Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Madness and reality

The APOD recently was Van Gogh's Starry Night, painted in southern France in September, 1889. The artist was in an asylum at St.-Remy, following a severe mental crisis. He left St.-Remy on May 16, 1890 for Auvers, near Paris, where he committed suicide two months later.

Some time ago, Harvard astronomer Charles Whitney (now retired) and UCLA art historian Albert Boime (recently deceased) considered several of van Gogh's paintings from the astronomical point of view, especially "Starry Night on the Rhone" and "Starry Night." They used planetariums to reconstruct past skies, and traveled to France to observe the sky from the places where van Gogh experienced it. They found several elements of scientific realism in the paintings.

In the spiraling swirls of "Starry Night" Whitney and Boime see the influence of Lord Rosse's 1845 drawing of the spiral galaxy M51, known as the Whirlpool galaxy. They guess that van Gogh may have seen a representation of Lord Rosse's sketch in the works of the French astronomical popularizer Camille Flammarion.

As Boime makes clear, Van Gogh was keenly interested in astronomy, cartography, and science in general. He was also an exact observer of the night. In a letter to his sister, van Gogh says that "certain stars are citron-yellow, others have a pink glow, or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance"; stars do indeed exhibit these colors, but only to a careful observer. On this and other evidence, Whitney concludes that van Gogh had excellent night vision.

Nevertheless, van Gogh's skies are unlike any I have seen. His stars are whirling vortices of color, not cold points of distant light. Blue-black night yields in the paintings to torrents of yellow and green. Moons burn with the positive vitality of suns. Space seethes with the energy of flame.

Many people suppose that van Gogh's vertiginous paintings of the night are a product of his madness. Art historian Ronald Pickvane rejects this interpretation: "Between his breakdowns at the asylum [van Gogh] had long periods of absolute lucidity, when he was completely master of himself and his art. That his mind was informed and imaginative, interpretive and highly analytical can be seen in the way he assessed his own work."

From the barred window of his room at the asylum, van Gogh had an unobstructed view of the night sky. His insomnia gave him ample opportunity to observe the stars. What he put onto canvas was more than what he saw, and more than what a computer or planetarium can reconstruct. In one of his letters he wrote: "I should be desperate if my figures were correct...my great longing is to make these incorrectnesses, these deviations, remodelings, changes of reality that they may become, yes, untruth if you like -- but more true than literal truth."

The painter Georges Braque said: "Art is meant to disturb. Science reassures." The color-splashed, starry vortices of van Gogh's nighttime paintings certainly disturb. They disturb because they evoke something that in our less exalted way we recognize as truer than literal truth. The whirlwind stars of "Starry Night" draw us up into a beautiful, terrifying, uncertain universe -- a universe in which the individual must sometimes struggle to find security and meaning. Knowing that these wildly turbulent images contain an element of scientific realism is only mildly reassuring.