My Van Gogh Sunflower experience at the international exhibition at the National Gallery Australia bought to mind another Van Gogh moment many years ago when I saw a version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night for the first time at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
The curators for this exhibition had also hung the painting so that the viewer first saw it from a distance. While the sunflowers dazzled me at a distance, the Starry night painting, completed in the same year (1888) had a mesmeric quality. I stood transfixed as the stars seemed to twinkle from afar. Starry Night, like the Sunflowers, is a medium sized painting (72.5×92 cm) and the optimum viewing point for many paintings of that size is much closer than where I stood on those two occasions.
It never ceases to amaze me how people stand right on the ‘do not cross this line’ mark in front of art works at galleries. The descriptions besides the works encourage this behaviour, as do the crowds at blockbuster exhibitions, but most artworks, particularly larger pieces, look better from a distance. I like to view artworks by moving around them; up close to see how the artist applied the paint and the techniques used; at various distances to find the optimum viewing point and to minimise glare, and, if there are not too many people around, also to look from a number of different angles.
Finding the optimal viewing point for a work is an intuitive, individual process to a degree, but is also dictated by the work itself. Fine small pencil drawings or old and rare prints that are displayed in low light for preservation purposes necessitate close up viewing. (The reading of the descriptions is in sync with the viewing distance in these situations.)
That the Starry Night painting stood out so strongly from a distance, spoke of Van Gogh’s virtuosity. He used his complimentary colour scheme powerfully so that the Dark Prussian Blue, Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue of the sky and river made the yellow stars pop out of the background, giving this relatively dark, low key painting a glowing quality even from a distance. Technically the application of blue and yellow paint needs careful consideration so as not to end up with green where the two colours mix.
As I marvelled at Van Gogh’s skill, the crowd broke my reverie. This blockbuster exhibition was in the days when only epidemiologists and pandemic specialists concerned themselves with the possibility of a virus that would spread so fast and widely with terrible consequences for so many people, and affect all aspects of our lives – even the way we view art in galleries.
Back then, blockbuster gallery goers moved slowly in a continuous mass, edging along the ‘do not cross this line’ mark, jostling for a better viewing position. I had plenty of time to see the Van Gogh at more than one angle while I moved slowly with the crowd. When I saw a small viewing gap, I’d dart out quickly to view the painting from different distances before reclaiming my position in the line.
The Starry Night on the Rhone, held by the Musee D’Orsay, does not appear on the coasters I bought at a tourist kiosk along the banks of the Seine in Paris but two other more ubiquitous night sky paintings do, one painted before the Rhone painting, the other after. Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum Arles which predates the Rhone painting is a night scene awash with bright yellow and orange light, cafe patrons and people on the street. The yellow facade of the cafe building dominates, with just a small corner of sky anticipating the nocturnal sky paintings.
Less than a year after the serene view of the Rhine, Van Gogh painted another Starry Night inspired by the view from his window at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy. This painting, held in the MoMa collection New York, was done quickly over several sessions and has an altogether different feel, perhaps indicative of the artist’s mental state. More turbulent, full of movement, and unsettling energy the painting, for me has a sense of foreboding.
I have not been lucky enough to see the originals of my two coaster paintings but even if I have the chance, the Rhone painting will always be a special and favourite work. I discovered in this work a painting that looked equally good no matter where I stood. Vastly different when viewed up close, but still utterly compelling – from every viewing point. That’s a very rare achievement.