Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night"
Psychoanalysis and Religious Interpretation
Vincent Van Gogh (born in the Netherlands 1853, died in France 1890) committed suicide at the young age of 37, believing himself to be a failure as an artist. He is one of four artists, called the avant-garde who contributed to the founding of Post Impressionism. Besides Van Gogh, the other members include Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cezanne. Cezanne and Seurat focused their artistic efforts towards the analytical while Gauguin and Van Gogh focused on exploring the expressive capabilities of formal elements. By analyzing the religious and psychological aspects of Starry Night (1889, oil on canvas), we can see influences drawn from his personal life represented on the canvas.
Various changes including technological advances, increased exposure to outside cultures, introduction to Darwinian evolution, and the socialistic views of Karl Marx brought forth an awareness of a constantly shifting reality. The resulting societal changes prompted a greater interest in and consciousness of modernity. This exploration of the state of being modern and the people's relative position in that state resulted in the development of modernism. Modern art is a chronological designation referencing the art of the past few centuries. Modern artists seek to capture images and sentiments of their age. Modernism calls attention to art with the usage of art. Modernist painting has regarded the limitations in the flat surface, the shape of the support, and the properties of pigment as positive factors viewed with open acknowledgement. The stance of modernism challenged the conservative approach taught to artists by the academies. This aggressiveness of the modernist movement led to the creation of the avant-garde, a group composed of artists whose work rejected the past and violated the boundaries of conventional artistic practices. It refers to the visionary and forward-thinking artists who were ahead of their time and who defied the limits of established art forms. The term now serves as a synonym for any new or cutting-edge cultural expression. The avant-garde policies were in sync with the revolutionary, anarchic sociopolitical tendencies in Europe around the late 19th century.
Different movements developed under the direction of modernism. Realism was redefined as providing viewers with a reevaluation of reality. Realists focused their artwork to call attention to the experiences and sights of everyday contemporary life. Historical and fictional subjects were disapproved of on the grounds that they were not real and visible in the present world. They depicted scenes that had previously been deemed unworthy, mundane, and trivial such as the working-class, laborers, and peasants.
While Realism focused on the present, Impressionism focused even more precisely on a single moment. It was the art of an industrialized, urbanized Paris. Impressionism was a term used previously in relation to sketches. Impressionist paintings incorporate those qualities found in sketches: abbreviation, speed, and spontaneity. The impressions these artists recorded were neither purely objective descriptions nor only subjective responses but a combination of the two, operating at the intersection of what the artist saw and what they felt. Their identifying feature was the attempt to record a scene accurately and objectively by capturing the transient effects of light on color and texture. They used a technique called pointillism which consisted of small, distinct dots of primary colors to achieve optical mixture and greater luminosity.
Symbolism is in complete opposition to the concepts found in Realism. The facts of Realism were declared trivial by symbolists who asserted that fact must be transformed into a symbol representative of that fact. Symbolists were tasked with seeing through things to give them a significance and reality deeper that superficial appearance. The philosophy of symbolists began with purging utilitarian ideas from art and literature in order to cultivate exquisite aestheticism.
Post Impressionism is in between the extremes of symbolism and realism. It developed when some Impressionist painters and their followers decided they were neglecting too many traditional elements of the painting process in an attempt to capture fleeting sensations of light and color. The four members of the first avant-garde made their presence known by systematically examining the properties and expressive qualities of color, form, line, and pattern. Although clearly visible in being derived from Impressionist precepts and methods, Post Impressionist art diverges from earlier Impressionist pieces by concentrating not only on the immediate visual impression produced by a scene. This artwork moved towards greater solidity and a more organized surface by shifting away from the real world, rejecting external appearances in favor of the inner, personal and imaginative truth.
Vincent Van Gogh painted the industrial outskirts of Paris, allowing him to witness the struggle taking place between the working class citizens and the capitalists. For these pieces, the artist and the viewer were kept at a distance with a long, empty foreground complicated with lots of brushwork. The theme of maintaining a distance from the subjects was a large change from Impressionistic culture. Van Gogh turned away from modernity with his departure from Paris, believing the renaissance of modern art could only be found away from the cities. Symbolism was only a small part of his style as his pictures were tied to topographical realities and not complete abstract. Paul Gauguin, the closest painter stylistically in the avant-garde to Van Gogh, encouraged him to move away from naturalism and impressionism even more by experimenting fundamentally with color and perspective. Vincent also used Japanese art as an inspiration, seeking a world of imagination. The result was astounding; Vincent transformed his suffering into a phenomenal body of artwork showing his artistic triumph over his inner turmoil.
The religious aspects of Starry Nightare both intriguing and disturbing. Being the son of a Dutch Protestant pastor, he anticipated his true calling to be in evangelism and missionary work. Repeated professional and personal failures brought his pastoral days to an end and left him searching for another object for worship. In one of the myriad of revealing letters, Van Gogh admitted to his brother Theo "In both my life and in my painting, I can very well do without God but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life - the power to create." (Kleiner 879) With substituting painting for the role designed by and meant only for God, Van Gogh became obsessed with his artwork and lived only to create. Although seen by the rest of society as insane, this obsession kept him from entirely becoming the madman everyone else believed him to be. Only after turning to painting did he find a form of communication in which to impart his experiences.
