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The Artist as Creator: van Gogh’s Cypresses in Saint-Rémy

Excerpts from a paper on Schelling

I admit that it is difficult to say what one means, to express oneself properly—just as one cannot paint things as one sees them.
—Vincent van Gogh    

We owe to the artists much of the beauty produced by mankind, and to the truly great artists, we owe a lot more—for it some times happens that they pay gravely for the beauty they create. One celebrated example (perhaps cited too often already) is the Dutch Post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), born a year before Schelling’s death. Without unnecessarily going into many of the already well-documented anecdotes about his life and death, genius and madness, passions and demons, what follows here are just two short texts drawn from his famous letters to his brother, Theo, and to his fellow artist and friend, Paul Gauguin. Schelling’s philosophical descriptions of the artist and the nature of his work can perhaps come to life through some of the words of the genius van Gogh.

The following letters refer to a subject that had obsessed van Gogh in his days in the insane asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France where he stayed for a year beginning on May 1889 (the year that also saw Nietzsche succumb to insanity). Vincent there had in his supervised evening walks admired the tall cypress trees which lined the moonlit paths he took. Often towering over landscapes, cypresses are mostly found in graveyards and cemeteries, thus earning for itself the ominous name “the tree of mourning.” Vincent would become fascinated with these powerful towers, often painting them on his canvas between anxiety attacks and bouts of depression, psychotic episodes and delusions. In the first letter (25 June 1889) Vincent explains why he had immediately taken a peculiar interest in cypresses. He writes to Theo,
The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine. Now they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather. To do nature here, as everywhere, one must really be here for a long time. [1]
What drove van Gogh to paint cypresses, as he says, was because no one had painted them “as I see them” or as “I can imagine.” A curious remark, to be sure, because, first, it could be asked how different can one’s perception of the same object (or here, the same subject) be from another’s perception? Secondly, it can again be asked how different can one painter’s rendition of an object be from another painter’s representation of the same object? These epistemological and Kantian questions however were irrelevant to van Gogh. What van Gogh’s words indicate is that each artist sees the same world differently, and moreover each artist paints that very same world distinctively. Representation (as in “representational art,” and in the crude sense of re-presenting the world on canvas as if to copy it “realistically” or “faithfully”) was not what the Post-Impressionist painter had in mind when he wrote those words. And perhaps neither is representation what art ultimately aims for. Van Gogh seems to say that the world impresses each artist differently and uniquely. 

          The world, to be sure, appears the same for everyone (because of the supposed uniformity of our sense apparatus), yet how these perceptions are received, and then transformed or forged by each one in his imagination, may differ. Whence the name Impressionism: through the imagination the apparently uniform world may impress each artist distinctively. And it is the power of the imagination, and not the sharpness of sensation, that artists possess above all and more than others. The aim is therefore not to re-produce the objects of the world that everyone else already sees in the same way, but to produce them again or for the first time originally, or as van Gogh puts it, “as I see them.” Far from encasing a mirror which would reflect the same world down to the last detail, the frame of the artist opens up a portal to a totally changed one.

The phenomenal world also shows itself to each artist in a fresh way which cannot be repeated, not because the artist is “subjective” and therefore can only give its own relative depiction or personal interpretation of what the world is in itself. Greater than any epistemological distinction, the artist sees stars, trees, and landscapes differently because it is only upon after painting them in his work that those very stars, trees, and landscapes come to be for the first time. “[N]o one has yet done them as I see them”: that is to say, only after the artistic accomplishment is a world created, a new world which while inspired by the “old” and “real” world does not need to look anything like it. (We see this most obviously in van Gogh’s works.) “The painting,” echoes the living French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, “exposes an absolutely original phenomenon, newly discovered, without precondition or genealogy, suddenly appearing with such violence that it explodes the limits of the visible identified to that point.”[2] The painter re-creates or re-news the outer world by forging it in the furnace of the inner world of the artist, re-constructing it in the “workshop of the imagination,” as it were, drowning what already is in the abysses of his soul so that what else can be may also emerge.

The task of the artist, again, is not to accurately represent what everyone else sees (subjective sensation), nor to approximate what things are in themselves (objective phenomena); he also does not appropriate the phenomenal world and then “add to it” something from himself (his “style,” or “flavor” or “point-of-view”) (subjective-objective). What the genius does is to give birth to what he and he alone sees which has not yet come to be—to “do” the world as he sees it as an I or, which comes to the same, to posit and create a world “in his own image and likeness” which no one has ever seen. The artist alone is the creator of a world because before the world he creates there was nothing. In the essay “What Gives,” Marion likens the painter’s labors to those of the first laborer. The painter, he says,
works in the obscure chaos (Genesis 1:2) that precedes the separation of the waters below and the waters above (Genesis 1:7), the distinction between the unseen (l’invu) and the visible. He works before the creation of the first light (Genesis 1:3). He goes back to the creation of the world, half witness, half archangel-laborer. [3]
The re-creation of a world now identified solely with the artist-creator—hence, the discreet though ubiquitous signature at the bottom of the canvas—can unfortunately exhaust any artist-laborer. If Schelling spoke of the peace and tranquility that most artists enjoy after the completion of their work, there are however those for whom rest remains elusive even after the successful accomplishment of their labors. There are times when even beauty is not enough. For many an artist there is no seventh day.

        In Auvers-sur-Oise, and after a year and many other attempts of painting the cypresses of Saint-Rémy, Vincent would in a letter to Gauguin dated 17 June 1890, a month before his death, recall of “a last try.” After proudly reporting on the other canvases he had finished in the asylum, he adds thus:
I also have a cypress with a star from down there. A last try—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. [4]
The work that van Gogh refers to in this letter will come to be known as Road with Cypress and Star. It was finished on May 1890, right before the time he left the asylum in Saint-Rémy for Auvers-sur-Oise upon being discharged by his physicians. One of his earlier attempts is certainly more famous: the Starry Night. Finished in June 1889, Vincent had wanted to paint the distant village he would see from his room at night. But standing between him and the sleepy homes he never would be able to call his own, and obstructing his view of the celestial lights swirling in the night sky—there, bending to the left, trying its best to give the night watcher a better view, there stood before Vincent a dark and fiery cypress tree.

         Between Road with Cypress Star and Starry Night are other studies, drawings, and paintings of those “trees of mourning” which had given Vincent much happiness during his mad days in Saint-Rémy. That is, until he would shoot himself in the chest on July 27, a month after his “last try.” Two nights later, and before he would breathe his last, he tells Theo that “the sadness will last forever.”

For T.L.

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Cypress and Star, 1890, 
Kröller-­‐Müller Museum, Otterlo

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1899, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 25 June 1889, “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters,” (accessed 15 March 2012).
2 Jean-Luc Marion, “What Gives,” in The Crossing of the Visible, trans. James K. A. Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 25.
3 Ibid., 27. Marion’s thesis in the essay “What Gives” is that painters give visibility to what he calls the “unseen” and “unforeseen.” I found that Marion’s theme of creation and the insight that painters help new visibles appear may give contemporary voice to Schelling’s otherwise difficult notion that the artistic genius is able to make finite what is infinite. By way of Marion, Schelling can then be taken to mean that what the genius creates has to be something totally new, because any old or real object in the world would by definition already be finite—that is, already de-fined, presenting itself as this or that, having this or that essence and possessing a name. But the painter’s task is precisely to de-fine new phenomena, or give definition to what is still without appearance because still without limit, or precisely, inde-finite and infinite.
Vincent van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, 17 June 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise, in “Vincent van Gogh: The Letters,” (accessed on 15 March 2012).


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