The Church at Auvers

A church with no doors, sitting in its own shadow, splitting the path ahead in two, dark clouds reaching for it from above. What is Vincent van Gogh telling us about faith and religion?

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Monday’s blogposts are each about one of the 30 Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the children’s story, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today, the last Monday before Easter, the painting is The Church at Auvers.

First, a few facts. Van Gogh completed the image in June 1890, the month before he died.The church is a real building that still stands in the Place de l’Eglise in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise.  Its architecture is Gothic. The building is believed to have been constructed in the 13th Century. The oil and canvass painting is in the Musee d’Orsay, 27 kilometers southeast in Paris. The deep blue of the sky was also used in Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper’s daughter discussed in last week’s post. The church refused to hold a funeral mass for van Gogh because it was believed he committed suicide.

country-churchyard-and-old-church-tower-18851blogVan Gogh mentioned today’s painting in a June 5, 1890 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina. He mainly wrote about the colors he used; but also referred back to his earlier life, saying, “it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower…[only] the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.” Completed five years earlier, The Old Tower is indeed a darker painting.

Viewers, of course, want more than facts. We all want to extract meaning from van Gogh’s art and life. In this regard, there is a lot of misperception of van Gogh, especially given his romantic appeal in popular culture. As Teresa Watanabe pointed out in her excellent Los Angeles Times article, A Divine View of Van Gogh,  the artist “is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history’s most celebrated painters.”

The misperception that van Gogh turned his back on religion gets some support from the absence of doors in today’s painting (the church is closed to him) and IMG_1610from the bleakness of The Old Tower. Interestingly, in his famous painting of The Starry Night, the church is dark and silent even though the houses in town are warm and lit (the spire is also needle-sharp, touching a dark patch in the sky, and stands in contrast to the cyprus, with its living curves touching three stars).

A dark church at night means nothing by itself, but Kathleen Powers Erickson makes some cogent points in her scholarly book, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Ericsson is an art historian who also holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. Her full argument is too long to cover properly here, but I find her essential points convincing. She argues that religion was a central driving force in van Gogh’s life.

Van Gogh, Erickson explains, faced a crisis of faith in his early adult years. His father withdraw support for van Gogh’s desire to be a pastor, the protestant church that gave van Gogh a six-month appointment did not renew it, and a significant religious influence on his life, his Uncle Stricker, continually rejected van Gogh’s many efforts to marry his daughter, Kee. Allegedly, van Gogh never set foot in a church again and, as with the three paintings here, his art reflects some of his bitterness. It was a bitterness with organized religion, however; not with God, not with faith, and certainly not with spirituality which his work exudes. Erickson shows, through van Gogh’s letters and his art, that the artist went on a voyage of religious discovery. His struggles with religion and modernity led to the synthesis of the religious and the modern which he achieved in both his life and his work.

Van Gogh subscribed to the sentiment, “Religions pass away, but God remains” (he believed Victor Hugo said this, although it was actually Jules Michelet). Van Gogh “believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally non institutional,”according to another scholar, Naomi Margolis Maurer (quote is from Watanabe’s article).  Maurer is the author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.

The recognition of the spiritual in van Gogh’s art makes me love him even more. What do you think? Leave a comment, below, and I will be sure to read it.

Now, for some crazy stuff. The Church at Auvers is featured in season 5, episode 10 of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. In it, there is a monster in one of the church windows, signifying (to the Doctor) that an ancient evil is lurking in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890. Vincent must go inside the church to battle the monster before the painting can be returned to its original form. Hey, why not? Some other people believe there is a hidden portrait of Vincent’s face  in the painting. I don’t see it, but why not?

How is the painting used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? After young Vincent and Theo have finished chasing the fox, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows. One is to be a pastor like his father. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. As a young boy, Vincent does not know that his religious journey will be complex. As an author, I like that the illustration has some darkness to foreshadow the path that the real-life Vincent followed.

– Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is given. Some of the links, above, are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset

Sunset is a time of transition and, like all transitions, it holds potential. Vincent’s ability to paint potential is part of what makes his art timeless, part of why he speaks to us today, and also why this painting coincides with an important transition in the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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“a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery” – Vincent describing his painting in a letter to his brother Theo, June 24, 1890

I’ve wanted to write about this painting for a while as it is one of my personal favorites. For me, the effect is both peaceful and haunting. The painting’s emotional impact stems from the fact that sunset is a time of transition, of impending change. And, changes in state–day to night, land to sea, the pause turning to action–always grab me emotionally because they indicate potential: the “what might be” that we don’t quite know yet.

In the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, this painting marks the point where the fox has gotten to safety and the two brothers transition from exploring the world to returning home. But the painting also coincides with a transition in theme, for this is when Vincent and Theo start to reflect on their chase of the fox and what it taught them. It is at this point in the story that young readers experience what it feels like to think about how to be the best that you can be when you grow up (all while continuing to learn about van Gogh).

About the painting: it is a double-square painting that Vincent created in one day in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the short months before his death. Did he know what was coming? I don’t think so, but many commenters believe that the 70 or so paintings he created in Auvers have an intensity that begs for such “significant” interpretation (see, for example, the interpretations of Wheatfield With Crows, another double-square painting from his time in Auvers, which I wrote about here).

I believe Vincent was “merely” in search of beauty. According to VincentInParis.com (a neat website and app that lets you geomap the location where van Gogh created his paintings so that you can visit them), today’s painting is one of three double-square paintings that Vincent wrote about to Theo. In Vincent’s mind, this painting is meant to hang between Undergrowth With Two Figures and Wheat Fields near Auvers. What unifies the three paintings are color and scale. (See them here.)

Auvers-sur-Oise, by the way, was a very pretty place that attracted a number of artists. Here is a view of the town painted by Paul Cezanne (courtesy of WikiArt.org):

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Finally, van Gogh’s time in Auvers was an important one. We will be writing more about it over the next few Painting Mondays as several other paintings from Vincent, Theo and the Fox were created there.

And oh yes, if you haven’t yet heard about the painted movie being made about van Gogh, the trailer for it starts with one of his Auvers paintings, the beautiful Landscape With Carriage and Train in the Background:

As I implied at the start, it is all about potential. Many of van Gogh’s works capture the essence of potential. It is why even today his work evolves in new ways without ever losing its magnificent beauty.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

Wheatfield With Crows

One of van Gogh’s most striking paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows,” was also one of his last. Observers have therefore analyzed and re-analyzed it for meaning. There are probably as many viewpoints as there are crows in the painting. Perhaps we should all just agree its beautiful.

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Because it was painted in the final month of his life, some wish to see Wheatfield With Crows as a lonely, suicide note. These interpretations focus on the dark sky, the allegedly ominous birds, the emptiness of the field, and the fact that the path goes nowhere. Some observers believe it matters whether the crows are flying towards the viewer or away. Still others think there is a hidden image of a severed ear in the cloud (if you rotate the picture 130 degrees). Dark interpretations are bolstered by the 1956 movie about van Gogh, Lust for Life, which, for dramatic effect, falsely portrayed the painting as van Gogh’s last. It was not.

This all strikes me as silly. What we know is that the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is a double-square canvas, which contributes to its imposing width and presence. It is dramatic. For example, the three paths could be the shadow of a giant bird. The darkness in the sky could be descending. Or, the darkness could be lifting. One can focus on the golden light of the field and the pretty, deep blue of the sky. But, then again, one could focus on the feeling of stormy darkness. Like most great art, the painting provides an infinite opportunity for viewers to draw forth their own meanings. Vincent’s letters do not clarify the issue. He wrote that he had made a point of expressing sadness, later adding “extreme loneliness” (de la solitude extrême), but also says he believes the canvases show what he considers healthy and fortifying about the countryside (and adds that he intended to take them to Paris as soon as possible).

