Sunday, March 30, 2014

Repetitions and Surprises

In my last post, Messages, I invited you to compare and contrast two paintings by Vincent van Gogh included in the “Van Gogh Repetitions” exhibit.

I quoted William Robinson, one of the show’s lead scholars and conservators, who said, “You have to really concentrate.  But when you compare van Gogh’s different versions of a design stroke by stroke, you start to relive his creative decisions.  It’s a strangely mystical experience.” (“Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker,” The New York Times, 10.6.13, ar 21)

Many of you said you felt deeply satisfied as you probed aesthetic meanings in The Large Plane Trees and The Road Menders.  If you felt this, Dr. Barnes says, you saw “beneath appearances to the reality underlying them.” (Art in Painting, p. 47)

That’s mystical.

Here are the two paintings.



I asked you to examine:

1.     Each change in size, shape, light, color, line, and space in every color unit in each picture
2.     The overall impact of the total ensemble of each picture
3.     The changes in each figure or groups of figures
4.     The changes in the rocks
5.     The changes in the windows

A reader, Cynthia, said the Cleveland painting expresses the colors of fall—warm amber, gold, russet red, blues, grays, and blacks.  In the repetition, the Phillips painting, the yellows and greens are cool—almost icy—the blues and grays muted and subtle.

The overall impact, therefore, of the total ensemble of each picture is different.

The conservators describe in detail the canvas van Gogh used for each painting, its thread count, whether he primed it, and if he did, with what.  This information fascinated me, but it did not assist my aesthetic analysis.  I had to define the impact of the paintings, and I agree with Cynthia: the Cleveland picture resonates with rich, deep, warmth while the Phillips painting glows with eerie light in color tints of yellows, greens, cerulean blues, and whites.

From the point of view of subject facts, these two paintings, at first glance, look remarkably similar.   Then, when you examine details closely, the differences become apparent.

Let’s look first at the figure in the lower left:


In the Cleveland picture, thick, striped brushstrokes actively pull bands of yellows, browns, and grays horizontally and diagonally behind the figure.  The “woman” is a series of contrasting geometric shapes defined by a rigid, black outline.  Her head contrasts her dark brown hair with a warm pink facial profile. A jutting cerulean blue angular cape pushes her shoulder and basket forward.  The basket consists of two rounded strokes of blue and tan, a rhythmic repetition of the light/dark contrasts of her head.  Two flattened vertical widths of sketchy brown and blue support her base. 

In the Phillips picture, the horizontal strips in the background are wider, lighter, and reduced to yellow and light gray/green.  The “woman’s” body is a series of two contrasting geometric shapes. The smooth blended dark, navy blue cape sets off the vertical mass of blackish coat.  Her head, defined by line, does not include a dark/light contrast.  Ochre hair blends into a tan/gray inverted triangle face.  Her “basket” becomes a boxy rectangle of red and brown.  The red is a clue.

Notice the effect of the differences: look at the hand; look at the inverted triangle of blue in the Cleveland version and the triangle of gray in the Phillips version as they define her coat under the basket. 

Now examine the lampposts on the left side of both paintings:



In the Cleveland picture, the lamppost is outlined, and it is placed adjacent to the acid-green window shutter.  The top window shutters are closed, and they continue the dark/light contrast theme.  The façade of the building implies plaster and blocks consisting of lighter yellow lines and thick pigment.  The greens are light viridian.  Washes of gray/white delineated by a black line define the doorframe and lower shutter. 

In the Phillips picture, the lamppost, painted directly into a quivering, vertical mass, is reduced in size.  Dark green and black model it into a slimmer color unit, creating a space between it and the lower shutter.  The façade of the building is constructed with a series of vertical bands of yellow and orange placed side by side.   The door and shutters are slabs of heavy, dense, warm green.  The curtains showing through the panes of the lower windows are pink/white stripes in the Cleveland picture and bright red in the Phillips. Another clue.

