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Amber Paulen

Van Gogh in Rome

The working-title of the short story I’m working on is, The Painter and the Young Professional. I am a slow deliberate writer and will be happy if I am happy with it in a month’s time. As the title tells, one character is a painter and not having many paintings hung around the apartment, I found myself craving a good immersion. Perhaps it is too charmed a life: when I want to see paintings I walk down the street to Van Gogh.

I have wanted to see the Van Gogh exhibition since I saw the self portrait in blue announcing its arrival in Rome. With over one hundred paintings it is an absolute privilege to experience the progression of a single artist’s development. How hard it is not to hang my jaw in awe. Only damn those guided tours! Who can see paintings standing like a yolk at the center of a group?

But anyway, the exhibit finely displayed Van Gogh’s influences, from the books he read to the painters he admired. The years spent in Holland produced some somber works with focus on peasant life. These paintings and drawings are the first struggles, the tremulous attempts; though it’s possible to see the unmistakable zeal with which Van Gogh committed himself to his work. The brush strokes are not as free as in the later paintings, but they are steady and they are sure, seeming to feel their way, their voice atop the canvas.

The paintings from France, conversely, burst with color and motion. The southern light, the sun, those turquoise views from Montemartre are so enlivened they seem to break the color palette. Here line becomes dot like Seurat or Pissarro; in Van Gogh, the Impressionists become something different. I liked to see the play between the painters, an exchange of influence, a twist of form.

Then, on the lower level, I became aware of what is meant by the paintings of Van Gogh. The images seemed to be moving, the objects within them, living! And I can’t help but think of John Cowper Powys and his belief in the animation of the inanimate, in their souls: the wind blows through the olive grove, stirring the silvery leaves, and even when the air is still, the trees swirl. The olive trees and the cypress trees and the apricot tree in bloom!

Some original letters from Van Gogh to his brother Theo were displayed and I could imagine the crisp, clean hand moving unbroken across the page, only pausing to sketch. Again, the desire to read the letters stirred in me: the mind of the man, painter, madman. How tragic to think of Van Gogh’s death at 37, that slip into obscurity. And now his face hangs on every bus stop in Rome and his name looms large over the white monument in Piazza Venezia. And we flock there in the thousands to marvel at the beauty sensitive humans are capable of.


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