Tag Archives: Van Gogh

Real needs are not far from us.

Van Gogh – The Good Samaritan

 

I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know. God may call any one of us to respond to some far away problem or support those who have been so called. But we are finite and he will not call us everywhere or to support every worthy cause. And real needs are not far from us.

-C.S. Lewis

Trees live all over the world.

The oaks were of noble bearing: they did not trail their branches on the ground like willows, nor did their leaves have the dishevelled appearance of certain poplars, which can look from close-up as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and not had time to fix their hair. Instead they gathered their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grew in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle — like an archetypal tree drawn by a child.

It’s surprising how often the subject of trees comes up in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. The description above is from his visit to the Lake District in England, but while he is France he also notices trees with the help of Van Gogh’s paintings. I like the word pictures the artist himself painted when he was working on a series of sketches of cypresses, words that tell us about the trees and about Van Gogh, too:

They are constantly occupying my thoughts….it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.

Van Gogh was with his cypresses for quite a while, getting to know them. I have felt close to some particular trees over the course of my life, starting with a pear tree outside my back door, which for some reason made enough of an impression on my five-year-oldĀ  mind that it remained the only thing I remember from that house’s yard.

We moved to another place with a significant tree, a huge oak that grew even bigger till it threatened the house in which I spent the remainder of my youth. So I can’t help loving oaks, and I do think trees in general worth a whole post from this book on travel, even if they aren’t that big a part of the book.

But, see here, Van Gogh couldn’t leave out the trees when he wrote about his house:

My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters, and it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint.

De Botton notices some trees by a stream on another occasion in the Lake District, while he sits on a bench enjoying a chocolate bar, “a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.” But he didn’t pay attention to them for very long, and seemed to forget them entirely when his trip was over. But one day he was in a traffic jam and mentally stressed by the cares of everyday life, and

…the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn’t know, but which I could see as clearly as if they stood before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.

I’m sad to realize that in my travels I’ve not spent enough time alone in one place to take proper note of foreign trees, but I do love them. And when we visited the Bristlecone Pines a year ago, I suppose it was the fact that they were the focal point of the place that enabled me to concentrate on them more than is typical for me. But instead of drawing them, I philosophized about them.

John Ruskin tells us, “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love.” Perhaps my first adult drawing effort will be of a tree.

What Van Gogh Can Do

Van Gogh frequently paid tribute to painters who had allowed him to see certain colours and atmospheres. Velazquez, for example, had given him a map that allowed him to see grey. Several of Velazquez’s canvases depicted humble Iberian interiors, with walls made of brick or a sombre plaster, where even in the middle of the day, when the shutters were closed to protect the house from the heat, the dominant colour was a sepulchral grey, occasionally pierced, where the shutters were not quite closed or a section had been chipped off them, by a shaft of brilliant yellow. Velazquez had not invented such effects, many would have witnessed them before him, but few had had the energy or talent to capture them and turn them into communicable experience. Like an explorer with a new continent, Velazquez had, for Van Gogh at least, given his name to a discovery in the world of light.

Van Gogh – Field of Poppies

The above paragraph, from Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, is taken from the section in which the author presents his case for how works of art can help us to really see and appreciate the real thing when we get the opportunity, as in our travels. Even Van Gogh’s eyes were opened to the depth of natural phenomena by this means.

I am not aware of this aspect of my own developing appreciation for the beauty of various places. I can’t even think of any word pictures that primed me to love the places I do. That art is an influential power I do believe, but I mostly post excerpts here as an example of de Botton’s art. His words are a pleasure to read and also add a good deal to my meager foundation in art appreciation.

Come to think of it, I will have to take back what I just said, because I find myself influenced after all. Before reading this book, I had no interest in visiting Provence. The following paragraph has changed my mind.

After Van Gogh, I began to notice that there was something unusual about the colours of Provence as well. There are climatic reasons for this. The mistral, blowing along the Rhone valley from the Alps, regularly clears the sky of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat. And fortuitously, because there is no moisture in the air, there is in Provence, unlike in the tropics, no mistiness to dampen and meld the colours of the trees, flowers and plants. The combination of a cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colours.

Van Gogh – The Yellow House, Arles

Speaking of colors, every chapter of The Art of Travel includes several black-and-white illustrations, photographs from the author’s travels and of the featured artists’ paintings. In this section of the book in which there is so much about colors, the lack of them was particularly conspicuous.

As is hinted above, De Botton did not love the scenery of the French countryside at his first encounter, because at the time he was bored, impatient, and uncomfortably hot, not disposed to be charmed. He says he needed to be taught by Van Gogh, but I think he also just needed a good night’s sleep.

This chapter “On Eye-Opening Art” includes many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which were for me, trained more in reading than in art, more impressive and evocative than his paintings. De Botton’s eyes began to be opened as he read the artist’s own descriptions of Provence, and in Arles he was lucky to get in on a guided tour of “The Van Gogh Trail.” At stops along the walk the tourists gazed upon scenes that long ago had been the subjects of Van Gogh paintings, while the guide held up large photographs of the finished works. The seeds of love were planted and watered by these lessons, and sprang up in the heart of Mr. de Botton.