Here are the lower right sections of both pictures:


In the Cleveland picture, curly lines of white, gray, and soft blue agitate the surface of the dirt mounds and the road.  Examine the outlines of the blocks of stones, the small can to the right of center, the figures, and the tree trunks.  The surface ripples, swells, and pulses with energy, as the warm browns, tans, and oranges of the road dramatically contrast with the cool, blue/grays of the rounded mounds and blocks of stone. The two working men in the upper right are fully rounded masses of contrasting green and orange/tan energized by the rippling, curly brush strokes that define them.

In the Phillips picture, a suffusion of yellow/white bathes the entire section.  The blocks of stone are rectilinear boxes of white outlined with cool green.  The road is a series of zigzag green lines interspersed with ochre/yellow/blue lines.  The rocks and mounds are a series of lines separating and defining stones from dirt but creating no solidity or mass.  The tree trunks, likewise, flatten into lineal units of green/tan lines bound by a dark brown outline.  Three men, delicately outlined and constructed of washes of light blue and tan, are light in weight and mass.  Notice, however, the reds of the lines that define their shape.  Notice, too, the red hat and the contrasting black of the other two hats.  More clues.

Finally, look at the figures in the upper center of both pictures.



In the Cleveland picture, the figures are barely visible: a series of brush strokes, as angular as stick figures, and drawn over the background of thick, tan/brown pulled pigment. The third figure, to the right of the others, is a smear of gray/tan with a fan of thin lines suggesting a shirt.   In the Phillips picture, the figures are rhythmic units of orange and blue-gray, thinly lined, and caught in action as they “move” through the pale yellow space.  The third figure is hardly a figure but a balancing construct of a light gray rectangle with contrasting “legs” that is set back in space.  The major spatial difference, however, is the receding space in the Phillips picture as opposed to the shallow spatial recession in the Cleveland.

While similar in subject facts, the aesthetic message each painting expresses is specifically unique.

The Large Plane Trees, the Cleveland picture, is a series of diagonal planes of dramatically contrasting warm and cool color volumes that ripple, swirl, and pulse in a relatively confined space.

The Road Menders, the Phillips picture, is a series of diagonal planes of dramatically contrasting eerie, bleached, flattened color volumes that decoratively connect surprises of vibrant reds, blacks and blue/grays in relatively deep space.

My point: these are two different pictures.  Van Gogh experienced his subject anew when he painted the so-called repetition. 

When he worked from his original subject outside and when he worked from that painting for the repetition, he subjected both pictures to a new interest.

Dave Nolan, a friend, artist, graphic designer, and Violette de Mazia Foundation teacher, travels with a small paint box and 6 x 9 inch canvas boards.  He works on site in France, Italy, Belgium, or Holland, and brings home his tiny pictures along with photographs of his subjects. 

Then he makes a larger painting using his small painting and photographs as his subject.

These are repetitions.

Here is how he puts it:  “The photos always look a little grayer to me, but they show details that I never noticed on site.  When painting the larger version, what I notice is that the colors weren't coming out like either the little painting or the photograph.”

In other words, the larger version is a new adventure in perception.  He sees anew what he saw before.  He subjects his subject to a new interest.

Friday, March 7, 2014


This week I dug out my high school yearbook to try to find the name of a girl included in a photo I emailed to my Bronx friends (six women who have shared life’s journey with me since we went to school and played together as children).  We have been on a weeklong trip down memory lane, initiated by an essay in The New Yorker by Roger Angell on aging (if you want to read it, click here:  The New Yorker).  Angell’s essay sparked all sorts of stories, schools we attended, teachers we loved, or hated, sports we played, etc.

As I sat on the floor of my cold basement and looked through the yearbook scanning all the individual photos, my eye spotted a “flourish” of handwriting on the upper right corner of a group photo titled Service League.  I was in the photo, but it was the handwritten note that attracted my attention. 

I thought, “That’s my father’s handwriting.”

It reads: “To my loving daughter Marilynn,” (definitely his spelling of my name, with two n’s)

“May your future be as bright and sunny as the day you looked on graduation, my honey.  Love, Daddy.”

