Lemon Skies and the Gardens of Van Gogh

Georges Braque, who Picasso once called ‘ The father of us all’ in  referring to Impressionism and beyond said,

painting is not depicting.

I would say Art is not depicting and certainly not necessarily verisimilitude. What matters is what moves us, what we find inspiring and beautiful, like Vincent’s lemon and lime green skies. Bad art, on the other hand is trying to depict real life and miserably failing due to lack of technique,  personal vision or, more often, both.

Delving into a delightful book, Les Jardins De Van Gogh by Ralph Skea, (editions-hazen.com) takes me far beyond the mythic sunflowers and tormented fields overshadowed by the uncanny threat of doom depicted by the  black crows. Here I discover the sheer poetry of his work, to plunge into a cool wood in springtime, dandelions mass in the undergrowth beneath the tree trunks, or,  the public gardens,’ Le jardin du poet’, transforms into just that; the romantic rendezvous of lovers, the lush almost sensuous grasses, make one long to lie down under the shade of the willow beneath those lemon skies. This is all suggested in his seemingly rough strokes his layers of paint, it has nothing to do with realism and yet is so vibrant with real life.

Even when figures enter the scene, ‘Marguerite Gachet dans son Jardin’ for example, nothing is clearly defined, much less the lone girls features, yet a feeling is evoked, we share her quiet pleasure and the pastoral security of a young girl in the garden of her provincial family home.

So maybe this is inspiring me to pick up my brushes again because I am reassured once more about what matters in painting. He was so unaware of the extent of his talent, of his ability to make others feel emotions, to evoke them. Vincent himself found solace from his torments in gardens wherever he found them. He rendered them all with intense beauty and passion, with the feelings the scene evoked in him. What matters is what we find beautiful, what matters is the end result.

Beauty is Difficult

Back in 2009 the former  philosophy professor and then mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, summed up the task of preserving his beloved city with those words, ‘Beauty is difficult’.

I know exactly what he meant. That is, for me this feeling is something that comes over me when touched by perfect beauty in any form. A thing of exquisite loveliness can be painful to bear.

In a recently discovered copy of the National geographic published when Cacciari was mayor, the writer Cathy Newman reports  on how the beauty ‘difficult and  bruised’ of Venice  survives despite being threatened for centuries to vanish beneath the waters of the aqua alta. Shocking to see in 2009 but even more alarming in the light of 2017 are the ten story high cruise ships in the Giudecca Canal she reports on, still coming eight years on an even greater threat along with the commercial over exploitation of the Carnival when all sensible Venetians leave town, those that can still afford to actually live there that is. A small 18th century palazzo is for sale for 9 million euros.

It is a long way from the 17th century Grand Tour to  airbnb and the increase in tourists now outnumbering the inhabitants and causing increasing unrest. I often wonder if I would not have preferred to have lived in the 19th century, at least been a young adult when Henry James published The Aspern Papers set in the city of the Doges.

In case you have not read this little gem I will not reveal its ending but the protagonist travels to Venice in order to track down, and obtain the love letters of a dead poet. To this end he contrives to rent rooms  from the recipient of these letters. This mysterious and reclusive lady is now living at a great age, most certainly on the point of death, in dire poverty alone with her niece in a rambling Palazzo with a garden attached on a forgotten canal. ‘The walls turned pink with time and crumbling plaster.’

His friend tells him that, ‘Dilapidated old palazzos can be had for five shillings a year’.

In the days when currency was still pegged to gold he offers to pay, in gold, the amount of 3000 Francs a month for an entire floor and the use of the garden. I researched to try to find out todays value. Possibly inaccurate, my only reference was to its value in 1875 twenty-five years or so earlier. At that date 1 US Dollar being around 50-100 French Francs and for this sum, at the maximum rate quoted he would have paid approximately 30$ or 25.50 Euros by todays reckoning. In the story at the time this was grossly in excess of the going rate as the old lady, not without reason cannily suspects that her proposed lodger has ulterior motives and those motives are to get his hands on her precious jealously guarded letters.

How I sigh with regret for those days when one could have a dilapidated old palazzo in Venice with faded rose-pink walls enclosing a garden for five shillings a year, when one could live as the residents then;

‘living on nothing for they have nothing to live on.’

Who can afford ices at the Café Florian today far less or to keep a private gondola?  Back then they already complained of the tourists with their Baedeker guide-book in hand wandering aimlessly through the Piazza San Marco. I shudder to think what Henry James would say today.

I understand why people must see Venice once in a lifetime, I do not understand how anyone could consider for a moment that it was acceptable to go there on a five-story cruise ship, a sort of obscene violation of beauty and ethics. Even if most tourists go for short periods and flock only to the most famous sights in the most popular seasons Venice’s mayors past and present cannot yet hit on a solution to the conflict of interests between preservation and the revenue they generate to keep the city afloat.

I admit, I want to go back one more time. Out of season, alone, to wander the undiscovered Campos off the tourist track, the forgotten calles , to buy fruits in season and flowering purple basil in the corner markets, To linger languorously, setting all my senses free to catch every nuance, reflections of water on stone, scents and colours. Beauty is difficult.