It is an oft-repeated fact of modern life that we tend to look but rarely see. When we wear the twin blinders of rush and routine, we cannot help taking the things that surround us for granted. Especially now that being at home cannot, surely, offer anything in the way of the new or novel, it is easy to let the eye glaze over these objects and assume that if they do serve any purpose, it must be as a brief break from the glare of the computer screen.
Sitting in bed with my computer, this is exactly what happens: I pause to think about something, my eye drifts absently over a stretch of wall or pile of books, some idea is obtained, and the eye returns. Today, however, something manages to catch — a copy of Van Gogh’s Irises.
The painting has hung in my childhood bedroom for as long as I can remember. I love the movement in it, the indigo blues and the manifold shades of green, the reddish tones in the earth and the distinct outlines of the flower petals and leaves. The last probably speaks to the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock painting; in a novel, 17th-century Japanese writer Asai Ryoi defines ukiyo as “living only for the moment … buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current.” Indeed, Van Gogh must have felt something similar while painting. Having checked himself into the asylum at Saint-Rémy after a series of debilitating mental episodes, he began to paint feverishly, inspired by the hospital garden that was no doubt in full bloom by May 1889.
Writing to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described his efforts to hold onto sanity and the will to live: “I’m struggling with all my energy to master my work, telling myself that if I win this it will be the best lightning conductor for the illness. I take great care of myself by carefully shutting myself away.” Fatigued by the stress of the pandemic and the isolation of lockdown, one can relate, if not to the last sentiment of self-care, at least to the first. Theo, upon receiving the first canvases from Saint-Rémy, wrote back, “They all have an intensity of color you have not attained before … I see that you have achieved that in many of your canvases by conveying the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings, which, you feel, are so closely bound up with them.”
I was able to see the original Irises in person this past January at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It was larger than I had expected, but I was delighted to see the energeia —active force, vigor — contained in Van Gogh’s brushstrokes and the enargeia — clearness, vividness, radiance — captured in the whole of the work. In a museum, it’s easy to appreciate art as art: The time and space required for deep, intentional looking has been specifically carved out for you. At home, however, the line between art and object blurs. It’s only when you decide to pay attention that the item reasserts its life force, its living history, its story and significance.
The other day, I saw a video of Belgian interior designer Gert Voorjans giving a tour of his house. It was filled top to bottom with all sorts of wonderfully eclectic pieces, a veritable treasure trove of things that mattered to him and gave him joy. When I look — really look — at the little Irises hanging on my bedroom wall, I feel the interconnectedness of Van Gogh’s joy and struggle and the Provençal sunshine of over 100 years ago with the trials and tribulations, the daily vicissitudes of my own life, and I begin, little by little, to lose “the vague dread, the fear of the thing.”
Of course, that all sounds very sentimental. But they are sometimes true, the old sentiments. There are flowers. And we should look at them.
Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.