Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Van Gogh's Oleanders

Beside the vase of flowers lies a much-read copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de vivre. Van Gogh clearly knows that the novel’s title has an ironic edge. The heroine’s life is a long tale of woe. But after all her trials, when her maid commits suicide, the heroine doesn’t understand how anyone could voluntarily renounce life.
If one looks closely at the oleanders, Van Gogh’s emblem of love—or at any of his subjects—one finds tortured ebullience. The leaves are twisting like a crown of thorns and the boughs seem about to break under the weight of their heavy blooms. Van Gogh paints the difficulty of beauty and the beauty of difficulty.
Even when he tries to be pessimistic, as in the “The Night Café,” he can’t manage the horror and despair of Munch, for instance. Van Gogh wrote of the café painting, “I have tried to show that the café is a place where a man can ruin himself, become mad, commit a crime . . . I have tried to express the terrible human passion . . ..” But the lights billow gold against the vivid red walls, the billiard table that dominates the room like a coffin is a lively green, and on it lie a few balls yet to be sunk into the holes.
And when Van Gogh is most optimistic, there is still a tinge of sadness. Though covered with blossoms, the limbs of his trees are permanently twisted. The oleanders that offer themselves so wholly still have an element of lonely isolation and a sense of the their own impending fall.