Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Tao of Van Gogh's Drawings

You'd think that visiting the Met on a Wednesday afternoon would be optimal, but with a show as popular as Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, Wednesday afternoon merely means you're not waiting for hours in a queue to enter the really crowded can force yourself into the mob right away. While we were bobbing and weaving to see around the other visitors, I noticed a rather stately woman being pushed around in a wheelchair, answering her helper's frustrated questions about how they should navigate the hordes by saying, "Let's just get close to what we can. I'll be enriched whichever direction we manage."

It was the sort of grand statement that anti-elitist forces in this country mock regularly, but in the context of this exhibition it was definite understatement. This show is breathtaking. What's most impressive about what the chronology reveals is how van Gogh's marks themselves evolve over the course of his career. This may be obvious to many folks, and I had a sense of it myself before, but seeing it firsthand is something else altogether. So I'll share my impressions, knowing they're perhaps not at all novel.

Van Gogh's earliest drawings are all about the subject...the marks themselves serving that representational end, none very interesting in and of themselves. But as he matures as an artist, each mark begins to take on more responsibility as an object or even subject itself. In the middle of his career you see that these marks are still serving structural ends, with many reinforcing perspective or working as part of a team to build this or that object...meaning much less on its own. By the end of his life, however, you realize each mark is very much its own end, its own raison d'etre, working in stunning harmony, but with no dependencies or structural purposes. Erase every other mark on any of these later drawings, and the one remaining would still amaze. By the time he's making works like this one:

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Cypresses, 1889, Reed pen, pen, and ink, graphite on wove paper; 62.2 x 47.1 cm (24 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.), Brooklyn Museum, New York, Frank L. Babbott Fund and the A. Augustus Healy Fund (image from Metropolitan Museum of Art website)

Van Gogh has transcended representation anyway. To me, what he's exploring at this point is the, perhaps Toaist, interconnectedness of everything. That's not a new analysis, I know. But I had a surprise a few years back when reading Fritjof Capra's awesome book, The Tao of Physics, when I realized van Gogh's later images (think Starry Night in particular) had begun to look hauntingly like a photograph of a particle collision in a bubble chamber, like the one below (click and expand image to see what I mean):

From The Tao of Physics:

For the further discussion of the process of observation it will be useful to take a definite example, and the simplest physical entity that can be used is a subatomic particle, such as the electron. If we want to observe and measure such a particle, we must first isolate it, or even create it, in a process which can be called the preparation process. once the particle has been prepared for observation, its properties can be measured, and this constitutes the process of measurement. The situation can be represented symbolically as follows. A particle is prepared in the region A, travels from A to B. and is measured in the region B. In practice, both the preparation and the measurement of the particle may consist of a whole series of quite complicated processes. In the collision experiments of high-energy physics, for example, the preparation of the particles used as projectiles consists in sending them around a circular track and accelerating them until their energy is sufficiently high. This process takes place in the particle accelerator. When the desired energy is reached, they are made to leave the accelerator (A) and travel to the target area (B) where they collide with other particles. These collisions take place in a bubble chamber where the particles produce visible tracks which are photographed. The properties of the particles are then deduced from a mathematical analysis of their tracks; such an analysis can be quite complex and is often carried out with the help of computers. All these processes and activities constitute the act of measurement.

The important point in this analysis of observation is that the particle constitutes an intermediate system connecting the processes at A and B. It exists and has meaning only in this context; not as an isolated entity, but as an interconnection between the processes of preparation and measurement.
OK, so I know I'm reaching here, suggesting that van Gogh was seeing something we other mere mortals wouldn't understand until science had found a way to photograph the collision of two subatomic particles, many years later, but then again....

Food for thought anyway.


Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I'm sure Van Gogh was seeing the "interconnectedness of everything", though I believe many creative people had seen it before him (the early metaphysicists were probably the first to record it, though). His was, however, a spectatcular way to communicate the observed tie - perhaps the most effective to date - and I very much look forward to seeing the show because I believe his drawings more clearly point to this tao than his paintings do.

11/10/2005 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I believe his drawings more clearly point to this tao than his paintings do.

They're clearly more like the bubble chamber collision images, that's for sure. Whether that truly symbolizes any interconnectedness is left for debate, I believe, but...

the early metaphysicists were probably the first to record it,


11/10/2005 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

I'm not sure, but I think there is also a tie in with woodcut graphics from the period, which relied heavily on hatching type marks.

11/10/2005 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Definitely a tie in George. But are you suggesting the woodcut graphics gestures are responsible for the mid 1880's work, like this or the late 1880's works like the Cypresses above?

The later marks seem an evolution past that to me.

11/10/2005 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Edward, Actually, more like the landscape at the top but I'm not suggesting this was necessarily a studied connection but rather something more environmental, things he might see accidentally or which were part of the fabric of the period. I've been looking at his paintings recently and the difference between the two drawings you note in your question is also visible in the paintings. With the paintings there is a progression from solid areas, or blocky strokes (more emphasis on delineating the outline and planes) to a more disconnected impressionist stroke (more atmospheric) around 1887.

In the latter case the landscape paintings which have a somewhat traditional impressionist feel like Path in the Woods from 1887. Here the marks are still straighter and I can get the sense of him making the painting by accumulating the marks.

