Vincent Van Gogh (30 March, 1853 ‘ 29 July, 1890) and his painting Starry Night represent the modern conception of the artist, tormented, but brilliant, who is able to transcend the everyday view of the world, so as to present a view of reality which is somehow truer than our mundane assumptions. The art historian Albert Boime writes: ‘No Western European painter is more universally familiar to us than Vincent van Gogh; no work has been more widely produced that his Starry Night….part of the notoriety clinging to his work is the popular image of the painter as a mad genius.’ (1) Arguably, in van Gogh’s Starry Night, this dimension of the ‘mad genius’ takes its most distinctive form.
Through van Gogh’s eyes, the night sky is turned into something otherworldly and fantastic, as though we are witnessing the evening sky which we have seen above us our entire lives for the first time. What makes van Gogh’s paintings and Starry Night in particular so compelling is that it is able to inject mystery, fantasy and magic into the world around us. If van Gogh is ‘mad’, it is simply because he sees the world in a different way from the norm and it is precisely this difference that captivates in Starry Night.
In one sense, it perhaps can be said that van Gogh uses fundamental design principles in Starry Night to re-design the familiar night sky, presenting it anew to the viewer. Van Gogh accomplishes this, above all, by his utilization of rhythm in the painting. Van Gogh’s conception of the night sky in this painting is not static. It is as though the entire painting itself is set in motion, the entire night sky moving according to its own internal rhythm. Van Gogh, for example, turns the blackness of the night sky, the empty space between the heavenly stars, into moving forms, which resemble enormous tidal waves that have overtaken the entire sky. From the point of view of the earth, the night sky is static. Van Gogh changes the perspective and places us into the center of a moving, rhythmic night scene, as the sky is not composed of blank space, but instead of moving space. The viewer’s eye follows the movements of the sky itself, instead of the night sky merely being something fixed. In using the design principle of rhythm, Van Gogh at the same time is able to use a principle of emphasis, which interacts with the rhythm that is at the centre of the painting. Namely, what van Gogh is emphasizing in the painting is not a particular object he depicts, but rather the motion of the objects themselves, the night sky, the moon, and the castle that juts into the night sky, as examples. Van Gogh therefore by using rhythm and motion simultaneously emphasizes not an object, but the relationship between the objects in the night sky.
By doing so the entirety of the night sky becomes the focal point of the painting. At the same time, he does use variety, for example, the objects of the painting such as the stars, the moon and the castle. This shows the diversity of the night scene and intrigues the viewer to investigate the scene further. However, variety ultimately translates into its opposite design principle of unity. This unique use of the principle of emphasis creates the painting’s underlying unity. Van Gogh brings the entire scene together through a distribution of emphasis. There are clearly distinguishable images in the painting. There is the aforementioned night sky in motion. There is also a moon, which itself is set in motion to the extent that it is outlined also by moving lines. From the point of view of the earth, there is a vertical castle, jutting into the night sky. All these elements are brought together by the sense in which everything depicted in the painting is also in rhythmic motion, moving in the night sky. Certainly, there is the use of dark color which brings the painting together in an internal unity, but there is also the moon, depicted almost as a sun, which breaks through this color scheme. For this reason, it is the underlying idea of rhythm that creates the unity of the painting.
In this sense, the underlying meaning of the painting is perhaps to inject our everyday landscape with meanings that we may have forgotten, that meanings we are not aware of, of meanings that we are ignorant of. This is why van Gogh is a ‘mad’ genius: his message is something different than the normal discourse. He re-inspires us to look at the world around us from a different perspective. He shows us a night sky that is not a fixed constellation of stars, but as an almost living organism, which is in motion just as anything on the terrestrial level is also in motion. This is how the painting receives its ‘magical’ or ‘fantastical’ quality. It is because it forces us to look at the world around us in a radically new manner. Van Gogh is not concerned with seeing the world as everyone else sees it, nor is he concerned with trying to be a painter who carefully reproduces a natural scene following the dominant rules of everyday perception. Instead, he takes a shift in space and time, not to enter a fantasy world, but to show us that our world is also fantastical, unknown and mysterious.
- Boime, Albert. Revelation of Modernism: Responses to Cultural Crises in Fin-de-Siecle Painting. St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008.