We had a magical time in Paris with the kids last week. It was a dream for us to be able to take them to this beautiful city and share in their excitement as they saw some of it’s treasures for the first time. It’s been more than twenty years since my last visit so the excitement was just as real for me too. We tried to make the trip as family friendly as possible and included trips to the wonderful Cite des sciences et de l’industrie ( Science museum – full of interactive games and challenges for kids ) a night time visit to the top of the Eifel Tower and a day trip to Euro Disney. We also wanted them to see the Musee d’Orsay, more child friendly perhaps then the Louvre and full of original paintings that they have seen reproduced in print and modern media in their own lives. They immediately recognised Van Gogh from his self portrait below.
‘Portrait de l’artiste’ ( Self Portrait ) by Vincent van Gogh
I remember being struck by the vividness of the colours when I saw these paintings in the late 1980’s. They are so clear and bright that it’s hard to believe that they are real and I imagined that perhaps the hazy originals lay in a dark vault somewhere, the worlds best kept secret. This radiant, vibrant, intense colour takes your breath away and each mark sings out against the one beside it. The texture of the paint really made an impact on me this time, the depth of it and the clear impression of each stroke, as if the weight of the hand behind it had been taken away just a moment ago, the shadow of it still there like the presence of someone having just left the room.
‘La Nuit Etoilee’ ( Starry Night ) by Vincent van Gogh
Detail of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
I was also greatly moved by the paintings of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Unlike Van Gogh, the paint is sketchy and thin but nonetheless full of vigour and energy. This one below is called ‘Le Lit’ ( The Bed ). It is such an intimate scene and must have been quite shocking at the time as it appears modern even to our eyes.
I love the roughness of the lines and the sweeps and smudges of paint that he has made with such conviction. He seems to have cast all convention aside, all notions of what a painting should look like and lost himself in the desire to bring this scene to life with all it’s nuances of tenderness, sleepiness, attachment and warmth. It is so wonderfully human and surely made by a man who knew this moment himself, really felt it so that he was able to put it down so earnestly and faithfully.
I also loved this next painting called ‘Seule’ ( Alone ).
It’s a study made on cardboard of a woman lying on her back across an unmade bed, her long limbs in a pose of complete collapse and abandon. I’m wondering who she was – her black stockings and light dress suggest that she might be a prostitute and we know that the artist liked to go to brothels. He moved in permanently at one point so that he could observe and capture the women where they lived and worked. He makes no judgment on her however and she might just as well be a worker or any other ordinary person captured at a very private moment.
The overriding feeling in all of these paintings is the sense of them having been made by a human hand. The magic of this wonderfully versatile material and the relationship between it and the artist is paramount. The energy and the will behind each stroke is clearly visible and I think there is enormous value in being able to read this expression. It makes me question the point of photo realism and any other technique of painting which disguises the material. Really, what is the point? There is so much humanity and feeling in these works because of the way that they were made and it was a huge pleasure and an inspiration to see them again.
What do you think about this point of view?
Cover image ‘Church at Auvers’ by Vincent van Gogh taken from John Brody Photography