10 February 2011


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 11 February 2011

"I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly--or ever--gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe." Brian Greene

Vincent van Gogh made a painting that's titled, "Starry Night."

The Dutch artist, known for battling demons and severing part of his left ear, painted his famous nightscape from memory--while confined to an asylum in Saint-Remy during an especially difficult time in his troubled life. Sadly, and as is usually the case with artists, he did not live to know his painting of swirls and intense color would achieve "masterpiece" status. Nor the many others he painted likewise being so acclaimed and fetching astronomical prices at auction. This aspect of his life's work particularly ironic in that he had great difficulty selling paintings to a public not ready to understand his genius. In fact, the public snickered at and shunned his art and that mockery may have played a part in his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the young age of 37 (1853-1890).

For all intents and purposes van Gogh was an unknown in the art world, despite his brother's, Theo--an art dealer, best efforts. Legend is Vincent sold only one painting while alive. How times change. Today he's a giant--an icon. In the spring of 1990 one of his portraits sold at auction for $82.5 million. Interested in reading about that painting--of the man who treated the painter? Pick up Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet--The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece." It's a terrific tale--whether you find painting interesting or not.

Eighty years after the post-impressionist died, American singer-songwriter Don McLean was looking at a book about van Gogh, came across an image of the haunting painting "Starry Night," and was moved to pick up his guitar and, while studying the image, write the tune--"Vincent" also known as "Starry, Starry Night."

To this day there is a connection between van Gogh's painting and McLean's song--good authority has it the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam plays the song daily for those wandering the galleries. And according to the museum's website there's a time capsule buried beneath the museum that contains some of van Gogh's brushes and McLean's sheet music. How interesting--as general semanticists might opine, 'time-binding the arts; painting and music--"languages" that transcend all language.'

The original van Gogh "Starry Night" is owned by the Museum of Modern Art. That would be in New York City. But there are prints abound, and on just about everything you can think of; all in the name of a buck.

More about starry nights in a moment.

Not too long ago a recent acquaintance, after a bit of small talk, admitted to being a die-hard liberal. And proud of it. Not a concern of mine but okay. The remark came out-of-the-blue (think dark blue--starry night sky) as our conversation had been about nothing in particular and everything of little importance. Right. Idle chit chat.

Their next comment, "I heard you're a "Tea Party'er" and I'd like to understand..."

Thinking... What? Where did you hear that, and from whom? Nope--no way was I getting dragged into this swamp.

So for a moment I sat silent. I thought. And that a rare moment of brilliance for me when someone, especially a liberal, raises politics. For my usual inclination is to begin 'therapy' immediately. But after my awkward, for them not me, pause I commented on something completely removed from politics then hastily excused myself 'to see a man about a horse.' Stepping away for a few minutes, I returned and moved the conversation on to lighter subjects--chit chat.

For instance, did you know that coconut milk can be used as blood plasma? True. Why I know that I cannot remember. Perhaps because through the years I've painted a number of "landscapes"--zooming in on coconuts (hanging from trees) as still life--and stumbled on the tidbit when reading about the palm fruit. Strangely enough, the person I was conversing with knew it, too, having recently learned it. A third party listening to the conversation chimed in they did not know that about coconut milk and was surprised the two of us did and found it strange it came up in discussion. Me too, but my kind of conversation.

Only recently did I learn that a collective of crows is called a "murder." Did you know that? And no, I do not know if crows like coconut milk or if the milk will work as avian blood plasma. Seems they should and it should, then again, I don't really care. And, oh yes, van Gogh painted a murder of crows over a wheat field. That, too, a masterpiece--"Wheat Field with Crows"--hangs in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. There are prints abound of this painting, too, and on just about everything; all in the name of a buck.

Speaking of fun with words and collectives, how about a "sneak" of weasels? And as for baboons, they're referred to as a "congress." Did you know that? Makes damn good sense to me. And yet I wonder which came first--tagging the primate world or our representatives. I hope the former as the latter would be insulting to the baboons. What did they ever do to us?

