Tag Archives: Van Gogh

Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

IMG_20190618_210127 - копия

While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…


I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.


Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.


This photo was taken at a field near Barbizon, a French village known for its painting school. Barbizon stands for Millet, and without Millet we would have a very abridged Van Gogh, who copied dozens of his paintings.


I believe this photo is worth around $43K, which is 100 times less than the price paid for the photo below (Andres Gursky’s Rhine II, sold for $4.3m).


It is not just value, on which my photo beats Gorsky’s masterpiece hands down. My picture is a hundred times better metaphorically, and here’s why:

  • it convincingly foreshadows winter;
  • the absence of sun is compensated for by the yellow flowers, promising the return of summer;
  • it is clickable;
  • if you look long enough you can see a glimpse of hope epitomized by a speck of blue sky;
  • the lonely autumn tree at the back helps viewers – via associating themselves with it – to mobilise their internal resources to oppose the winter’s challenges, and stand resolute (just as the lonely tree does) against the cold;
  • the dirt at the foreground is shown as a blurred symbol of autumn slush, but not in a graphic way that would glue your eyes to it (the secret was to take the photo while driving past the field at around 40 miles an hour – the taxi driver wouldn’t agree to make a stop).

Do you know why the last point is very important? That’s why:

Wheat Field with Crows, Van Gogh's last painting (1890)

Wheat Field with Crows, Van Gogh’s last painting (1890)

Because the moment you focus on dirt, you get locked on all the mud that surrounds you in the real life. That’s a sure way to depression, antidepressants, and more depression caused by dependence on the antidepressants.

That’s not what we want to have in our life, right? We don’t want to spend $43K on antidepressants. We want to invest $43K into a great therapeutic photo. Well, at least we want to have it borrowed for our desktops, in exchange for telling me how great this photo is in the comments.

Thank you, the Weekly Photo Challenge for this opportunity to joke a bit about world’s most expensive photograph.

Wooden stump and iron will

Narcisse Diaz. He lived in Barbizon, a small French village that gave the name “Barbizon School of Painting” to a group of artists clustering around Millet, who also lived here and who was one of the biggest influences on Van Gogh. Van Gogh copied about two dozen of Millet paintings, and people often do not know that it is a copy of Millet when they marvel at a Van Gogh. Well, many do not know Millet at all.

So, back to our Narcisse. This is his house. You’d say he must have been a lucky and prosperous artist well recognised during his life-time? Well, not exactly.

When he was a kid, he lost his parents. Shortly afterwards a snake bite made him a one-legged cripple. His childhood was a fast on bread and water mixed with a lot of preaching from the protestant priest who was raising him. When he was 15 he decided to become a painter. In 1830s young artists worshipped Theodore Rousseau. Customers did not. Diaz was idolizing Rousseau as well and went as far as Barbizon to learn landscaping from this great man, who was one of the first artists to put his easel outside of the studio.

Diaz was 24, and eager. Rousseau was 20, and bitter. So, the 20 year old “God” told the 24 year old adept to get lost. Rousseau did not want an apprentice with effusive craziness in the eyes.

Rousseau would take his stuff and go to the Fontainebleau forest to paint, away from crazy followers, peasant villagers, haughty academics and customers who preferred Greek myths and reclining nudes to romantic landscapes.

The forest of Fontainebleau is a natural wonder about an hour by train from Paris. I tried to capture some of its fairytale character in this picture:

Having been rejected, Diaz began stalking Rousseau, jumping through the undergrowth on his wooden stump, hiding behind trees, and watching his “god” working sketches. Today, Rousseau could get a court order against Diaz and that would be the end of it. Almost two hundred years ago the stalking tactics worked, Rousseau had melted and taught the older apprentice everything he knew about painting.

And Diaz went ahead of his teacher with Fontainebleau landscapes such as this one:

The two artists first met in 1831. It took Diaz twenty more years to get his paintings exhibited at the official Salon. And it took some further twenty years for art collectors to discover the artist. Thus, by the age of sixty Diaz had become more or less known and could buy the house you can see in my photograph.

