Strange... how disoriented one can feel... even in the face of great joy and deep personal satisfaction! Yet that was exactly my feeling during our day with Van Gogh in Ottawa... and up until yesterday. My brain raced in the presence of the galleries filled with images and the words that were offered to guide your journey through the exhibition. The experience was not unlike that same feeling of visual overload that I have felt while painting in Algonquin Park... immersed in a sea of raw... raucous colour ... everywhere you look. It is simply... too much to take in. Every neuron and synapse in my brain seems to be firing simultaneously... every muscle twitching... so much so, that painting becomes almost painfully uncomfortable.
Certain music has the very same effect on me. I am absolutely overcome in the presence of genius. Examples the readily flood to mind are the music of jazz genius Django Reinhardt... anything from the classical genius of Antonio Vivaldi... and of course the Canadian songwriter and folk icon, Gordon Lightfoot. No matter the genre... genius is genius and very quickly displaces mediocrity. What allows certain individual's efforts to soar so far beyond their time and last for countless succeeding generations? Certainly not gimmickry... or worse still... mimicry. Those persuasions are most always short-lived because the public at large themselves are restless in their own search for new experiences and change.
I was listening to a recent CBC morning radio interview with a renowned Spanish guitarist asking him how he was first drawn into this very complex musical form. He attributed his lifetime of interest and striving to hearing one piece of music by jazz genius Django Reinhardt when he was only a journeyman novice aged nineteen years. He described that event as being pivotal in his life's work simply because Reinhardt's music "spoke" to him in a "hidden language"... and that this language merely deepened his desire to gain further knowledge and understanding of it, enabling him to excel and move ahead to his current standard. He mentioned that every listening and every note reveals new insight and inspiration.
I asked myself, "Could that hidden language aspect in music also apply and be present in other art forms such as visual art and literature?" Could that be the element which draws me and so many others to admire and feel something special about an artist such as Van Gogh... or Andrew Wyeth... or Bernini... or Pollock? Could it also be that the individual artist finds a device in what he experiences and develops it as a conduit through which he passes language which might not be heard as such by everyone... but rather only those who respond to the resonating visual imagery.
The success of any kind of artist is dependent upon an ability to translate "the ordinary" which he or she perceives into a universally understood structure or composition based upon forms, lines,light, shade and colour.The addition of personalized elements such as brushwork in the case of Vincent further advance a stronger sense of language to the viewer's eye... just as Django's rhythms and fiery finger work appeal so strongly to the ear. Whether the stimulus is visual or auditory, it remains that the information be internalized... felt and interpreted emotionally. There exists then a conversation that is deeply felt and personal.
Van Gogh struggled unsuccessfully during his entire life time for acceptance. His personal search for meaning in his own oeuvre was relentless and feverish... and just as painful as his personal search for inner peace and happiness. It would be his connection to the Natural World in France in the 1886-1890 through flowers at first and then the landscape that he finally found some semblance of peace and as he related to his brother Theo in a letter: "I feel I have a raison d'etre! I know that I could be quite a different man!... There's something within me." It is that "something within" that he felt that carries through his work right up until his untimely and tragic end that we all feel and appreciate. The energy of his almost manic brushwork ... stong sense of light.... rich colour and child like simplicity all contribute to making his work appealing.
One can learn a great deal from Van Gogh's painting style and his life. In viewing his work "Up Close" as one could at this exhibition.... you can see a constant state of experimenting that began as all art instruction must... whether through classes, or by individual study and constant practice with drawing from life. One thereby gains a necessary vocabulary of techniques involving perspective, values, and solid draughtsmanship of a host of subjects.
His painting study began with the use of floral still life... as it did for so many of us as beginners. The lack of movement and the ability to structure simple compositions helps one gain confidence and experience and at the same time some time working with colour to help develop a palette.
The leap then is into the outdoors where more complex patterns and compositions can be found and interpreted. In looking at Van Gogh's studies one can see the dark tonal palette of respected European painters of his early search suddenly be replaced by the exuberance and brighter colours that were emerging as a result of Impressionists active in Paris. While their findings are indeed interesting to him for a short time... you can readily see that their findings did little more than ignite this "feeling within" to create a unique vocabulary totally his own.No matter the genre... Van Gogh's work is perhaps the most easily recognized from across a room than all other painters.
On this Canada Day weekend, I completed a canvas 30x24 inches which celebrates my own special Eden... The Thousand Islands and in "the manner of " Van Gogh perhaps. But other Canadians would also note the similarity to Emily Carr, a Western Canadian woman artist who like Van Gogh was a contemporary... a rebel... an innovator... a non-conformist... a social misfit from a very respectable family background. There are endless comparisons which can be rightly drawn between the two. But what makes their journey so similar... is that they had a vision... an "inner feeling" to which they dedicated their entire lives.
AJ Casson, a respected member of the Canadian Group of Seven once said:
"Time is the only critic." And in the case of both... their time has passed, but their legacy of rich paintings will forever continue to inspire painters like myself to study...to strive... to struggle... to sacrifice and to listen to one's own heart... in an effort to simply find our True Selves... and peace through our painting!
"An Island Song of Joy" - oil on canvas 30x24 inches
Good painting to ALL!!... and a very Happy Fourth of July to my American neighbours and Friends