I never read this message before this week, and I have no idea when my father wrote it.

I sat there, yearbook in lap, crying.

On the same day when my husband was flying to Colorado to visit his 98-year-old father who is recuperating from surgery, I read a note from my father that survived 56 years, buried in a dusty high school yearbook packed in a trunk.  My father wrote the note when he was 48 years old.  He died ten years later.

I felt his loss as if it just happened.  His love reached my heart long after my high school graduation celebration and found its way to me as if by magic. My reaction reaffirms what Pearl S. Buck wrote in 1943: “Life is a process of the spirit and not of the body…we are more than can be expressed in concrete shapes of solid flesh and chemical material.”

In art, she said, this means “painters and musicians and writers and all those who have, by chance of birth, been given the tools of talent to express for others the truth that all must feel if we are to have a better world—that truth put into words so long ago by a Chinese when he said, ‘All under heaven are brothers.’” (in Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings, Bignou Gallery, New York, May-June 1943, n.p.)

We get “Messages” that provide consolation and information—if we read them.

You may be rightly wondering where I am going in this post.

Here’s where:

This past fall, The Phillips Collection exhibited “Van Gogh Repetitions,” bringing together 13 instances in which van Gogh made more than one version of a work—and often multiple versions.  In the show’s catalog, a team of scholars and conservators, led by William Robinson and Eliza Rathbone, assemble and analyze documents that are clues to when van Gogh made a copy.  Using new technical evidence, such as X-rays and high-resolution digital imagery, they resolve questions about the sequence of the works.

I visited the exhibit and devoured the details in the catalog. What impressed me the most, however, is this statement by Mr. Robinson: “You have to really concentrate.  But when you compare van Gogh’s different versions of a design stroke by stroke, you start to relive his creative decisions.  It’s a strangely mystical experience.” (“Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker,” The New York Times, 10.6.13, ar 21).

“It’s a strangely mystical experience,” says Mr. Robinson.

I hope you get to know it.

Below, I have selected two paintings from the exhibit, and I ask you to compare and contrast them:  The Large Plane Trees, November-December 1889, The Cleveland Museum of Art; The Road Menders, November-December 1889, The Phillips Collection.

The catalog provides the following information:

Toward the end of the year, van Gogh painted two nearly identical views of men repairing the main boulevard running through the center of Saint-Rémy.  On December 7, 1889, he wrote to his brother Theo, “The last study I have done is a view of the village where they were working under enormous plane trees—repairing the pavement.  So there are heaps of sand, stones and gigantic trunks—the leaves yellowing.  Almost a month later, on January 3, 1890, van Gogh told Theo that he now had two versions of this subject, identified as “The Large Plane Trees—the chief street or boulevard  of Saint-Rémy, élude d’après nature—I [also] have une répétition  of it that is perhaps more finished. (Van Gogh Repetitions, p. 141)

The conclusion: “While the transfer method remains mysterious, ample evidence points towards Cleveland’s Large Plane Trees as the study from nature and the Phillip’s Road Menders as the studio repetition.” (p. 146)

Here are the paintings:



To make this analysis even more interesting, below is a photograph of the subject taken many years after van Gogh used it for his painting:

                The Boulevard Mirabeau 1950s, photograph by Marc Edo Tralbaut, Rijksmuseum

I invite you to examine the paintings and state the design (theme, picture idea, visual clue) in each of them.

To get to this point, examine them upside down, and look for:

1.     Each change in size, shape, light, color, line, and space in every color unit in each picture
2.     The overall impact of the total ensemble of each picture
3.     The changes in each figure or groups of figures
4.     The changes in the rocks
5.     The changes in the windows

Here they are upside down:

The Large Plane Trees (inverted), Cleveland

The Road Menders (inverted), Phillips

If you “get” the messages, let me know your reactions to them.  Either respond directly on this post or send me an email:  Marilyn’s email.  I will summarize and discuss your responses in the next post.