Monday, June 16, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 15)

While staying in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Vincent's mental and emotional health did not show signs of improvement; if anything, his condition seemed to deteriorate.  Lonely, neurotic, and unhappy to an almost debilitating degree, the artist turned to painting as a means of coping with daily hospital life and avoiding total despair, mental breakdown, and insanity.  Art took on a therapeutic form—doubtless not for the first time in the history of the medium.  The psychological motivations behind the other painters we have looked at is left open for elaboration and investigation, but Van Gogh was one of the first to paint solely out of psychosomatic incentives: to release some of his emotions, his tension, anger, depression, and whatever else.  We are no longer looking at artworks made to be submitted to a salon exhibition or commissioned by a patron or other buyer; this art is a wholly intimate creation of the artist for the artist.  How, then, should we look at a painting like Van Gogh's Irises?
The influence from Japanese woodblock prints can be clearly seen here in the painter's use of color and shape.  A kind of pseudo-Impressionistic levity is employed in the artist's approach to realism and design.  We are given a nondescript, everyday view of something commonplace: flowers.  Nevertheless, any attempt at stylistic categorization is quite futile; this painting is violently rebellious against seemingly all other artistic approaches except Van Gogh's own.  This work is sheer chaos.  I hardly even know how to describe it; you can see for yourself.  We are looking at a tangled mess of cluttered stalks, shoots, leaves, and buds in anarchical placement within the frame.  Our eye is given no single linear pointer to direct us where to look; and inasmuch as there is no centerpiece to this painting, there is also no clearly distinguished background or foreground.  We have almost no idea which plants appear in front or behind others; they are lost in the dizzying forest of content patched randomly throughout the canvas.  We may take one look at this and immediately see the evidence of a troubled mind; and if we can understand nothing else from what we see here, we can most certainly spy the expressed marks of the artist's own neurosis.  As works of personal self-expression, paintings such as this of course betray insight into Van Gogh's mind, but they also extend the boundaries of what art can achieve.  The multifaceted development of art throughout Western history has been one of innovation and discovery, as we've come through seeing art as historical documentation, religious sermonizing, ideological propaganda, philosophical reflection, and even scientific study of the natural world (to name only a few)—and now, it seems, we can add medical/psychological treatment to the list.  That is certainly the function of this painting here.  Only someone as obsessive and neurotic as Van Gogh could have painted such an intricate maze of interwoven lines and shapes.  Our eye can't follow it, but it certainly speaks to our emotions the way it no doubt expressed some of the artist's own.

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