When we hear the name Vincent van Gogh our minds often race to thoughts we’ve heard buzzing around us throughout the years like “the tortured artist who painted The Starry Night” or “that crazy guy who cut off his ear.” Most of us don’t know anything about his life except for these small little facts—most of which aren’t even factual. Descriptions like “tortured” and “crazy” are opinions of others, not embodiments of the true van Gogh. Yes, he did paint The Starry Night so that’s one truth, but did he actually cut off his own ear? Historians have discovered that this “fact,” this piece of information that has defined van Gogh to us for so long, is much more complex than the story we’ve all come to know.
In fact, it is now believed that van Gogh’s ear was severed by a friend, Ganguin, who he had gotten into a heated argument with when he found out he was leaving him for good. To read more about this hidden story follow the link below:
The point of bringing all of this up was because I recently saw a video that captured the essence of what The Starry Night means to me and how I interpret what van Gogh was thinking and feeling when he created it. But, I needed to know more about him before coming to any true reading of the piece. Through discovering that a single story has been told about him throughout history, one that came to define him but was not how he defined himself, I realized even more the depth of meaning in those swirly skies he once painted. Watch the video below and remain in touch with your reactions throughout to see if you feel the same way I do:
The section of the film from 0:54-1:04 was the first section that made the connection in my mind to The Starry Night. Throughout that short period of time you see the night pass by and can see a plant travel across the bottom of the screen, much like the cypress bush featured in the forefront of van Gogh’s painting. The cypress bush, a typically unobtrusive funeral plant, is at the forefront of The Starry Night, a black smudge in an otherwise wondrous painting.
To me, this represents the idea that things like grief and desolation can sometimes block our view at certain times in our lives and keep us from seeing the larger picture. The important thing to realize is that we all have these obstructive bushes in our lives. Trouble only arises when we feel like we are the only ones who do. That’s probably how van Gogh felt, which may be a reason for why his life ended in his own suicide.
Van gogh was a post-impressionist, someone who believed that art is not meant to imitate form, but to create it. But, his society didn’t allow him to create his own form and so he was alienated by the art world and believe it or not, was only able to sell one painting in his lifetime. He painted The Starry Night while in a mental hospital and you can see his entire life painted on that canvas. The beautiful, mesmerizing, starry night sky is what your eyes are drawn to first. Its brilliance is evident but the lights in all the little houses below are out, showing that this part of van Gogh is not seen by those around him: there is too much ignorance, too much denial of truth. Those townspeople in their own little world, unaware of the brilliance surrounding them, remind me of a quote by Albert Einstein which goes:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Do a test with yourself. When you focus on the cypress bush in the painting, it becomes all you see and its sinister shape consumes your thoughts. But when you look at the beautiful stars depicted, you see so much more and the bush fades into the background. The same goes for life. When we focus on just ourselves, our problems seem bigger. But, when we focus on others, our lens expands and those worries don’t seem so big anymore.
Post-impressionism in itself is a way of escaping from the prison of confinement the impressionist movement created for artists. It was a way of saying, there is not only one way of doing things, not just one viewpoint from which to portray the world around us. Van Gogh sought to teach this to those around him but unfortunately never achieved this feat in his numbered days. But, The Starry Night will always live on and the swirling vortex he created to represent those stars coming together creates little infinities within the painted universe. These infinities show us that we all must work each day to widen our circle of compassion and realize that each star has a story and each story makes a difference in the brilliance of the night sky.
In my eyes the entire concept of infinity is a way to define the unknown-to define that which really needs to be left up to faith. How can you use math to place restrictions on something so broad and unfathomable? You can’t. But I’m happy for infinity because it’s the only way to begin to describe the feeling you get when you look up at the stars.
Like this: “Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns it calls me on and on across the universe.” –John Lennon
And this: “Love many things for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.” -Van Gogh
Love is the only infinity that really matters in the end. As long as there’s love, there’s life. And once life ends, love continues.
This post has been written in tribute to Reat Underwood and his family members. You can read about Reat’s story in my last post, “The Song Heard Round the World.” Please help me support Reat and his family by donating to the fund that has been set up in his honor. Reat’s mother said that their intent for Reat’s fund is broad at this point and they would like to touch areas that Reat loved (theatre, singing, debate, Scouts, eduation.) But, they would also like to make a difference in changing minds to choose love and not hate. This family defines infinite love. Let their story widen your circle of compassion: