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The Real Thing





As with many passionate souls,
the moment had come when his faith
in life was faltering.

Camus, Notebooks





The turning point in the Ridley Scott film A Good Year finds the protagonist Max Skinner (Russel Crowe), a successful trader who just inherited from his deceased uncle the vineyard he grew up in, given two choices by his boss: "money or your life." He had an unplanned and prolonged visit to the vineyard to arrange selling it, but in his short stay he was able to revisit his youthful years and remember the happiness he once had but could no longer afford.


To be on a "holiday" unfortunately is unthinkable in the unforgiving world of trading. Wanting to know what he was committed to and where his heart lies, the owner of the firm, the no-nonsense German Sir Nigel, asks Skinner to decide on his own fate. Either he leaves with a discharge settlement "with a lot of zeros," or stay and accept an offer for a full partnership.


Before their short, straightforward dialogue, Skinner had noticed, among other pieces of art, a beautiful painting showcased on the wall. It was Van Gogh's Road with Cypress and Star. Skinner inquires about the work of art, and his boss says that the one on the wall was a 200 grand copy--but the original, he nonchalantly adds, securely sits in his vault. This strikes Skinner profoundly and images of his youth and his vineyard rush back to him. Certain with a decision, Skinner goes back to Sir Nigel's room and asks his gray, efficacious boss:


"When do you ever see it, Nigel? The real one? When do you look at it? Do you make late-night pilgrimages down to the vault just to see it or . . . ?"


Asked what he meant, the scene is cut and the next one shows Max back in Provence, France taking back the woman he loved and the life he all along wanted to live.






*



When Vincent van Gogh submitted himself to an insane asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France on May 1889, the artist was in the middle of his late period which saw the beautiful Starry Night Over the Rhone and his famous The Starry Night created. The thick swirls and dark strokes of night skies splashed with hopeful stars--and these would increasingly grow thicker, darker, and brighter--would distinguish not only some of his later works but, as held by most, also symbolize his deteriorating mental state toward the end of his life.



Starry Night over the Rhone, September 1888



The Starry Night, June 1889



Several hospitalizations, bouts of debilitating depression, psychoses, epileptic attacks and delusions had plagued the genius. In one unfortunate instance in December of 1888, he threatened the life of Paul Gauguin, a fellow artist he had befriended earlier, with a knife. That night, seeing that he was unsuccessful in hurting another, he cuts off his ear, wraps it up and presents it to a prostitute.


Unbalanced, condemned to be a lone artist, though still the most gifted one of his times, van Gogh would yield another kind of weapon as he fought off his own demons in the asylum. He would do there what he did best: he would paint, and paint, and paint at a furious pace. Cut off from the world he had retreated from and which wearied him so, van Gogh would take inspiration from what he would see in his supervised walks around the asylum.


What particularly caught the eye of the artist during those times, along with olive trees, were cypress trees. I imagine his awe and fear of those natural towers, ones which are usually found in cemeteries, lording it over the moonlit paths he took at night. Shaped like a candle, straight like an arrow that shoots to heaven, cypresses have since ancient times been referred to as both the tree of life and the tree of mourning. The paradox, while clear, is amusing.


Vincent would later confess his fascination with cypress trees to his brother, Theo. Referring to cypresses, he wonders in a letter penned in the asylum:


“It astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them . . . It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes and the most difficult to hit off exactly” (25 June 1889).


Road with Cypress and Star, May 1890

Road with Cypress and Star, completed a year later in May 1890—around the time he left the asylum in Sant-Remy—would be what he called his “last attempt” in depicting his beloved cypresses on canvas. In a letter accompanied by a sketch of the painting, van Gogh describes the work to Gauguin, who had since forgiven his one time attacker:


“I also have a cypress with a star from down there. . . . A last attempt—a night sky with a moon without brightness, the slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque projected shadow of the earth—a star with exaggerated brightness, if you like, a soft brightness of pink and green in the ultramarine sky where clouds run. Below, a road bordered by tall yellow canes behind which are the blue low Alpilles, an old inn with orange lighted windows and a very tall cypress, very straight, very dark.
On the road a yellow carriage harnessed to a white horse, and two late walkers. Very romantic if you like, but also ‘Provençal’ I think” (17 June 1890).


On July 27, at age 37 and two months after giving up on breathing life into the dark cypresses of his nights in Saint-Remy, Vincent van Gogh would walk into a field of wheat with a revolver and shoot himself in the chest. While he would survive from blow, he would die two nights later. To a mourning Theo by his side, Vincent’s last words were “The sadness will last forever.”


*

Road with Cypress and Star may initially confuse the viewer who lacks knowledge of its title. Two different heavenly bodies hang on the ultramarine sky. While the moon betrays itself with its crescent shape, the other, much brighter body on the left, with its yellow and green radiance, may be mistaken for the sun. That said, van Gogh's stars and moons are more difficult to distinguish from each other in the earlier works such as The Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhone where more stars light up the night sky.


In Road with Cypress and Star van Gogh only gives us a single star, which is then accompanied by a redundant moon "without brightness." The world at the same time looks brighter and darker for the melancholy. The scene below is nevertheless lighted sufficiently, and even more so than the earlier works. The light from this single star, deceptive at first, should then be more brilliant than van Gogh's earlier stars.


Dominating the painting is van Gogh's beloved cypress tree. Its tip exceeds the top frame, its blacks and dark greens contrast the blues of the sky and the browns of the canes, and it stands right in the middle-- something which is counter-intuitive because the eyes find it harder to focus on the middle of a painting or a photograph, and because it delays the viewer from attending to the other elements in the work. The cypress's odd placement cuts the canvas in two and separates the effulgent star and the shadowed moon. The cypress reveals its two faces here, one that celebrates the brilliance of life, the other that mourns nightfall and death.


The contrast in the sky marked by the cypress is replicated in a more evident manner below by a divided road. The bypath to the left is narrow and strait as it begins, while the path on the right is easily accessible; and on it we see two "late walkers" enjoying the cool and "romantic" night. Behind them a horse with a carriage, presumably following their direction, has just appeared.


Van Gogh is telling us something here, that these belated wayfarers have chosen the easier yet less illumined way, and that while they may have in the day insisted on seeing things as they are, or on seeing things as they should be, they now resign themselves to what could be less trying and difficult but at the same time also less authentic.


The moon waxes and wanes, fights and gives up, as stars may light up the skies or altogether hide--as does love. Love gratuitously bestows black evenings with glow and hope, and sustains the breath of the artist who despite many failures still believes that the world's beauty could be attained and real happiness could be reached. Love is the counterweight of the enigmatic darkness and eternal sorrow of the world, and the artist is the balance through which truth and happiness are measured.


But no love can ever match the world. The colors on his canvas inevitably fade because the artist can only use paint diluted with tears.




Melancholy, December 1883





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