galleries. At first glance you may think this show is perhaps small and, as one viewer seems to think, suspicious in it’s intent. He writes:
…The central theme of the show is a bit contrived. It seems to be organized around a few comments Van Gogh made to his brother Theo (the exhibit includes multiple letters the artist wrote to his closest sibling) about effectively capturing the beauty of the night sky through artistic method. Beyond the two Starry Night works, the remaining pieces displayed are less on-point with regard to the general them … (Borrowed from the customer review section at Amazon.com on the page for the catalogue: “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night”)Unfortunately that reviewer did not have the benefit of Joachim Pissarro’s skillful eye to guide him. If he had he would have seen that each work was specifically selected and hung to build into a most moving essay on the study of night by light.
Once we all gathered into the exhibit space Joachim explained his approach to hanging the show. Not necessarily in chronological order, the first gallery contains a survey of Van Gogh’s career from start to finish. Opening with sketches he made while still an itinerant preacher simply making visual notes from a café table of what he sees around him. From there the curatorial introduction sifts through years of Van Gogh’s work to show how his passion for capturing subdued light began indoors, and then is transformed as he moves outdoors to study. Emphasizing the effects of the setting sun on the horizon line and subject matter.
Joachim’s own passion for the element of discovery is apparent as we floated into the second gallery, where Van Gogh’s track from the Netherlands, where he was born, explodes into his later landscapes of France. There we saw canvases emboldened with colors that become alive in the imaginations of a yellow sky and a rainbow of brush strokes shooting out from subjects seated at a blazing fireplace … I was lost somewhere inside Van Gogh’s head absorbed in lavish texture created by generous mounds of paint.
The stage set we rounded the barrier into the third gallery to see the first "Starry Night Over the Rhone." On the opposite wall hangs "The Night Café" (both shown above). It is interesting, Joachim points out, that both paintings contain the same color palette applied in an opposite manor. Where bright lime green dominates The Night Café it is used sparingly to represent the only source of light in The Starry Night over the Rhone. We see in this gallery too "The Dance Hall in Arles." Again same radical palette of navy red and lime green. This time shades of lime illuminate the people themselves as they crowd the café.
Joachim talked about his research process for the exhibit, thinking it would take him about six months. What he found instead however, was a much broader subject matter that included art, poetry and literature. The idea of night itself evokes a certain sensuality and mystery – even danger that has drawn the attention of countless writers and artist for centuries. The curator said he found himself in a study that actually took two years to complete. Even then he admitted to us, he had not exhausted his resources. Van Gogh was a voracious reader, fluent in Dutch, German, English and French. “His vast literary knowledge fed his artistic imagination; many of these texts describe the spiritual and poetic character of the twilight and night hours that [he] sought to capture in his paintings.”(1) Some of those resources are also on display in a small room off the last gallery…
The forth gallery: By now we are all more sensitive to the elusive twilight Van Gogh sought to show us. Almost anxiously I waited to enter the final gallery. For years I have seen images of "The Starry Night." I confess secretly, it is not one of my favorite paintings. Now however armed with Joachim’s poignant visual essay I am certain I will see it with new eyes. I was not disappointed. It was magical. Lyrical movement of rotating brush strokes that danced across the canvas… For a little while I took flight with them fascinated by the vivid imagination that had created them. Joachim points out that no where in the South of France does a church exist with a tall steeple like the one in the painting, and for the first time I realize that Van Gogh has made us to see his impression of what the night feels like to him…
The entire exhibit can be viewed on line at MoMa’s website: http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/exhibitions.php?id=5634 (A side note: New York’s Modern Museum of Art was founded in 1929 as the first of its kind in the world. You can read more about that history at: http://www.moma.org/about_moma/history/index.html
Also, I found the following website, which claims to be a complete resource of Van Gogh’s art and writings: http://www.vggallery.com/
(1) Exert from the exhibit on-line Literary Reference page: http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2008/vangoghnight/flashsite/index.html