Van Gogh: oracle of color

VAN GOGH did not consider himself an ``Expressionist'' - the label art history was to give him. What he called himself was a ``colorist.'' He was deeply absorbed in exploring the capacity of colors to carry intense feelings. In one of his own phrases, his aim was ``to paint readily and attack nature with color.'' In another, he talked of ``the radiance and vibration of our coloring.'' He had abandoned the dark contrasts of his earlier paintings produced in his native Holland, and had come under the influence in France of the Impressionists, with their bright use of pigments to bring sunshine to their paintings. Something of their love of the momentary also rubbed off on him - at the climax of his short career he was to paint more than one canvas a day.

Like his letters, his paintings were a kind of diary of his experiences. With his own vehemence and compulsion he turned the freshness of Impressionism into a visionary language both more decorative and more fervent. Though prompted by nature, his color - and his manner of drawing with the brush - began to take on a life of its own, investing his subjects with a kind of super-reality.

In his letters, most of them to his devoted younger brother, Theo, he often noted the colors he had used in particular works, and even explained his reasons for choosing them. To a degree, of course, it was the colors that chose him: He wasn't working in the abstract, but responding to his surroundings. When, for example, he was working in the fierce sunlight of the south of France, he ``saw'' in the light-suffused landscape colors that he realized others could or would not perceive. He saw them because he was trying to vivify the language of oil paint on canvas to make it act as some kind of equivalent for his experiences, both visual and emotional. To this end, the color in the paintings had to be an exaggeration; it could not be simply accurate or naturalistic. In fact, the quite unpredictable and subtle relationships of color he arrived at are a distinguishing characteristic of Van Gogh's art.

He resorted to the strongest, purest colors he could get with his paints. A sky might be pure cobalt; stars in the night sky, ``a sparkling of pink and green.'' When he was painting a picture of his bedroom in Arles, he reported to Theo that in it ``color is to do everything, and ... is to be suggestive here of rest....'' He then proceeded to enumerate: ``The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles. The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron. The coverlet scarlet. The window green. The toilet table orange, the basin blue. The doors lilac.''

There is every evidence in his landscapes and flower paintings of his direct and passionate love for the astonishing beauty of nature. He looked particularly for its most strongly colored objects to paint. ``Irises'' of 1889 is just one marvelous example of this. Although it was painted at a time when he was in a state of psychological crisis and had voluntarily placed himself in an asylum (after deciding not to escape his difficulties and dependence on the financial support of his brother by joining the Foreign Legion), it is perfectly clear from the lucid intelligence and sensitivity, not to mention the positive energy and relish in this painting, that his art at this time was unaffected by his fears, or that painting provided him with relief from them.

The busy patch of old bearded irises (which he painted in the hospital garden), their leaves starting out of the red earth like emerald flames, provided him with as much strong color as he could wish for. But even then he didn't hold back. The ground's redness is intensified to make a telling contrast with the biting blue-green of the leaves. Only in the deep violet hue of the flowers themselves, with their orange-yellow beards, does he seem satisfied with accurate observation.

The great inspiration he found in Japanese art, particularly the inexpensive woodcuts that had become popular in France in the 19th century, may have given him a fondness for irises as a motif. The way he outlined their petals and leaves, drawing deliberately with his brush, certainly owes something to Japanese art.

But in the end Van Gogh's robustness, his impasto, his bold handling and application of paint, are not refined or delicate in the way Japanese art is. And the irises themselves are a large-headed kind not typical of the finer, more elegant sort favored by Japanese artists. Van Gogh admired their art - but with critical insight realized that he did not attain to their particular qualities. ``I envy the Japanese the extreme clearness which everything has in their work,'' he wrote. ``It is never tedious, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat.''

As ``Irises'' compellingly shows, however, his art developed its own economies and joys, its own capacity to simplify, though acknowledging a world that was not quite so light and airy - and certainly not so unhurried - as theirs.

The irony is more poignant than ever that, of all artists, it is Van Gogh - who was so troubled by lack of money - whose work fetches such inordinately high prices in the sale rooms. Earlier this year one of his ``Sunflowers'' canvases fetched the record price of 24.75 million ($43.3 million). The recent sale of ``Irises'' at Sotheby's in New York was considered something of a weather vane, indicating the state of the art market in the wake of the recent stock market plunge. The sale more than fulfilled expectations by breaking all previous records and selling for $53.9 million to an unknown buyer. But who that actually likes art really cares?

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