Master of Science

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Van Gogh: Christ the Waiter

Vincent van Gogh’s The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum is one of his most iconic works.  Recently, a nouveau art lover noticed an interesting depiction in a newly acquired, framed print. The waiter stands out in the brightly-lit enclosure under a starry sky.

In fact, Todd Van Luling, in the Huffingtom Post, said that new research suggests individuals lurking in “a group of 12” seated at the café — with Van Gogh's central, long-haired figure — may not be nameless strangers after all.

Hungry, sick and fighting for survival, the miners in Borinage had little interest in Van Gogh’s evangelistic appeals. In response to their plight, Van Gogh gave away everything he owned, including most of his clothing to tend to their medical needs. 

It’s possible that one of Van Gogh’s most famous artworks contains an allusion to an even more famous painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  Fantasy?  Not according to Jared Baxter, a Davidson College alumnus in classical humanities, a scholar whose done independent research on Van Gogh’s paintings.

But finding the twelve is not easy.  Baxter's twelfth disciple, seen by scrolling down to page 26 on the website posting his study, Van Gogh’s Last Supper: Transforming the guise of observable reality’, is shadowy.  Baxter says the server eclipses all but the hand of the 12th diner, but it is difficult to see this in the grainy images, if not imposable.  Still, there is little doubt Christian symbolism can be seen in Van Gogh's work.

“‘You know when you're interpreting art, you've got to leave open the possibility that you're not correct ... there can never be 100 percent certainty,’ Baxter told the Huffington Post. ‘I think there's enough information and enough evidence to at least make a pretty good case.’”

In an article by Mark Ellis, Vincent van Gogh’s unappreciated journey with Christ, when a record 1.2 million visitors came to the giant retrospective of Van Gogh’s work in Amsterdam in 1990, what they never saw at the exhibition were Van Gogh’s Christian-themed paintings.  They were left in the basement of the museum.

According to Ellis, William Havlicek, author of  Van Gogh’s Untold Journey, discovered that a saintly bishop’s ruminations on the cosmos in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables inspired one of Van Gogh's most famous works, The Starry Night:

“Victor Hugo wrote, ‘He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his own heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts that fall from the unknown.  In such moments offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the center of The Starry Night…’

Could such a childish interpretation be possible?  Probably not.  But it brings into focus what the National Gallery of Art called the feverish work that pushed Van Gogh to even greater expression with intense, active brushwork and saturated, complementary colors. 

“Vincent used the same title for his painting and Havlicek notes the striking similarities.  ‘The theme of Les Miserables is redemption,’ Havlicek observes.  In Van Gogh’s painting, ‘the stars are painted like flowers.  There is an interaction between the earth and heaven. It is as if heaven is reaching down.’”

This is a common interpretation of Van Gogh's stunning starry skies.  There are considerable references to the divine.  The video shared above, for example, depicts the starry heavens crashing down onto the street and into the lives of the patrons dinning at the terrace café.

In a lecture by Baxter (shared here from a posted comment below), the case for Christian symbolism is clearly established, although deconstruction seemed more on topic.  Some of Van Gogh's paintings at Saint-Rémy-de-Provencein, for example, explored not only the sacred, but the supernatural as well, or so it seems.  In one, for example, an apparition opens its arms (although the brush strokes could just as easily be gusts of wind).

Full Copy Seen Here
Oliviers avec les Alpilles dans le fond (“Olive trees with Alpines in the background), sports an apparition, and yes, it looks a lot like Casper the Ghost.  It was first noticed by a Van Gogh fan on a crude, but inexpensive, spray-painted, canvas copy purchased online.

The discovery sparked concern, not only because the copy belonged in the basement, but because the apparition made its buyer uneasy.  A brief search on Google leaves little doubt the jagged chain of sharp cliffs and steep valleys known as the Chaine des Alpilles (the Little Alps), have a long and legendary history.  One that Van Gogh could not have missed.

Could such a childish interpretation be possible?  Probably not.  But it brings into focus what the National Gallery of Art called the feverish work that pushed Van Gogh to even greater expression with intense, active brushwork and saturated, complementary colors.  “Yet, neither his colors nor the rhythmic surfaces of his heavily painted canvases were divorced from nature —” the National Gallery of Art said, “they were tools to communicate the spiritual power that he believed molded nature's forms.”

