I recently spent an afternoon experiencing Van Gogh in a reimagined way, his art moving and flowing all around me, to the sounds of Yo-Yo Ma and Edith Piaf. It almost felt like being in the paintings, or even in Van Gogh’s mind. I felt immersed, then afterward had a lot of thoughts and rich conversation about it with my son, who took me to the show as a Christmas present.
I thought about how great art can be very specific and reflect a unique viewpoint or moment or story while also being universal in its appeal to and reflection of the greater human experience. When I read a great book that I have never read before, I can appreciate the inventiveness of the tale and also recognize resonant truths that show up in most great stories. Unique stories with universal themes that we can all relate to…love, loss, sadness, joy, resilience. Same for songs or paintings or poems or films. Thousands of versions of a flower, each portraying beauty from a slightly different vantage point. Thousands of versions of heartbreak that make me cry, make us cry, as your experience and my experience and the artist’s experience brew and steep and simmer together.
I also reflected on the fact that none of us ever know what will happen. (Perhaps COVID has already brought this to your attention!). Van Gogh sold very few paintings in his lifetime (possibly only one, for what would be about $2000 today). Starry Night is valued today at over $100 million. The last Van Gogh that was auctioned sold for $35 million. Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was twenty-seven and shot himself when he was thirty-seven; less than ten years of producing art, yet he painted over nine hundred paintings. He was depressed and died by suicide, so I will assume that he felt hopeless, like there was no point in carrying on…his art wasn’t appreciated, he was lonely and mentally ill. Yet now, over a hundred years after his death, he is one of the most notable, recognized, admired artists of all time. He had no idea the impact his art would have on the world and the millions of people who would continue to be drawn to his paintings over a century after he made them, including me and Casey and my dad (whose love of Starry Night is always my first thought when I think of Van Gogh).
This also reminds me of a Brené Brown podcast where she talks with Esther Perel about the tension between believing that we have control and power in our lives and the opposing, equally true fact that anything can happen at any time. Our lives are guided in part by fate or destiny or chaos (however you want to look at it) and also guided by the choices we make and the actions we take to define who we are and how we move through the world. COVID changed everything in a moment, and yet we’ve still had choices about how we move through it.
All of which also makes me ponder the mysteries of life and art. Where did Van Gogh get the inspiration for Starry Night, to paint something so beautiful and bleak, sad yet hopeful? How did Massimiliano Siccardi come up with the idea to digitize Van Gogh’s works and put them to music and make them come alive? The magic of inspiration and imagination, paired with hard work and commitment to giving that creative spark form so that it can be shared. Thank goodness! For what would life be like without art?