Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Impact of a Visionary Artist

I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, "He feels deeply, he feels tenderly." -Vincent van Gogh

A friend of a friend tells a story. And it’s one that speaks volumes about the power of art to touch us deeply, unexpectedly, even inexplicably.

The setting is the highly regarded Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pa. Six or seven years ago, Phyllis, the retired teacher whose story it is, went on what she assumed would be a pleasant but routine cultural outing.

That’s pretty much what it was, she wrote in her journal shortly afterwards.

Until she turned a corner and one painting stopped her in her tracks.

She wrote that an unexpected wave of emotion overcame her immediately. She found herself bursting into tears, even before she was near enough to see the roughly 28x36-inch oil painting clearly.

Even now, she can’t say why reacted that way, or where that extreme emotion came from. She’s reluctant to embrace the easy, mystical explanations that might have come to mind when she moved closer to the painting and realized what she was seeing:

Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky was painted in July 1890, making it one of the last works created by Vincent Van Gogh. He committed suicide that same month.

Of course, one way to understand all this is that Phyllis had somehow tuned in directly to Van Gogh’s emotional state when he painted the picture. But there’s another way of thinking about it.

The popular image of Van Gogh is that he was a “mad genius,” and that both his life and his art were consumed by his madness. The reality is he was a disciplined artist with a mastery of color, composition and paint.

Looked at the second way, the emotional intensity of his work was anything but a byproduct of a troubled mind. It was the intended impact of a skilled artist whose vision was matched in every regard by his command of his craft.

In its own way, I think, that explanation of the power of the painting is every bit as “magical” as the first. What do you think?When was the last time you saw or heard a work of creative genius not with your eyes or ears, but in your marrow?


  1. Van Gogh's paintings beg to be touched. The colors and texture touch the soul and inspire the "realness" of what he saw. As seen through the eyes of a child, the child wants to touch this -- what this is? It's not just paint! This child was I, who was gently reminded by a docent that this was a very old painting and that the salt would hurt the paint. (-This happened many years ago at an international exhibition of his work at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo.)

  2. About 10 years ago, when I first moved to New York City to pursue my art career, I went to the Museum of Modern Art. I was bemused that they hung "Christina's World", by Andrew Wyeth near the hall to the rest rooms, but my real jolt came when I entered the room with "Demoiselles d'Avingion", by Picasso. I was so excited by the intensity, the importance of the ideas, the sheer BIGNESS of the work. Not the physical size if it necessarily, but its bigness as an deserved art icon. The emotion was so intense, that I began jumping up and down in front of the painting just to express my transport in a bodily way. Luckily, I was alone with the painting at the time.

    My partner had his art moment in Rome while experiencing Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Theresa." He simply knelt down in front of this masterpiece and cried.


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