Incandescent Images

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Look at the Museum of Modern Art's latest van Gogh show and you may spend most of it (including the two-hour wait one recent Sunday) feeling like it's a cynical exercise in ticket sales: Take "Starry Night," the MoMA painting that no doubt sells the most in posters and coasters, and build a blockbuster exhibition around it.

Yet another van Gogh show? It's almost enough to scare an art lover off. But not quite. I hate to admit it, but, cynical exercise or not, "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" changed the way I think about the subjects of van Gogh's art.

When he paints a starry night or moonlit view, van Gogh is not really giving us the starlight or moonshine on the landscape before him. What we're really seeing in those paintings is the bright new glare of artificial light that's hitting van Gogh's canvas as he paints the scene.

Van Gogh, it turns out, is not the last great painter of light. He's one of the first painters of a modern world that's subject to light ing-- a world that's lit by a new kind of disenchanted light that's everywhere around us and under our control.

The exhibition tries to link its hero to a 500-year tradition of artists who rendered strong nighttime effects. That link may be there in his neophyte works -- a number of them help pad this 23-painting show -- but once his art begins to matter, in the late 1880s, the link falls away. Rembrandt and the other Old Master painters of nocturnes often made a point of hiding the light sources in their pictures, so as to favor the light itself as it struck the objects in a scene. Van Gogh heads the opposite way. He skips the illumination, and shows the light sources themselves as just another kind of object to be painted: The moon or a gas lamp or a streetlight becomes more like a chair or a vase or a human face than like the source of all-enfolding energy that makes those objects visible.

In his "Dance Hall in Arles," from 1888, the 11 gas-lit globes that float above the dance floor are no brighter than the faces of the dancers they're supposed to be illuminating. The glaring gaslights are inventoried -- accounted for as important objects in the scene, almost as further protagonists -- but they don't light anything up in a convincing way.

In an 1888 drawing of the lamplit outdoors, now called "Cafe Terrace at Night," the gas lamps are drawn in outline like all the other objects. But van Gogh doesn't use any of the standard draftsman's tricks for making those lamps look lit. When you turn to the painted version of the same subject you realize that, for all the yellow paint van Gogh deploys, there's not much sense of a convincing nighttime scene, in the mode of Rembrandt or Whistler -- of light pushing back against an encroaching darkness.

That's true, too, in van Gogh's famous "Night Cafe," done the same year as the dance hall and the cafe terrace. The three kerosene lanterns and the large gas lamp that illuminate the interior are surrounded by dabs of paint that represent their rays, but those don't seem to strike the dark-red walls around them, or to illuminate the drinkers sitting below. Those rays of light, which are painted in surprisingly dim greens and ochres, are more like descriptive attributes attached to the lamps. (It's like the way, in an altarpiece, you can tell which saint is which by the things they hold.) Even the single token shadow in the room, cast under the billiard table, is closer to being an attribute of the globe above than an element in a convincing web of light effects. In this work, a bouquet of flowers can be more brightly painted than the lamps that are supposed to be lighting it. The four lamps' opaque bodies, along with their shades and rays, are rendered in thick gobs of paint that stress their materiality as objects.

Van Gogh's astral bodies are painted the same way. The stars in his starry nights are all gobbed up; their paint is too substantial to recall vaporous light. So are his brightly painted moons and suns. If you cover the actual sunset or moonrise that van Gogh shows, the rest of the landscape doesn't give much hint of the light that's striking it, and therefore of the time of day or night involved. (In one painting of a sower, van Gogh glopped the setting sun on as an afterthought, over what had been blue sky.)

All this may register the start of a new era in society's relationship to light. Van Gogh is working at just the moment when gas lamps and electric lights are eliminating night, as nothing had before. Thanks to new industrial technologies -- fossil fuels and piped-in gas and, by the 1880s, electricity -- even the most modest cafe could be filled from corner to corner with light. A low-end dance hall frequented by plebes could now be as bright as only the chandelier-lit ballrooms of aristocrats had been.

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