Going to the Van Gogh Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum is a stunning experience – not just to view the beauty of the works but to watch the development of Van Gogh’s artistry over his short lifetime.
I went to the exhibit with two friends, Leigh Dehne (he and I have ridden trains together but never visited an art museum) and Adrienne Baker, friend, co-conspirator and both of us former college writing teachers. Adrienne and I made comparisons to learning how to first write a five-paragraph essay (thesis, three supporting ideas, supporting details in each of the middle three paragraphs, and conclusion) to Van Gogh’s learning basic tools and techniques of painting, sketching, drawing and then developing those so he could reveal his ultimate artistic genius.
Along those same lines, a writer would learn that five-paragraph essay first and then using that same format be able to write a much longer, more complex paper...and even a book. Or a poet might be learning the elements of poetry and developing along those lines. An artist is an artist, but all of them, in all genres, must learn their craft and many skills to evolve fully.
Van Gogh took these basic lessons in art and then would turn them into his own style. Copying admired artists is a technique for becoming competent across all artistic disciplines. Van Gogh joined the Impressionists in Paris and later in southern France, at first copying some of their expertise, but then always making the techniques fit his own unique and growing style. It was always Vincent emerging. No cutout copy of another artist.
We saw early works that used mostly dark, basic colors – blacks and browns and all versions of those. Sketches, drawings, then paintings. He liked to paint people, real people and not models. Peasants. Working in the fields. Their bodies and faces were real, and you could feel the emotion coming from their faces, their implied body movements.
Then he began to add color. Just highlights at first. A touch of blue here, a bit of the French flag and the red stripes in it. Then the people changed. No longer peasants, they were people with their faces blurred and their clothes that of urbanites, walking in parks in Paris. Much more color was added, but beginning with the less brilliant – mostly variations of blue with vibrant touches of red and orange.
The more he learned, the more he painted, the more colors appeared and began to dominate his paintings.
Texture and brush styles were definitely his own. Many times he applied paint thickly so there was a depth just from the amount of paint on his canvasses.
As we moved through the rooms signifying his stages, we learned more about his artistry and his unique brush marks, choices of color, and choices of setting.
When I walked into the final room with his last paintings, my breath was stolen from me. By the vibrancy and fullness of the colors that I felt enveloped by – emotionally, physically, mentally. All his distinct signifying style marks were depicted in these paintings, but they had all come together to make a whole. He had literally disappeared into his canvasses. He was the poetry, he was the color, he was the brush mark.
He painted forests of violet trees, skies with clouds so grand they were only possible from his heart and mind and hand, mountains with thick outlines impossible in nature, but certainly Vincent’s mountains. Colors so brilliant they stung my eyes yet I wanted more and more evidence of his artistic passion, more paintings, all of them.
I wish I had turned around and gone back to the beginning of the exhibit and then walked quickly through the rooms, taking in his development, his distinct style, and then lingered even longer, in wonder, in the last room, in the crowning moment and cohesive whole of Vincent Van Gogh, the artist.