Anyway, I ignored the politics question because I'm not a "Tea Party'er." If a label's necessary, call me  conservative independent who bears firearms and respects common sense adhering to the Constitution of the United States of America; as written. In God We Trust. Fiddle with the core of America and what built her into a powerhouse and you have my attention. I have never attended a Tea Party. I have never attended a tea party. I've not had call to shoot anyone with my shotgun, yet, and hope that time never comes. And there you have it--my politics--in six sentences.

What the uninformed have yet to grasp is the Tea Party may be a party but it is more a "movement"--a growing conservative movement--in America. Respectable polls, Rasmussen et.al., clearly reflect the movement cuts across political party affiliation, age, gender, race, religion, socioeconomic, etc., categories. But that fact rarely comes across on most "news" programming despite the good old-fashioned waxing  America delivered back in November. Ergo the "news" is not reality. Is it ever?

Some invaluable time away from home recently put much into perspective--especially regarding politics. For weeks, though Friday Comments continued, focus was on painting, thinking about painting, and teaching painting--pursuits vitally important in life; at least through these eyes. The few distractions encountered were minimal and self-imposed; they passed quickly.

A refreshing reminder, while being mostly incommunicado from all which I do not care so much about, is the swamp of politics--our Greater Capitol Region for starters--is not all that important in the great big scheme of things. Not all that important at all.

A walk along a narrow street in a tiny settlement just beyond the high tide mark and listening to the surf while gawking at the star-splattered sky on a new moon night--it's a marvel, a damn marvel--served as absolute confirmation as to what is and is not important. Politics? Huh! Not hardly.

Why van Gogh painted "Starry Night" makes perfect sense. And why McLean felt compelled to write "Starry, Starry Night" about "Starry Night" makes perfect sense.

Starry nights are. They just are.

Till recently scientists believed our sky was peppered with some 100 billion stars--that's a 1 followed by eleven zeros. But recently scientists reported there may be as many as ten times that number. Maybe more. Mind-boggling.

Even if all the words known to man equaled that number of stars there'd not be enough to justifiably describe the starry night sky.

For the word nor words are not and cannot ever be the thing. Words only represent, and poorly at that, no matter how clever the writer. Words and things, any and everything, are mutually exclusive. A reality clouded by "education" and hectic lives. Most people do not give it a second thought. Too bad.

Starry nights are. They just are.

Nevertheless, while searching for words some by Victor Hugo popped up, "There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul."

Though Hugo, and if words really could be the thing, inserting the word "night"--twice--before "sky" would be a more powerful thought still. Yes, more powerful.

Living in the desert and sometimes on a tiny cay--both starry night skies are. They just are.

Starry nights--good medicine. Step outside and take a look. A long look. And think. Forget words. And heal.

Now pardon, it's late and to quote another artist, Jimi Hendrix, "Excuse me while I kiss the sky."

Kiss the night sky, that is. And count my lucky stars.

Post Script

Don McLean still plays his guitar. Vincent van Gogh's brushes are still; forever. My brushes and ibrushes move; for now. Inevitably I will converse about politics again. But not before giving it some thought--some serious thought. And certainly not before stepping outside to gawk at the starry night sky--to think and to decide if it's worth even a moment of my time.

Artist: Don McLean
Title: Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand


For they could not love you
But still, your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life as lovers often do
But I could've told you, Vincent
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you
Starry, Starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget

Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn, a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Author's Endnotes

1. A few quotes, copied in longhand decades ago, I keep close...

"Simplify. Simplify." Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

"I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream." Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

"With a painter who weeps, who dies of rage in front of his canvas, there is hope." Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929)

2. And finally, van Gogh could not possibly have imagined that 121 years after his death there'd be an admiring artist who'd create a rendering of his now famous "Starry Night"--with an ipalette and ibrush on a device called an iPad (see my humble effort posted left). For the world can only wonder what van Gogh et. al., would have done with this marvelous machine.

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