This essay was written as part of an assignment at the Young India Fellowship, wherein we were to write about the experience we had with an art object.
For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw stillness in those dark green flames, but my eyes were enchanted by the luminance of a dancing sky. Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” caught me unaware.
Viewing it from a distance I was smitten by the enigma that is night, not in its darkness, but in all the light. The stars and the moon, they glowed with the grandeur of the sun; entwined in swirls, with a rhythmic sky they were spun. They would twirl, they would turn, and this sky refused to be still. It drew me deeper and deeper, I felt hypnotized. I was falling in my dreams. Perhaps he did too, when he painted this view. Perhaps he too saw the sky in constant motion, in a ceaseless dream.
“When the night skies were adorned with stars, we would lie on our backs and count for hours, my Father, my Dog and I.” I am often intrigued by the sky at night, for in its embrace and a conspired solace I have always found a vent for my darkest hours, for my deepest thoughts. I have heard in the night the sound of the ocean in rage, I have often told the moon how I wish to flee my cage. I have heard in the night music that calmed my soul, I have often discovered in that darkness the light of a surreal goal.
A post-impressionist artwork, the Starry Night deceived me into believing it was not a painting. I was transfixed by this chimera. At first glance it appeared to be a captivating specimen of a beautiful night, it seemed magical and energetic, yet the cypress tree in the foreground, with its frozen blaze and a haunting tranquility, seemed to caution against the dynamism behind it. As I looked closer and followed with my eyes the swaying lines with dashes of blue, yellow, white and green, I found in this activity of the clouds and sky, an aggression betrayed by the brush strokes. The motion which I initially found mesmerizing would now speak of the restlessness of a brewing storm. The yellow-orange stars seemed to be growing in their radiance and their brightness would intensify the latent anxiety. There was turbulence and pain, a silent rendition of a violent yet fantastic vision, a perplexed yet powerful mind. This painting traced thoughts through the perception of a night, a starry indeed; it is but a stormy night.
The crescent moon with its yellow halo, shone brilliantly against the violet in the sky. For a moment I thought those were but many a suns reflected in waters brimming with tiny fish. I was vacuumed from my surroundings, I heard the sounds of the ocean again, the sounds of the wind, I wished to feel it between my fingers. The yellow halo with a little white, the light would spread, its intensity would reduce and like troupes of hasty fish going round in circles, it would harmoniously blend itself with the impressions of violet, blue and green. The fish would dissolve and reappear, they would play hide and seek just like the stars. They were playing with my mind yet those frozen flames, that muted existence was it to mask what was but inside? The complexity, the contrast, the haste, the opulence, I was entrapped in the fluid vision, I wondered if they were the flow of his thoughts, his mind, his reality.
There were houses below, underneath the sky. People would prepare to sleep in their homes, while I searched for answers in the ethereal night. . From luminosity in all its splendour to fire, from loveliness to inner turmoil, the exaggerated sky called out as the mountains and the cypress tree stood in the landscape of timelessness. The silence below reflected the illumination from above but did not participate in that riot of bright colours. How did he see those in the darkness of night? It wasn’t hope, but a vivid spectacle borne out of a dramatic narrative from the depths of his imagination and a palette of blue, yellow, red and brown.
I had this urge to know what must have he been thinking, what caused such unrest in his thoughts, in his deft fingers that must have swiftly moved the brush with those thick layers of colour, with that impasto so typical of Van Gogh. Was this thickness, this viscosity, not a worthy representation of his abyss of thoughts?
A man whose art was not accepted with ease and who chose to fight conventions and the rigidity of conformity, this sky spoke of his true being, beyond the confines of the tangible reality. What appeared in the front was perhaps eluding the truth behind, or was it mockery? Was it a deliberate contrast? Standing tall, as if questioning the influence of this brightly lit night was the mysterious cypress tree whose power was replicated in the vertical tapering roof of the church farther away, an image of conventional authority. Perhaps I was deliberately searching for reasons, for the tree had an almost eerie presence with its strange quietness. Its disposition contrasting with the activity behind, it touched the stars with its dormant green flames and dark brown outline. I felt as if it was the ominous face of an impending turbulence. I went back to that supernatural sky, that site of luminous disquiet which intrigued and aggrieved me at the same time. I know he was not happy when he painted this, I know he was mystified, even though the world shall forever cherish this work of art, I shall wish for him to have had more peace.
Unable to curb my curiosity, I searched for facts about his life. I was stunned to learn that in his state of distress he had shot himself at the age of thirty-seven, and let sleep prevail over those tempestuous nights, those starry stormy nights.