Places and Spaces

Van Gogh’s most famous painting is also one of my favourites. Living in New York, I have often been to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and to me Starry Night and Monet’s Waterlilies are the two cornerstones of the art there.

Of course, art curators and such are far more credible judges of the paintings than I am because my bar for art is something along the lines of “Oooooh! Pre-ttttty!”. But there’s something about Starry Night. It’s so magical. In a funny way, it’s the same feeling that I get when I look up at a clear, quiet night sky with twinkling stars and a blazing moon. The night isn’t stationary, it’s alive! And I think the night that Vincent painted is alive too.

When I saw the painting for the first time, I was surprised. I had no idea that the cypresses were a deep forest green with brown edges. Online, I just saw an unsightly dark patch that marred an otherwise pretty sky and never paid attention to the village below either.

My interest in Van Gogh was piqued by Doctor Who. Yes, an entirely unexpected source. For those of you who don’t know, The Doctor is a time traveller and is singularly amazing. Go watch him on Netflix!

Here’s a heartwarming scene from the end of the episode that really made me want to learn much more about this tormented genius.

The museum shown here is the Musée d’Orsay. It’s a beautiful museum and I prefer it to the Louvre, just like I like MoMA more than The Met. Before I had seen the paintings, I thought I liked the Starry Night Over the Rhone better than Starry Night and even tried hunting it down in Paris but when I finally saw it in Amsterdam I have to admit that it didn’t quite have the richness that Starry Night has. It’s a wonderfully mesmerizing painting in its own right of course!

Having drunk in the painting a lot more than when I watched that episode a few years ago, I divide it into three parts in my head.

  1. The sky.
    The eponymous starry night. The shining stars, the moon, swirls of blue. I love the swirls the best. So many hues of blue from the mountains right up to the inky sky! Have you ever seen a moon that shines so bright that you’re almost dazzled by it? Sometimes the moonlight streams in through my window creating a bright yellow patch against my black wall. It’s so bright that I look for an artificial source of light, like a street lamp.
  2. The village.
    Unlike the turbulent heavens above, the village is quiet and peaceful, like everyone is asleep. There isn’t a light at a window or a rustling leaf. It’s such a contrast to the sky!
  3. The cypresses.
    As I have said above, I didn’t like the trees when I saw the digital reproductions online, but in reality, seeing that paint on the canvas, it neatly ties together the village and the sky that are at odds with each other.

Now I’m taking the Modern Art & Ideas course on Coursera. Not that this is remotely useful to me professionally, but why should I be pigeonholed as an engineer? Just because I have a modicum of mathematical understanding doesn’t mean that I can’t be moved by art, literature, music, beauty and imagination. Which is why this TED talk never ceases to tickle my fancy.

The ridiculous distinction between the Arts and the Sciences annoys me to no end. We all have brains that appreciate patterns, whether in symbols or colours.


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