It is this question – often asked in an aggressive tone of drunken voice – that makes law-abiding citizens lower their sober eyes and mutter ‘Nothing’ while hurriedly walking past the thuggish inquirer. As the decent folks hurriedly scuffle by, they wish Chuck Norris would be walking this alley and teach the bully a lesson by breaking a few of his limbs.
Most good paintings are asking the same question, and oh so rarely they have it answered.
Because few people, having looked at a painting, are able to accurately describe what they saw in it five minutes later. What were you looking at, then?
And today, I really want you to look at this painting by Van Gogh. Each time I’m in Paris, I’d go to Musee Rodin, not only for an inspiring walk through its park , but for five minutes in front of this “Arles view across a wheat field”.
This is the small version, but I beg you to get a bigger version for yourself here.
When I have an unsuspecting friend with me in front of this picture, I ask him or her to study it, then turn their back on it and ask them, where the steam engine is located. Show the point where it is. It’s very handy to have with you an A4-size sheet of paper and a pen for this task, but a notepad would do. People never get it right. Try it on your friends, I’ll be very curious to know the outcome. Perhaps, it is something about me choosing friends with short visual memory, and not Van Gogh’s skill as a painter.
But enough of idle bantering, let’s get to the usual question. Why is this a great painting, and what is in there that may cause the effects I described.
What we are looking at?
First, let’s look at how the painting is “organised”.
I used two horisontal lines to separate it into “zones”. We have the foreground of an empty field, the middle ground with the harvesters (which I additionally split into the harvested strip of wheat and the harvesters themselves) and the far ground with the train and the skyline of the town.
We don’t see much in the yellow square of the foreground. It looks like a failed experiment to marry Rothko and Malevich genes. That is, at first glance.
In the mid ground we have a yellow strip. Yellow colour is the brightest and the fastest to catch the eye. Thanks to this, our eye is first drawn there, to this yellow strip. The eye almost “runs” up there through the mown field taking our body with it.
The strip is shaped as a wedge, adding further direction to the eye. We don’t know it, but we feel the harvesters are moving in the direction opposite the train.
Then, the third part gives us the distant town. You’d think a very different palette was used for that part of the painting.
So, what do we have now?
A mown field with a big hay/wheat stack in the corner. A strip of wheat whose life expectancy is about 30 minutes because the farmers seem to be very intent on finishing their job today: trains, sunsets, romantic skyline views would not distract them. And a romantic skyline of a beatiful town, which is almost cut off from us by the train.
Oh, there are some factories on the left side. It is very good that you noticed them. Most romantic people never do.
Now that we know what was painted, let’s study the dynamics of the picture: what and where is moving, going, walking, or running and which directions Van Gogh wanted our eye to follow:
In mid and far ground the movement is horizontal. Wind goes left to right (as illustrated by the smoke). The farmers go left to right and almost collide with the train speeding to the left.
In the foreground the brushstrokes and the stacks help the eye to move upwards.
Well then. Why did Van Gogh added the foreground, if he wanted our eye to go immediately to the farmers? He could have used that part of the canvas for something else, and he had a dreadful shortage of materials. The painting would look like this:
We still have the farmers, the industry, the train, the city – we have our conflict, contrapunto. The traditional and the new. The farmers and city life. Factories against agriculture. The train is cutting the natural and clean world of farmers from the artificial and dirty world of cities and factories. Almost bucolic and sweet if you skip those damned factory pipes (this is why many do).
WHY HAVE THE BOTTOM PART OF THE PICTURE IF THERE’S NOTHING THERE?
Because Van Gogh did not want to illustrate the conflict which the viewer would impassionately watch. He wanted the viewer to take an active part. He wanted the viewer on the side of the farmers in this conflict.
In fact, the foreground is not empty at all. Van Gogh loved ruining flats. We know today that many of the hills or uneven fields he painted never existed. In his and our reality they are perfectly flat. Look at the curves Van Gogh created in this yellow square.
I’ve highlighted just a few of them, for the maze he created is quite confusing. And it is this confusion that makes the eye travel back to the foreground (after it skidded all the way up). The brain wants to sort it out. And then resigns, confounded. That’s why people forget where the steam engine was. The brain gets busy with sorting out other things.
But why Van Gogh wanted us to come back to the foreground, for god’s sake? Because he wanted us to walk, to feel the earth, the land. To step on those stems. To linger there, be there, with the farmers. To be on their side, not the train’s or the factories’.
Is this a landscape then? Or a scene of the battle between nature and industry in which Van Gogh wants us to take part on the side of nature? I find it hard to classify this painting. Just as hard as to move away from it.
Did you like this post? If yes, you’d love a story about the conflict in Van Gogh portaits, What it is and where to find it!