Illustration by Marietta Kosma
The experience of seeing Van Gogh’s work exhibited in a museum is not something that can be easily translated to words. It is an intense visual experience, revealing the fears of deep isolation that comes with being a human. Starry Night itself seems fairly simplistic at a first glance, yet the passion with which it was created is undeniable. The artist manages to transfer his energy and intensity of emotions, his psychic angst and spiritual longings through his paintings. The work is situated on the fine line between realism and abstraction, filled with both a sense of longing and loss, an aesthetically fulfilling work that enthrals. Today you can see Van Gogh’s paintings in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which houses the largest collection of artworks of Van Gogh in the world.
The Van Gogh Museum is a modern building designed by Gerrit Rietveld whose main purpose was to explore the connection between light and intense, geometric shapes. When I visited the Van Gogh museum in 2017, I was in complete ecstasy. The staircase in the central hall of the building, which leads to the first floor, is decorated with Van Gogh’s paintings. As the daylight streamed into the museum through a high skylight, I looked upon Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Examining it closely made me realize that light is depicted in numerous and wondrous ways. I was amazed by the intensity of its colors. Starry Night depicts Van Gogh’s view outside his sanatorium room window in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence at night, although it was painted from memory during the day. Vincent had prolifically described the view from his window in the letters he wrote to his brother, Theo. He wrote, “why […] should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France?”. Van Gogh expelled his inner conflict by creating an almost apocalyptic landscape, the only constant in the painting being the existence of the stars. It is really quite an ordinary scene, yet it is transformed to something extraordinary by the artist. Starry Night embodies an inner expression of the artist’s response to nature. Van Gogh challenged his audience in a way that none of his contemporaries had done before. Even though people were not able to fully process his vision, due to its unsettling composition, the painting has a strange effect of not allowing one to turn away from it. Like other impressionist paintings, Starry Night doesn’t make sense until you view it at a distance. This reveals Van Gogh’s ability to portray a three dimensional vision in two dimensions.
The painting consists of vertical and horizontal lines, contrasting a serene city against an apocalyptic sky. Different shades of blue, white, black and yellow are used. The painting’s most impressive element is the flame-like cypress trees extending from the quiet village into the churning sky above, created by sweeping brush strokes and intense colors. Instead of merely painting stars, or the ripples in the water, Van Gogh made a yellow mark over the navy brushstrokes combining the two. It is a completely new approach to the depiction of night; a gloomy and mysterious one with shattered clouds rather than an realistic depiction of a nocturnal landscape.
What is impressive about this work of art is that it was a precursor for the abstract art movement. Abstract art emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, whereas the painting was created in the end of the 19th century. The techniques that Van Gogh employed for the creation of the Starry Night, particularly the fusion of realism and abstraction, functioned as a precursor to post-impressionists. Post- impressionism as a movement responded directly to the impressionists’ attempt to capture human perceptual responses to the effects of light upon various surfaces.
As an art lover, I am enthralled with Van Gogh because, despite his struggles with severe depression and suicidal ideation, he kept on painting. His use of bright colors and heavy strokes was his way of expressing his emotional darkness in his ground-breaking work. Nobody can deny his legacy.