“Life is like art. You have to work hard to keep it simple and still have meaning.”Charles de Lint (1951-Present)
I saw my first van Gogh when I was about twelve years old. I was on one of my meandering tours through downtown Winnipeg and for some reason the gallery had free admission that day – so I decided to park my bike and become a patron of the arts. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the exhibit beyond a few Inuit paintings, but I can clearly see that van Gogh in my mind’s eye. It was one of his Sunflowers and I must have stared at it for at least a half an hour. Even though I was just a kid I could still perceive the creative genius of the piece, as every brush stroke seemed to matter. The irony being that most of van Gogh’s Sunflowers were hastily painted as wall decorations for fellow artist Paul Gaugin’s bedroom (when they worked together in Arles France) – but because they had meaning to Vincent, their beauty endures.
Fast forward another thirty-three years to 2007, when the Vancouver Art Gallery was hosting ‘Monet to Dali’, an exhibition of Impressionist paintings featuring the likes of Morisot, Gaugin and Modigliani. While I was personally looking forward to viewing the larger canvases by Henri Rousseau (‘The Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo’) and Pablo Picasso (‘La Vie’), the star of the show turned out to be yet another van Gogh – a small landscape entitled ‘The Poplars of Saint-Remy’ which was painted the same year (1889) as his iconic ‘Starry Night’. The colours were so vibrant that it looked like it had been painted just the day before, and the featured poplars gave off an iridescence that I have only seen in living trees, basking in
the last rays of a setting sun. I realized that it was the unanticipated colour scheme – van Gogh’s almost irrational use of violet shadows immediately behind the golden poplars – which gave them their lifelike glow. I found myself revisiting this particular painting four or five times before leaving the exhibit, probably because I felt that I would never get the opportunity to view it in person again and I also wanted to soak in as much of the experience as possible. Even afterwards when I viewed it online, it just wasn’t the same, as the colours seemed distant and the photographic images utterly failed to convey the painting’s true atmospheric presence.
I did manage to stumble into van Gogh’s creative genius on just one more occasion, a few months after the exhibition. I was cycling at dusk when I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. In a small garden just around the corner from where I live, were Vincent’s colours reincarnated in a perennial planting of Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) and Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’) glowing in the dying light of the day. It lasted for all of ten seconds and then faded into the shadows, but it felt the same as when I experienced my first van Gogh…glorious. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to cycle past the same garden at just the right time, when the sun blesses it with its last few rays. Still, there are not many people who can boast that Vincent van Gogh (or at least his creative muse) lives just around the corner, and I’m quite content to be one of them.