July 29th, 2012 | Published in July/August 2012
By: Susan Mahan
When my mother was 90 years old, I took her for her first visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum. She was a self-trained painter who worked from photographs taken from Ideals magazines. My mother was quite skilled in the art of copying photos. Drawing came easily to her and she could match the colors of the landscape. She always loved painting but was not able to major in art in college due to her father?s insistence that she study business. It thrilled her when I majored in art and decided to teach. Mom often asked me to share what I learned about composition and color. At the museum when I parked her wheelchair in front of my favorite painting, “Undergrowth with Two Figures” by Vincent Van Gogh, her first and only comment was, “Why did he paint the trees purple?” I was stunned by her question and was unsure how to answer. It had never occurred to me to question Van Gogh?s use of color.
The purple trees are exactly the reason why I love this painting by Van Gogh. Of course, the use of line is stunning. A horizontal canvas in contrast to the vertical lines of the trees creates interest. The proportion of the figures to the scale of the trees renders them almost insignificant. Thickly layered paint makes me yearn to touch it. The contrast of the dark black lines and distant trees to the yellow and white flowers is arresting. But, it is the purple trees that dominate. Complementary colors sing. Short dabs of yellow next to the purple allow me to feel a breeze. Van Gogh used color boldly- in stark contrast to the restricted palettes of his predecessors.
When editor Daniel Brown and I were discussing this painting, he said, “The Impressionists painted outdoors, the first European artists ever to have done so, and made some remarkably accurate discoveries about color, but the liberation of color from what the eye can see begins with the Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh, Gauguin et. al. The revolutions in physics and the inventions of Freud paralleled these phenomena, as both maintained that there is much more to everything than that which the eye (and other senses) could see and process, and those things were not visible to the eye; thus the revolution, generally known in the art field as “the liberation of color”. I think that another reason for the popularity of VanGogh in this century is the radical reductionism of his landscapes: there is a minimal amount of visual information, and the perspectives are often skewed (the painting you write about seems, to today’s eyes, like a cropped photograph).”
“By the time of The Fauves, color had already been liberated, but what Matisse et al did was make this a regular feature in their painting, as if the mind’s eye saw the trees as purple (I personally believe that this does refer to Monet, in particular, where these Impressionists noticed that there is no such color as black in nature, but night really consists of deep purples: I have noted this phenomenon when I am in Vermont–the mountains at night are a deep purple,and tree trunks appear the same.”
My 33 year career as an art instructor took me to several schools. I taught 25 years as the 2-D visual arts instructor, as well as serving as the department chair, at Mariemont High School. I also taught a class as an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Xavier University in 2010. During my career, I have been asked many questions about art. Students debated why a painting was worthy of inclusion in a museum, sometimes with derisive comments like, “My little brother could have painted that.” They often had trouble understanding the work of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, to name a couple. My canned responses of “Look at the artist?s body of work,” and “His work was innovative,” left them unsatisfied. The exercise of writing a formal art criticism usually helped my students develop more appreciation of the very paintings they doubted. Further analysis helped them to understand the motivation of the artists, limitations of the time period and techniques employed. Visits to the museum fueled their interest in the study of art. Questions from students about what makes a painting great and what the artists are trying to convey anchor the very best lesson plans.
Henri Matisse said “Creativity takes courage.” Creativity is difficult to teach. How do you encourage creativity? My students were encouraged to stretch themselves and take chances with their art. Varying perspective can liven up a composition. The use of arbitrary color, scale and contrast helps. Previously unexplored materials and mixed media encourages spontaneity. Students can become so focused on “making art” that is worthy of the refrigerator that they lose the ability to experiment. Getting them to play with materials is challenging. A pristine piece of white paper can be the enemy. The first mark on that paper can make all the difference. Creativity comes from a feeling of freedom. That freedom is difficult to achieve when constrained by the limitations of time and materials.
“Undergrowth with Two Figures” took courage. The saturated areas of color created by frenetic brushwork make this painting a marvel. Van Gogh?s paintings were groundbreaking. He is now viewed as a somewhat romantic figure who typifies the image of the tortured artist. People like to remember him as the artist who cut off his own ear. I remember him as an artist with courage. He painted his vision and not what anyone else expected him to paint. He did not seek praise or sales. He was eager for artists to work in collective efforts rather than be in isolation. He was self critical but had faith in the future of his work. People have speculated about the significance of the lines made by the trees in this painting. Do they represent bars of his room in the mental asylum where he stayed? Maybe. Gauguin said he was “decidedly mad.” Signac begrudged the attention given to Van Gogh instead of his friend Seurat calling Van Gogh “an insane phenomenon.” Today, artists try to emulate Van Gogh?s work by copying his paintings and technique. They layer on the paint and sit in the same locations of his compositions. Imitations fall short because the energy is missing. Also missing are the vision and courage to be unique. This painting is special because it is an original in every way. Van Gogh had courage. His work shows us his visual clarity in the midst of his madness.
“Undergrowth” is not at our museum right now as it is on loan to The Philadelphia Museum of Art for the show “Van Gogh Up Close.” Before it left Cincinnati it was painstakingly restored. The public was invited to view the restoration process. It will be back at CAM in February 2013. I will be among the first to welcome it home.