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.


1 comment:

  1. As Marilyn's friend Cathy, I feel compelled to describe what a treat it was to walk through the Van Gogh exhibit with both Marilyn and Don ... their comments really enriched the whole experience for me. An informed and perceptive guide truly broadens your own perspective. And that's obviously what Marilyn's blogs are for so many of us.