Vincent Van Gogh & Oskar Kokoschka (1995)



 " look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots on a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star." -- Vincent Van Gogh


 Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is one of the great modern paintings, the passionate spiritual testament, painted one year before his death, of an isolated master-artist bypassed by his generation.


 Like all great art, "Starry Night," 1889, 29 x 36, represents not only Van Gogh's quest, but that of his era -- whether they knew it or not -- and our own -- whether we know it or not; modern man seeking answers to the anxiety and emptiness caused by deranged social and spiritual values and the failure of materialism and industrialization to provide an ultimately meaningful way of life.


 The sky in "Starry Night," containing eleven stars and an orange crescent moon, all with glowing haloes of swirling strokes, takes up two-thirds of the painting. It is radiant with glory and its famous centerpiece, the sinuous yin-yang "cloud" form like a spiral nebula or massive storm seen from a satellite.


 This double spiral -- imploding on, and expanding from, itself -- is the key to the painting, seeming to be both a symbol of God -- universal totality, unity of opposites, oneness -- and Van Gogh's own search for wholeness of spirit and connection with eternal truths. The explosively magnificent sky dwarfs the sleepy village in the valley below, where a few small strokes of orange suggesting light from windows are pale echoes of the grandeur of the stars.


 A tiny church steeple pricks the sky, like a needle barely entering the fabric of the universe. A close-up cypress, gigantic by contrast, is more dark flame than foliage, and clearly represents Van Gogh and the intensity of his aspiration, his needy, empathetic search for personal and artistic fulfillment.


 Like the archetypal alienation of 20th Century man in general, the size disparity between steeple and tree reveals the difficult necessity of Van Gogh finding spiritual connection on his own rather than through processes of official religion inadequate to deal with the problems and conditions of the modern world.


 It should be mentioned that Van Gogh, while obviously remaining a sensitive, spiritual man, turned away from conventional religion after being fired as an evangelist in 1879. Van Gogh was seen by church elders as excessively zealous, trying to follow Christ and the scriptures too literally, giving the poor his food and clothing, dressing in rags, living in a hovel. Van Gogh, in turn, viewed the church as hypocritical.


 Deeply shaken by this experience, Van Gogh went into a six-month period of withdrawal and healing he likened to a bird moulting. No one to this day knows where he went or what he did. He emerged from this personal devastation totally committed to being an artist. He had ten years to live.


 Oskar Kokoschka, 1886-1980, an Austrian artist born four years before Van Gogh's death, was extremely long-lived compared to the Dutchman's 37 years. But he barely made it through the First World War. Fighting with the German army, he was bayoneted in the chest. He lay on the battlefield for four days.


 Subsequently, he would paint a series of self-portrait "knight-errants," depicting himself propped up on an elbow, wounded, in a desolated landscape. Like so many survivors of so many wars, Kokoschka was emotionally damaged. Soon after the war, he had a life-sized female doll made that he lived with and painted for several years as a kind of antidote to the horror of real human beings. Much of the remainder of his life was spent in restless travel, as if an attempt to escape the nightmare memories.


 But back in 1914, when he was 28 years old and World War I was beginning, he painted the large "Bride of the Wind," 71 x 86, also called "The Tempest." It is another self-portrait, with his mistress Alma Mahler, the wandering wife of composer Gustave Mahler, both full-length figures reclining as if in a small, broken vessel or the storm-tossed sea itself. Like "Starry Night," "Bride" is fiercely, roughly, thickly painted in predominant blue with many other cool and warm accents.


 Though this very emotional, powerful painting depicts the couple's tempestuous relationship, it primarily expresses the "tempest" of life and the war, their entrapment, like millions of others, in death-events beyond their control.


 As they lie together, both nude to the waist, Kokoschka on his back, Mahler on her side facing him, we see differences in their awareness of the war and their fate. The artist is like a haggard insomniac blindly staring with deeply sunken eyes, his body seeming to rot into flaps of separating muscle devoid of covering flesh, hands clenched in agony, fully aware of their danger and the anguish of the world.


 Alma Mahler is more smoothly, luminously painted, her eyes closed, not untroubled, but perhaps putting her trust in Kokoschka, leaving it to him to solve the dilemma.


 Like Van Gogh and all his other 20th Century expressionist heirs, Kokoschka expresses the desperation and passionate need of mankind to remain human in a dehumanized world seemingly more intent on killing us than serving our deepest needs. This is the meaning and value of art like this. These artists may be troubled -- in such conditions, to be troubled is to be normal -- but they are not corrupt or mindless perpetrators and purveyors of ignorance, cruelty and dehumanization. Fully alive -- emotionally, intellectually and spiritually -- they voice the needs of voiceless humanity.


Copyright by Don Gray


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