Today, his paintings (50 by 60 cm) cost about $50-60K. His works could be found in the National Gallery in London, in D’Orsay Museum in Paris and even in the Louvre.

Diaz had an idea of merging the landscape approach of the 18th century (big powerful trees + wide vistas +  mystery of the deep woods + cute peasants doing their cute little peasantry jobs) with the style of painting modern at his time (open-air, capturing light, especially broken light, experimenting with colour, using brushstrokes’ size and direction to show movement, etc.) Like in this picture:

Ot in this one:

And only five years after Diaz got the taste of success, when he was 70, he got a cold while visiting the grave of his son. That cold, eventually (and very soon) killed him.

PS Stand by for Millet vs.Van Gogh post. It would be interesting and fun.

Watching, not looking at

We watch films, but we look at paintings. Language itself reflects both the difference between something moving and still, and a fundamental problem with art appreciation.

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 in the way you’d watch a film. If you come to Paris, go to Musee Rodin, not only for an inspirational walk through its park , but for a few minutes in front of this “Arles view across a wheat field”.

This is a low-resolution version of the painting, but you can get a hi-res version 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 to show on an A4 sheet of paper where exactly the steam engine was located. People (almost) never get it right, and as you read on, you’d understand why.

Why is this a great painting, and what is in there that may cause the effects I described.

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 two harvesters (I additionally split it into the harvested strip of wheat and the harvesters themselves) and the far ground with a train and the skyline of Arles.

We don’t see much in the yellow square of the foreground. 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. It makes us feel that the harvesters are moving to the right, in the direction opposite the train.

Then, the third part gives us a 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 would still have the farmers, the industry, the train, the city. We would still 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 don’t mind the factory pipes (and, in fact, many viewers don’t notice them).


Because Van Gogh did not want to illustrate the conflict which the viewer would watch effortlessly and without passion.  He wanted the viewer to take an active part in this conflict. He wished the viewer were on the side of the farmers in this conflict.

In fact, the foreground is not empty at all. Van Gogh loved changing flats into post-earthquake landmasses. We know today that many of the hills or uneven fields he painted never existed. In reality they are perfectly flat. Look at the curves Van Gogh created in this yellow square.

I 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 viewer’s brain gets busy with sorting out other things.

But why did Van Gogh want us to come back to the foreground? Because he wanted us to walk, to feel the earth, the land. To feel the stubble under our soles. 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.

If you liked this post, you’d love a story about the conflict in Van Gogh portaits, What it is and where to find it!

The Conflict in Van Gogh’s Portraits

Contrapunto, counteroint, the centre of conflict, the arrow that pierces the eye or the mind of the viewer. It could be inside or outside a work of art, but today I will show you two examples of CONTRAPUNTO inside a picture. Many, and I, for one, believe that without a conflict it can never be interesting, or almost never.

This is a portrait of a postman by Van Gogh. Look at it closely (klick on it to get a bigger picture, hope it opens in a bigger size) and think where’s the counterpoint.

Few people find it fast, but most admit they lingered around the eyes of the postman.

Yes, the centrepoint is there, in the sitter’s eye, where all the colours used in the painting would come together. There, in the eye, they would sometimes compliment each other giving you a sense of harmony, or they clash, putting you on edge. Or both, showing the conflict both in the sitter’s soul and yours.

Here’s another portrait of the same man by Van Gogh – using very different palette, and creating the counterpoint with colours of other tone and intensity.

Again, let’s focus on the eyes, which are a mirror of the soul in a very literal sense for Van Gogh:

Using just the colour conflict in a very simple frontal composition, Van Gogh could communicate a very complicated mix of emotions whirring in the soul of the sitter, in his own mind, and in the heart of the observer.

It is tremendously difficult NOT to make this conflict superficial, as if plastered on the portrayed face. It takes a colour genius to do it right.

And now a fun exercise. I promised that I will be showing artists I like, collect, and know – at least once a week. But this blog is not about watching art. It is about understanding and feeling it. About getting your personal kick out of it. So, let’s try it. Can you see the conflict in this still life by Sevostianov, the artist I introduced not so long ago, aptly named “Black Apples”?

I will be back with my view on it in my next post.