Tomorrow I’m going to see a special Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery that features two of his most famous paintings, Cypresses and The Starry Night. Van Gogh happens to be my favorite artist. Granted he was absolutely crazy, but he was also a genius (it’s odd how often those two characteristics go together).
The last time I saw a Van Gogh painting in person was in London’s National Gallery (yup, we’re back to London). I didn’t have high expectations when I first went there because I tend to prefer Van Gogh’s night and tree paintings to his sunflower ones, and the featured painting there is a still life of sunflowers in a vase, aptly called Sunflowers.
On my first visit to the gallery, Sunflowers had been moved from its usual spot to where the temporary exhibits usually are; that means it was stuck downstairs in the corner of the building. This area is different than the rest of the gallery because the rooms are much smaller and the walls are all painted with bright or dark colors–colours if you’re from London–instead of the typical beige.
The gallery was very busy that day. I squeezed my way into the tiny room with the painting. Temporary ropes had been set up all around the bottom edge of the wall so you couldn’t get close enough to touch the paintings. My first impression of Sunflowers was that it was…well…yellow. I got as close as I could in order to see the swirling brush strokes. Then I looked at it from one corner of the room, from the back center of the room, and finally the other corner of the room.
I left the Van Gogh room to check out some Monet paintings, and then came back for another look. My second impression was that it wasn’t as eye-catching as the painting A Wheatfield, with Cypresses. The blue-green swirls in the sky against the wheat-colored grass and the dark-green cypress trees really popped off the canvas. Sunflowers was still so…yellow.
Feeling very disappointed despite my low expectations, I went and found a bench so I could write about my experience. I was two rooms away from Sunflowers, but I caught a glimpse of it through the open doorways. This third, unexpected view was impressive. I actually think it really did take my breath away for a minute. The bright yellow background glowed as if the very sun shone in from behind. I’ve never seen paint take on such a life of its own. I didn’t even know paint could do that. Stunning. Absolutely stunning.
Then I noticed how all the people who went to look at Sunflowers got real close to it, like I had, only to walk away after a few minutes without a glance back. I wanted to stand on the bench and shout, “You’re looking at it all wrong! Come over here and look!” Naturally I didn’t do that. I wanted to be able to come back, and shouting in a gallery is a good way to get banned from it.
It took me more than three viewings and a two-room distance to see Sunflowers in the right light. All those people were looking but not really seeing it. I wondered what else I might have looked at only to see it from the wrong perspective. I sat and wrote and thought. Then a man came and sat next to me. He was there a few minutes before I glanced at him. Just as I did, he caught sight of the painting. His expression told me that he was having the same moment I had just had.
I couldn’t help myself; I had to say something to him. He thought I was a student (no surprise there), but it was great to share the experience. At least one other human in the whole gallery-of-oblivious-people got it. Oh well, their loss. I’m trying to keep my expectations low for the Yale exhibit–I hate being disappointed. I mean, how many unbelievable pieces of art can one crazy guy paint? I’ll let you know!