Van Gogh - Lilacs (1887)


Peter Ochabski

Van Gogh - Lilacs (1887) at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

In a room full of softly dazzling Degas and mesmerizing Monets this subtle oil sketch of a demure clump of Lilacs painted by Van Gogh initially failed to grab or even retain my interest. I was completely swept off my feet by a large Monet that featured a bridge with a small boat that had just passed under it in a delicate and perfectly rendered foggy sunrise (set?). Then I realized it was not a still life! After picking my heart up off the floor I remembered the Van Gogh...

What I initially mistook for a rushed and amorphous blob of flowers turned out to have immense depth and care devoted to its creation. The pink and white flowers were flanked by deep green leaves, a scratchy burnt orange background and everything was resting on table depicted with choppy bright orange brush strokes. The paint was actually carefully applied and almost looked spooned on in places creating a very rich and textured surface with some marks being smooth, glossy and polished while others were fast, dry, and dull.

The shapes of each element were actually very loose with no real borders to speak of. Each color was made of layers that seemed to interlock. The strokes of each color had room around them allowing the colors next to and under them to show through creating an amazingly vivid effect, especially when contrasted with the solid brown/green/orange background. The lilacs had short thick clearly defined daubs on the foreground parts and more mixed and blended background parts while the leaves had longer brush strokes with smoother lines and blends. The darks and light contrast sharply, partly due to their defined strokes and partly due to the wide range that seems to cover the complete value spectrum of pure white to pitch black. While the scale of the painting is small and the strokes are large there is the impression of great details. I think its unity comes from the literal intermingling of each and every element on the canvas. The piece while vibrant exists in complete harmony with the eye flowing in and out from petal to leaf and back again with the flowers themselves being the clear focal point with not only the brightest colors but also the greatest contrast.

I think Van Gogh was experimenting with technique, how far he could push and open his daubs of paint and still achieve a sort of loose unity and discord at the same time. He seems to be pushing what is (his subject), as far as it can go, before it ceases to have meaning visually.

I think he could be presenting us with the experience of his existence and internal struggle. Depicting his reality that seems to be so loosely based on the reality of others and his attempt to make the two coexist, if not peacefully, then at least to occupy the same space. But I think his mind was not content with things as others perceive them so he was straining to create a bridge with his work. A way to give people something relevant to them but through his eyes. I was deeply astonished to learn recently that very few people saw anything in his work while he was alive and he died thinking himself a failure when his works now sell for 50 million dollars and have changed the world in very real and meaningful ways.

Initially I chose it because it was the only one that fit the criteria of this project but perhaps I learned more from it then I would have from any of the others. I think the fact that it was not a polished and finished piece and more of a study really helped me see his process, his technique, and his thinking. He has masterfully pushed a visual image to the fringe of legibility while introducing layering and space that create an energy that defies any realistically rendered image. I love the way he used a mix of solid paint daubs, blended strokes, space between similar colors strokes, and high contrast to depict his subject. It seems to be doing so many of the things I have been seeking lately, most importantly conveying the feelings and emotional sensations that a photo simply can't reproduce because it emulates precisely what it sees but does not include what it feels. That is recording, which can be art, and can be beautiful, but it is not creation.