The painting itself is in balance. The paths divide the canvas in 3 with 2 golden sections. The field occupies two-thirds of the canvass, the sky one-third. The colors–blue, golden yellow, green, brown–are complementary. Whether the viewer wishes to see the painting as “half full or half empty,” as impending darkness or impending light, the image is poised at the edge of change, at the moment just before something happens.

Personally, I see the painting as hopeful, as the sky being ready to clear for a beautiful day. In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, for this painting, I wrote:

“As the day drew to a close, the fox walked through a golden field. Crows flew out of his way, slowly circling in the sky. ‘I’m happy here. This is where a fox should be,’ he thought.”

Do you side with the pessimists or with the fox? It’s up to you. But I would love to know what you think. Leave a comment and I will read and respond with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. See the book here.

And finally, if you want to have some fun, enter wheat field with crows YouTube into your browser. One poster animates the crows flying toward you, another shows how to paint a copy by numbers, several pair the painting with good (and sometimes not so good) music. If only, van Gogh had known.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

 

The story behind the story

Readers sometimes ask how I wrote Vincent, Theo and the Fox; how did you come up with the idea? This is the story behind the story.

To get my son to go on exercise walks with me I would tell him stories. They were simple action tales: Suddenly, a monster…Bam, a hero…Wham another monster. And then one day a real monster struck: Mark got very sick. He had a series of lung infections and several times a day had to sit still for twenty minutes breathing through a nebulizer. Not what an active 5 year old boy wants to do! Just before one of these episodes his grandmother was visiting and we had all gone to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of van Gogh’s paintings. She bought the exhibit catalog, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs:  Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam by Richard Kendall with contributions by John Leighton and Sjraar van Heugten. One afternoon when Mark was being nebulized, he asked me to tell a story. I did not have it in me. He pointed to the catalog saying, “Read me the story.” I tried to explain, “It’s not a story.” Neither he nor Grandma would let me off easy. I had to “read” the catalog to him.

What to do? An art catalog is not a wham, bam action tale. I opened it at random and it showed Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour iimage001n the Background (Arles, June, 1888). I thought to myself, “OK, Vincent has to be a boy to make this interesting…but what is he doing?” I surprised myself by saying, “One day, when he was a boy, Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, were looking at the harvest when they saw a fox sneak into the cart.” That picture and that idea became the start of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Vincent and Theo chased the fox through a bunch of van Gogh’s paintings until the nebulizer was done. At that point, the fox got away and the boys went home.

The tale kept Mark engaged but it was not really a story yet. When I decided to turn it into a real story I knew it needed more. I asked myself, “What do boys do?” The answer, of course, is that they grow up.  And while they grow up they wonder what they will become. We all know that van Gogh became a painter, but he didn’t go there directly, trying a number of different jobs first. So as a boy in a story there is wonder and mystery when Vincent thinks about growing up. Somehow I came up with the idea that the fox was young too—he was also trying to grow up and find his way in the world. And that, I believe, is what makes Vincent, Theo and the Fox a delightful tale. We have two boys and a fox thinking about growing up and through their actions teaching each other about life. The writer, Susan Sontag, writes that “art is not only about something, it is something.” By this, she means that art isn’t like science or history, it doesn’t teach you facts you should know. Rather, literature gives readers an experience from which they learn and take their own lessons. I like to think that Vincent, Theo and the Fox achieves this: it does not teach about growing up, it lets readers learn about it.

Because the art is beautiful and chase tales are exciting, readers don’t “get” what they are experiencing until it is over. But my hope is that the story stays with children and they learn while they process the experience of the story. Because the book gives a brief biography of van Gogh in an epilogue, children learn about van Gogh while processing the experience of the story. I think this really engages them in van Gogh’s art and gives the story more depth.

What do you think about the story? What do your children get from it? If you want to leave comments I will read them with interest.

Thanks, Ted Macaluso

© 2016 – 2019 by Ted Macaluso.