Do you remember the first time you laid eyes on The Starry Night by Van Gogh? My parents hung it in the bathroom, so I was exposed to it at a young age. I don’t remember many of my childhood musings, but I do remember seeing that painting and thinking, “This is different from any other artwork I’ve seen”.
Naturally, I learnt more about the wonderful work of Van Gogh at high school. My mum used to be an art teacher, so she was more than helpful to answer my catapulting questions.
What’s his best artwork?
What makes his work stand out?
Why is he universally praised?
Make no mistake; her answers were informed and helpful, but for whatever reason, they didn’t scratch my itch. Flash forward a few years to a family viewing of Doctor Who, Season 5, Episode 10, and I couldn’t believe my luck. The episode was focused on Van Gogh, who got to time travel and witness the artist in his element, easel and canvas at the ready. In the episode, a gallery curator had a beautiful monologue that finally put my curiosities to rest.
“Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again”.
And there you have it. As a musician, this line especially resonated. It’s much easier to wallow in sorrow and write a sad song than to take those emotions and turn them into something beautiful. That’s a harder, rarer process. Portraying emotions in a convicting manner isn’t exactly learning how to tie a tie.
Following this understanding, the content of Van Gogh instantly became more accessible. Instead of seeing thick brushstrokes and vivid colour, I saw pain transformed. Van Gogh had a troubled life, but painting became his escape, averaging one painting a day near the end of life. Talk about productivity! I hope that’s an inspiration for those of us in lockdown, looking to kill time without reading up on the latest Belle Delphine fiasco.
During Gogh’s time at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a mental hospital, the artist poured his soul into his work, finding solitude in the landscape and transforming it into something magical. Some news sources believe that Van Gogh’s The Starry Night was loosely based on his window view from the hospital. However, while other painters may have painted the view as they saw it, Gogh incorporated elements from various locations he’d experienced, remodelling the view into a mystical haven.
So, for all you creatives out there, I hope Van Gogh’s approach to art inspires you in some way. For me, it pushes me to consistently produce work and to enrich my writing with personal experience. It inspires me to search for the joys in life, instead of taking the easier, darker path, and becoming pessimistic. For you, Gogh’s work might influence you in a different manner. Art means different things to different people, and that’s a wonderous thing.
One thing is certain. Gogh’s ability to transform pain into beauty will remain a jaw-dropping achievement of humanity and the arts for years to come.