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Of Sunflowers and the Starry Night – Embracing Differences

I thought I knew Vincent Van Gogh, having had the opportunity to see his works in European and American museums. Years ago, while in Tahiti, I visited the Gauguin Museum, so I learnt about the turbulent yet mutually inspirational friendship between Paul Gauguin and him and the influence of the Japanese Ukiyo-e style on European arts.

TCG August 2023 Van Gogh painting bedroom

Yet, when I went to the recent Van Gogh exhibition in Singapore, I discovered things I never knew. For many years, my art journey gravitated towards the Renaissance and Romanticism periods; I love masterpieces by the Dutch Golden Age painters, and I can stand admiring any Rubens’, Frans Hals’, Rembrandt’s, and Vermeer’s works for hours. Eventually, I adopted the impressionists after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Still, it was more the works of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, etc. My Modern Arts appreciation stopped there, i.e. post-impressionist art was not in my vocabulary because I find it difficult to fathom.

While I had the opportunity to stand before Van Gogh’s masterpieces, I found it difficult to believe anyone would pay $39.7 million (now deemed over $80 million) for those fifteen “pathetic” sunflowers in the vase. So, out of sheer curiosity, I went to the Van Gogh Exhibition in S’pore. Instead of his famous paintings, I just wanted to see what I might not have seen before; With that, I began to discover Vincent’s world, his earnest attempt to paint for others, and how serious he was about his vocation as a painter.

TCG August 2023 Van Gogh paintings collage

Suddenly I saw Hokusai’s Great Wave in Van Gogh’s Starry Night; Vincent had never travelled to Japan but was a keen collector of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Because he had a love for many things and a mind to embrace differences, we now have a unique masterpiece, possibly inspired by an exchange of two great painters from distinctly different cultures thousands of miles apart.

As for the Sunflowers, Vincent saw them as a representation of life, joy, and the sun’s life-giving energy. His Sunflowers series showcased the flowers at different stages of maturity, capturing their life cycle and the beauty of nature’s transformation. They were not the “pathetic” uncared-of flowers I had earlier thought they were. It was much deeper than that.

Many people think Van Gogh was mentally unstable, yet he only wished for people to take him as he was. Very well-read, he was undoubtedly more brilliant than most. Though he only sold one painting in his life, his works are now worth millions, and many, myself included, are just beginning to discover the depth of his soul through his works.

Here is Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry,Starry Night):

Starry, starry night ; Paint your palette blue and gray; Look out on a summer’s day; With eyes that know the darkness in my soul. Shadows on the hills; Sketch the trees and the daffodils; Catch the breeze and the winter chills; In colors on the snowy, linen land. Now, I understand what you tried to say to me…

This summer, let the Starry Night and Sunflowers inspire us. Let’s embrace the differences around us to discover the mystery and beauty of life. Quote Vincent Van Gogh:

“There is nothing more artistic than to love others!”

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