van Gogh’s Imperfections

Art is a balm for my metaphorical soul.

I finally made it out to the van Gogh exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art Thursday. I wanted to go for some time, and it did not disappoint. I was delighted—and stunned—to turn the corner and come face-to-face with Hokusai’s The Great Wave. Holy shit—I had no idea it would be part of the exhibit! Van Gogh was enormously influenced by 19th century Japanese art, and the exhibit did a superb job of connecting those dots.

This post might look like a detour from my current “Word of the Year” series. It is not. As I meandered through the exhibit, absorbing the beauty, I began leaning in for closer looks. Art books and other media images don’t do most art justice, and this is the power of museums, but something particularly special is lost with 2-D renditions of van Gogh’s paint globs and rich texture. (I do not pretend to be an expert, hence terms like “globs”; I’m merely expressing how I felt seeing them, and how it connects to my own ongoing project.)

I spent quite a bit of time with van Gogh’s painting, Tarascon Stagecoach (1888), which I had never seen before in a book or a museum. As I approached the work with complete novice and utter curiosity, I was struck by how ugly parts of it were. Take this small section, about 2 inches by 2 inches, zoomed in:

Ew, right? As I stared at this one section of the painting, I was amazed by how hideous it was. The darker brown paint had not been entirely washed off the brush and was mixing into the yellow in a disgustingly poop-like way. The brush strokes are irregular—globs of paint piling here and there—without any rhyme or reason. There’s a small spot of green that’s out of place, drifted from the shutters, accidentally, presumably. You can see raw canvas peeking through, uncovered, ignored, left alone.

What kind of person looks at this 2×2 square inch of painting and thinks yeah, this part’s done? Who would honestly be satisfied with those globs, with the stray paint colors, drifting, with the naked canvas peeking through? How can a person be capable of coming face-to-face with such imperfection and not try to fix it, even a little? I cannot imagine. I am not that person. I have much more Mondrian in me than van Gogh, evidently (love that structure!). It is a perspective on being to which I apparently have very little access.

However, I’m striving to embrace the van Gogh. He trusted. He let go of 2×2 square inch imperfection and embraced the awe of stepping back and seeing the whole masterpiece, a whole which was infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, a whole which, because of its greatness, conferred greatness on the oft-celebrated paint globs and other hideous parts. Here is the full painting:

It’s stunning. All those little imperfections work together to create a masterpiece. It’s impossible to see the masterpiece when you’re zoomed in on 2×2 square inches. Even as I process my yearly meditations, I’m reporting on those experiences from up to six years into the future. I could not have been so perceptive in the moment, up close, so to speak. In the moment, it often feels poop-like, a dull brown stain ruining everything. My trip to the museum reminded me that it’s all a state of mind. Accept the imperfections of the moment, keep painting, and one day, hope to look back at a masterpiece.