Vincent Van Gogh: a symphony in yellow

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There is a point, at the crossroads between the lines of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo and the swirling coloured brushstrokes, where painting becomes literature, and we have the rare opportunity of entering the artist’s mind who lucidly explain the creative process on paper by fixing it for eternity as one of his drawings. Van Gogh writes precious words, mainly to his brother – collected by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Joahnna Bonger – and thanks to his intimacy and affection for Theo he provides some reflections on the state of the art as well as his personal interpretation of the world.

We discover Van Gogh capable of establishing deep reflections not only on his canvas but also in this epistolary, we follow his often gloomy and sad train of thoughts, always to lucidly plumbing the depths of feelings and difficulties of life, illness and work.

In La vedova Van Gogh (published by Marcos y Marcos) Camilo Sánchez stages  the Van Gogh’s family tragedy swept away by the dedication and positivity of his brother’s widow Johanna. Sánchez’s writing deals with a strong woman lovingly nurturing her son Vincent (heartrending homonymy) and at the same time observing the spiritual decay of her husband Theo who let himself die of sorrow thinking about his brother, the great van Gogh, shot himself in the chest and died from loneliness. Johanna’s is an intimate diary, a writing exercise to pin down her own emotions and projects. First of all to redeem her father-in-law’s work making it known around the world. Van Gogh’s art can neither be used to plug a hole in the wall nor to be forgotten in a dark basement, Van Gogh’s art must be immortal.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Theo Van Gogh, 1887

She’s the curator of a priceless collection scattered around the house. The constant presence of a personality of immense stature, a ghost hovering around his own paintings. Vincent Van Gogh doesn’t appear throughout the story but he’s always there: every room in his house at Pigalle is covered with starry nights and self-portraits, every page of Johanna’s diary leads to this intimate discovery.

Among these paintings that particular yellow has obsessed Vincent, the yellow of his house at 2 Place Lamartine Arles, the sunflowers, the restless wheat fields; in his letters he talks a lot about it, he wonders about how to best use them in his portraits and landscapes:

“Suppose I have to paint an autumn landscape, trees with yellow leaves. Very well — if I conceive it as — a symphony in yellow, what does it matter whether or not my basic yellow colour is the same as that of the leaves — it makes little difference. Much, everything comes down to my sense of the infinite variety of tones in the same family.”

Loaded with a particular significance after considering Vincent Van Gogh suffered from xanthopsia disease in addition to drug abuse and absinthe, both his frugal harsh life and depressive disorder, this quote allows us to perceive colours differently, especially the yellow one.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with a Reaper, 1889

Dark tones turn into violet, clear ones into yellow, which seems to clearly predominate in many paintings; the yellow sky, the flowers, the yellow house, “it’s all sun” what Vincent wants to set on his canvas in those moments when total lucidity precedes hallucinations, as perfectly pointed out by Dostoevskij who has been  suffering from epilepsy and treating with the same drugs the painter abused.

He finds the same melancholy and restless chromas in the great fields of Provence he conveys to sunflower petals and the starry nights whirling moon, and he expresses them far away from the symbolist ambitions of his dear friend and colleague Gauguin whom he has been sharing the Yellow House with for a while; he displays the same sincerity and emotion, happiness, pain and suffering in his paintings he experienced his entire life.

“The world concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it, and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures—not made to please a certain tendency in art but to express sincere human feeling.”

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888

Article translated from here by Sara D’Ettorre

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