This power of creation involved the expressive use of color, suggesting some emotion of a passionate disposition. Instead of reproducing exactly his optical vision, he used color more capriciously to express himself forcibly. His insistence on the expressive values of color led to developing a corresponding demonstration in his painting application. The shape, thickness, and direction of the brush strokes create a tactile, three dimensional counterpart to the intense color schemes. His bold attack of right angles, squeezed dots and streaks, and vehement back and forth brushstrokes enhanced the intensity of his colors. He painted using the modern color theory and complimentary pairs of yellow for light and blue for darkness. This was his translation of the black and white opposition of religious pictures of divine illumination. It was also a common characteristic of Dutch wood cuts for celestial revelations.
He attempted to create a genre of modern religious art but being suspicious of Catholic undertones of other artist's religious themes, he typically used Protestant-natured symbolism: suns, stars, and trees striving upwards towards the heavens. Many believe his inclusion of the Dutch church in the background of the painting was his attempt to make up for being unfaithful of God and religion. Another point of interest is the eleven stars in the night sky; the same number of disciples whom remained faithful to Christ and did not betray him.
Although church religion became inconsequential with his discovery of painting, Vincent Van Gogh held a passionate faithin the concepts of rebirth and immortality. He viewed his emergence as an artist as his rebirth with painting as a means of generating that rebirth. Van Gogh expressed these ideals in his paintings and claimed that artists lived forever through their works. He accurately predicted his own future in regards to public recognition. "They will surely recognize my work later on, and write about me when I'm dead and gone." (Lubin 12)
His motif of death has both a religious and psychological influence on the painting Starry Night. For the most part, he looked to nature for the evidence of rebirth and typically represented death and rebirth as coexisting partners. His fascination with the two extremes, the theme of light emerging from the darkness, is not as a product of his artistic work but rather an important factor in determining his career choice. This is most commonly represented with his color scheme of darkness and light. The dark, deep blue that pervades the entire painting together with the vociferous brush strokes suggests a quiet but pervasive depression. The single Cypress tree in the foreground of the painting represents death and the twinkling stars in the night sky reveal an acceptance of death in heaven. The sky he also relates to the theme of rebirth and Starry Night is a painting of the sky after darkness has fallen. He believes death and rebirth to be an endless cyclical process, and with the majority of the painting representing rebirth, we can assume that Van Gogh is attempting to tell us he is ready to embrace death. Although he is horribly depressed and tormented, Van Gogh's insight into death is a relatively startling one. During his earlier years, he represented death with the typical dark colors and somber moods. In his later years, he made the transition from fearing death to welcoming and embracing it which was probably influenced by his suffering. This comes from his study of the peacefulness of death on the numerous relatives and friends whom passed away. This justified his anticipating death with pleasure instead of fear with a large contribution from his unhappy life. The reapers of his painting were symbolized by the sun and full of color to represent the happiness of death, his reprieve from his miserable everyday existence.
Other psychological aspects the solo Cypress tree represents are loneliness and sorrow. His sorrow comes from his obsession over finding a partner but frightened of the intimacy included with those responsibilities. Van Gogh believed in the values of suffering, sorrow, and loneliness influenced by childhood experiences, parental teachings and his former religious convictions. He concluded he could learn more from a life of hardship than a life of leisure. His alienation is self-induced and substituted the empty spaces for friends, marriage, and children with nature, art, and books. His alliances with other artists were more working related and not friendship based. His longing for a companion caused him to paint in pairs; people, trees, shoes, animals, and other forms of nature. Therefore, the single Cypress in the foreground shows the entirety of his solitude. Van Gogh was also in the habit of using complimentary colors to show companionship in his paintings containing pairs. His use of primary colors (blue and yellow) in Starry Night further reflects his solidarity. Amazingly, he used his misery to his advantage by piting these factions against each other; the fight against all-consumming loneliness versus the fear of intimacy to enhance his creative processes. Because of his self-proclaimed estrangement, he could claim being an innovator instead of an imitator.
Van Gogh's inability to sell his artwork, his epileptic seizures, and society's misinterpretation of his madness along with his decision to remain isolated and miserable combined to contribute to his depressed state. In his earlier years, he claimed a healthy melancholy and used his paintings as an attempt to deceive himself. In later years, he created a relationship between his healthy depression and masochism. By allowing himself to switch from one state of depression to another, he used his masochistic state to be productive in his artwork and his healthy melancholy to keep himself from losing what he considered his reason for his genius. His depression can be seen as the majority of Starry Night is composed of the darker colors among his color palate. It is possible to go so far as to say this painting was Van Gogh's version of a farewell letter. The overall ambience of the painting is a depressed but still slightly hopeful man who is waiting patiently for death to take him.
Starry Night is one of the most sought after of Vincent Van Gogh's works. This artpieceis a personal vision, representing the hardships of his life and his hopefulness of peace and serenity in death. Van Goghwrites "Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter's life...[L]ooking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star." (Kleiner 880) Starry Night portrays the ending of the journey from his darkness of self-imposed isolation to the light of his peaceful death and consequently his rebirth. His artistic creativity encompassed not the agony of his journey but the ecstasy of a revelation.