In an attribution on Wikipedia from this period in Van Gogh’s life (unfortunately linked to a missing page), the National Gallery of Art is quoted as saying:

“In the olive trees — in the expressive power of their ancient and gnarled forms — (Vincent) van Gogh found a manifestation of the spiritual force he believed resided in all of nature.  His brushstrokes make the soil and even the sky seem alive with the same rustling motion as the leaves, stirred to a shimmer by the Mediterranean wind.

“These strong individual dashes do not seem painted so much as drawn onto the canvas with a heavily loaded brush. The energy in their continuous rhythm communicates to us, in an almost physical way, the living force that (Vincent) van Gogh found within the trees themselves, the very spiritual force that he believed had shaped them.”

Vincent van Gogh painted at least 18 paintings of olive trees, mostly in Saint-Rémy-de-Provencein in 1889, according to Wikipedia.  At his own request, he lived at an asylum there from May 1889 through May 1890 painting the gardens of the asylum and, when he had permission to venture outside its walls, nearby olive trees, cypresses and wheat fields.

Oliviers avec les Alpilles dans le fond  is widely considered to complement The Starry Night.  But in a letter to his sister, the sky was not so much an expression of the divine as it was about an artist's observation — or at least that's the way it sounds.

“Mr Vincent, an Impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gaslamps, in one of our squares.”

“I definitely want to paint a starry sky now,” he wrote to his sister Willemien in 1888. “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens.

“If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow.  And without labouring the point, it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”

“Casper” could easily be brushstrokes, and on close inspection appears to be two updrafts cojoined above a peak on a small mountain range.

Van Gogh, the son of a Dutch minister, championed Christian values, and according to William Havlicek, he served as a missionary to coal miners in the Borinage district of Belgium.  He found a mess there, however.  A mining explosion had left many miners in a horrible condition.  Families were hungry, sick and fighting for survival.

In response to their plight, Van Gogh gave away everything he owned, including most of his clothing to tend to their medical needs.  He even ripped up his own bed sheets for bandages and slept on straw.

Donna Gustafson, in a Commonweal review (March 23, 2001), reported that indeed Van Gogh had experimented with Protestant Evangelism before turning to art.  But searching for Christian symbolism in Van Gogh’s art is akin to proving that ghosts exist.

In her review of Deborah Silverman’s Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (since removed from Commonweal's archives), she wrote that while most would agree Van Gogh’s search for the sacred is embodied in his paintings, it is hard to attribute this symbolism to Protestant ideals of labor and individual worth.  Rather, she said,  “they can be viewed as artistic choices made by a sophisticated individual conversant with the history of art as well as the arts and crafts of his own time.”

Van Gogh had much in common with Nietzsche’s Dionysian spirit.  He was a man who learned not to forsake or stand in judgment of the material world, but to sanctify and ennoble it.  The more traditional, Christian belief in the corruption of the flesh would have been foreign to Van Gogh.  His paintings celebrated everyday life, and the artist who labored to create them.1  

In Arles, for example, Van Gogh’s labors prompted a reporter to write that the only thing missing was a lunchbox: “Mr Vincent,” the reporter said, “an Impressionist painter, works, we are told, in the evening, by the light of the gaslamps, in one of our squares.”

Is there Christian symbolism in Van Gogh's work?  Of course.  It's all relative though.  There are no absolutes.  Jared Baxter believes Van Gogh was more deconstructionist than Christian, and is probably correct in believing this to be true.  But in many of his letters, if not all, Van Gogh talks nuts and bolts, as any laborer would:

“On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking,” Van Gogh wrote.  “A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the facade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge….”

Yes, the waiter, in all probability, is Christ Jesus, and he may even be carrying his cross (it's sort of there in the window), but who knows?  That's the genius of Vincent van Gogh, and the delightful painting he created while standing under gaslamps in Arles.  The Café Terrace at Night.  It's just plain wonderful.

Preparatory study. Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

 1 Berenson, E. (2006). Introduction from a forum of brief essays; a day-long gathering at nyu’s institute of french studies.  (Discussion, Debora Silverman’s Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).  


Blogger Jared Baxter said...

I find this interpretation of Starry Night more compelling.

February 28, 2018  
Blogger stenote said...

Good blog... keep-up the good work.... May I share an Interview with Vincent van Gogh(imaginary) in

October 16, 2018  

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