By 1889 the marks become really free and curvilinear. See the painting Olive Grove from 1889 as an example. At this stage he is drawing with every mark, not just accumulating an impression. It's utterly intense and fantastic.

BTW, I've seen more than a few and thats a very fine bubble chamber picture

11/10/2005 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

accumulating the marks vs. drawing with every mark

Yes!...that's the distinction! Wonderful illustration of the idea, btw...thanks.

And curious minds wonder why you've seen more than a few bubble chamber pictures. I had to search long and hard for that one (mostly because the one reprinted in The Tao of Physics wasn't online )

11/10/2005 05:05:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed, I grew up near Caltech and had friends with "night jobs" looking at lots of bubble chamber film (pre digital days). I studied physics before art, I just kind of keep up with it because they are so esoteric. Wakes left by subatomic cruiseliners.

11/10/2005 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Sorry for the delayed response. Busy day here. Anyway, as far as the metaphysicists are concerned, I was thinking of Aristotle in particular. His musings on the interconnectedness of all creation influenced many who followed, though, artists and scientists alike. Seneca, Dante, Copernicus, and Galileo spring to mind, but the epic poems of Chaucer or Milton are also filled with allusions to the aether which binds us all. (This use of the word aether is distinct from Aristotle's original usage, however, for his aether was something distinct from Nature, perhaps more like today's "dark matter.")

11/10/2005 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

It's an amazing exhibit. It never fails to surprise me when I get to see artists drawings. Vincent was definately riding that edge towards the end, if any artist was working in a possessed state, of the moment, it was he. He was hand making crude reed pens and that gave him the wondrful rough lines.
I also see in Monets later lilly pond paintings a celestial intuition. They feel like gallexies, Hubble telescope images, the BIG pond. Young artists tend to get alot of attention now and that's great, but don't rule out the beauty in the vision of those seeing their later days. It's often much more interesting.

11/10/2005 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed, in retrospect I thought there was something odd about the bubble chamber pic, it was too regular, too ordered. I backed up on the URL and found the source code. Still interesting.

11/10/2005 05:34:00 PM  
Anonymous if beauty is our reality said...

... very nice ideas. But also thinking in terms of how things communicate, how we respond to, in this case, art, and how something (in our strict interpretation, in biological terms) non-living has the ability to transcend its physical limitations and seeming inertia to reach out and touch us.
Perhaps great art is computational. But then again, and I've heard this--we use math to get a firmer grip on our prepositions, and that is fine. Though, it is a mistake to think that life is math. That would be like saying looking out to the stars through a telescope, 'I can see it! The telescope! It's one giant telescope.'

I hear too that many artists interested in this subject of connectivity want too to apply some measuring device ( math/science) to confirm their inklings instead of trusting the art to support such vision alone simply through experience.
There are two basic kinds of magic:
The first has its base in the material world though has it's centrality in illusion.
The other understands that the world is an illusion and reality is all of this, but none of it, thus the base for this magic is reality where there is no magic.

Art can be both these magics: And we choose time to time.

Hal Foster would hate such a thought, but I dare say we've gotten over him... some of the way anyhow.

11/10/2005 08:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Mountain Man said...

I agree that this show is all about the exciting potential of pictorial marks to have meaning in and of themselves - whether the meaning veers into notation, the diagrammatic, gestural or into an ecstatic realm. These drawings have made me more aware of mark-making in my own work - I found them very profound to look at. My impression was that at the beginning of the show, when I looked back and forth between the figure drawings and the earlier landscapes, I couldn't help but notice a visual connection between the clenched hands of his portrait subjects and the gnarling trees. Which got me to thinking, that in his studiousness, there was an uncontrollable mangling that would happen in his marks. And that the landscapes, the trees in particular (and there is a quote somewhere where he admits as much) are treated in his mind like living beings. From what I understand, it was important to Van Gogh to be studious from nature, always earnest, but that he saw himself as aspiring but always failing, not getting it right (lucky for us).

I saw in his accumulating marks this ecstatic quality that you mention, the interconnectedness, a moment of consciousness dispersing itself over the landscape...but I also saw in all of the trees, the branches and bushes, remnants of those gnarled hands, an innate stylization, that led me to understand them as mind-chunk-tangles. In the branches and leaves was dense, visceral almost frustrated thought-matter, and in the atmosphere and grasses were breath and air and expansive relief, ecstatic possibility to get out of one's clotted thoughts.

Again, I ramble. But I thought I would try to get it down in words. Thanks so much for your post, Ed.

11/11/2005 10:12:00 AM  
Anonymous ML said...

Very late in responding, but had to mention that after I saw the Van Gogh show, I went into the Chinese section and took a look at some scrolls. So many parallels between those works and van Gogh's - that sense of energy in every square inch, the power and sap of the trees, the way nature looks quiet from a distance and so very active up close. Van Gogh's paintings have gone the way of Beethoven's symphanies - seen/heard so often they have lost some punch, but the drawings still feel remarkably raw.

I missed seeing your gallery in Williamsburg, Edward, but look forward to seeing you in your new digs. The Arcade?

11/11/2005 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous ctoz said...

would you mind letting me know the source of the bubble chamber image? I'm thinking of using it in a site under development:



5/06/2008 04:36:00 AM  

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