Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Plain of Auvers

Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Plain of Auvers” in 1890, the same year he shot himself in a field with a revolver he had borrowed from his landlord. Each and every time I see “The Plain of Auvers,” the three-dimensional effects of the brushstrokes transport me back to those farm fields in France. What haunts me, though, are the blank spaces of canvas that show through the paint. To me, they hold the clue to the “why” behind that sole, resonating shot, a shot that probably startled crows for miles and miles around.

The first time I saw “The Plain of Auvers” was when I went to the Carnegie Museum of Art one day during Spring Break with my mother. Henrietta. She was a free spirit, a poet and a potter who had decided an obscure artists’ colony in the Southwest called out to her soul far more than her husband, three children, and suburban Pittsburgh did. She left one afternoon to go to the A & P and just never came back. Until now. Some ten years later. She was just visiting, she said. She wanted to reconnect with her children who were now teenagers. She didn’t realize that you don’t really “re-connect” with teenagers, especially ones whom you abandoned to follow your dreams. I was the youngest and remembered her the least; she seemed more like some distant cousin or aunt I had never met. I found her interesting.

She liked to do things and go places. On this particular day, she decided to take me to the Carnegie Museum of Art out in Oakland. She couldn’t believe I’d never been there before. I told her I’d been to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History tons of times on school field trips and the two buildings were connected. That didn’t seem to impress her much.

She told me the art museum might be boring to me at first, but only because I wasn’t open-minded and didn’t look at things the right way. She said eventually something would click in my mind and I would just “get it.” I nodded my head but eyed all the dark Puritan paintings and naked, voluptuous Bible women with skepticism.

Until we hit the Impressionists. There was this fantastic Monet. It was huge. It took up practically one whole wall. It was a panorama of a lily pond. The sheer size of it impressed me. I hadn’t known you could paint on canvases that big.

And then there were all the dot pictures. That’s what I called them. Dabs of different colored paint applied to a canvas in such a way that when you stepped back you saw a beach scene or women strolling through a park with parasols. I thought it was cool. How had the artists done that? Painted tiny dots up close that created a whole scene further back?

The painter that did me in, however, was not an Impressionist, or so Henrietta told me. It was Vincent Van Gogh. “The Plain of Auvers” moved me in a way no other painting had ever moved me. It was the painting of a farm field with blue sky and cloud swirls. No big deal. No people, no windmills, no animals, no birds. Just the fields. But you could see seas of grass blowing in the breeze, golden wheat fields, flowering potato plants. You could smell the soil and feel the damp earth basking in the warmth of the Provencal sun under a sky of delicate blue and whirling clouds of white. It was a meaning-of-the-universe painting. It was the painting of a one-eared genius.

Soon after our foray to the art museum, Henrietta drove back west in her beat up Volkswagen van, leaving our lives again just as quietly and easily as she had the first time. My brother and sister and dad seemed relieved, but I was disappointed. I was fifteen and here was a woman, a grown-up woman no less, who wanted me to call her by her first name and take me around to see neat things I never even knew existed.

I was forty now and alone as I entered the Carnegie Museum of Art. I headed straight for the Van Gogh. Only the Van Gogh wasn’t where I remembered it, which unnerved me a bit. Reality was not aligning with memory. And I needed it to. The painting was on an entirely opposite wall now. Possibly in a different room even. Perhaps they had moved it around multiple times over the years.

I waited for a group of high school students in school uniforms to pass by, their middle-aged docent droning on about Vincent Van Gogh and his Expressionist style of painting: The other Van Gogh in the museum was more realistic than “The Plain of Auvers,” she said. An earlier picture, it featured a windmill, something typical from Van Gogh’s native Dutch countryside. The “Plain of Auvers,” meanwhile, revealed the true human passions in a field of flowing wheat.

Over twenty years had passed since I last looked at this painting. How many things had happened, how many places had I lived, how many people had I loved and unloved over these past two decades? Yet the painting had remained the same. I studied the agitated brushstrokes and swirling clouds which belied the overall calmness of the painting and tried to imagine the agitated state of mind of the artist as he was creating.

How many other people, I wondered, had stood where I was now and looked at this same painting? How many people with how many different life stories? How many considered it to be their favorite painting? And how many were indifferent to it, distracted by thoughts of work or family or a rumbling stomach?

Two elderly ladies in print dresses and cardigans and tennis shoes appeared in front of the painting. I frowned but decided I could wait a few more minutes to let them view the Van Gogh. They were standing next to each other, their arms touching, their heads bent inwards. They were whispering like two retired librarians. They kept looking into each other’s eyes and smiling. Then they held hands and stared at the painting in silence.

Something about the way they stood next to each other startled me. I was moved by the intimacy of their stance, the way their sweaters lined up, matching. Surely the painting alone was not eliciting such a tender moment. I wondered what their story was, and why this painting seemed to have so much meaning for them.

Suddenly the old lady on the left, the one with short, curly white hair, stepped back. She opened her black Metropolitan Museum of Art tote bag and reached inside, her eyes never leaving those of her partner’s. A few seconds later her hand emerged clutching a somewhat crinkled, faded envelope. The envelope shook in her hand. The other woman, the one with grey hair in a French twist, looked down at the envelope. I could see tears in her eyes.

The first lady took her arm and gently led her to a black cushioned bench that was in the middle of the gallery facing the Van Goghs. They sat down. The lady with the Metropolitan Museum of Art tote bag handed the worn envelope to her friend and then put her arm around her, as if to protect her.

The lady with the French twist stared into the middle of the room for a long time before she looked down at the envelope. Slowly she opened it and took out a card. She put on the reading glasses that were dangling on a glass bead chain around her neck and read the contents of the note. I could see her face wrinkle up and a look of loss pass across her eyes. Loss at what, I wondered? Her hand fell into her lap. She sat motionless for a moment. Then she turned to embrace her friend and they kissed, ever so briefly, ever so tenderly on the lips.

Finally, the woman who had taken the card from her black tote bag patted her friend on the arm. She gingerly took the card and slid it back into its envelope. She got up and slowly yet purposefully walked over to “The Plain of Auvers.” Placing one hand on the white gallery wall to steady herself, she stooped down and leaned the card up against the wall beneath the Van Gogh. She stood upright, her arm going to the small of her back, and looked at the painting for a moment. Then she turned and walked back to the bench. She reached for her friend’s hand and gently helped her to her feet. Tears were streaming down both of their cheeks. The first old lady put her arm around her partner and gently wiped away the tears with her other hand. They smiled briefly at each other and then, arm in arm, shuffled out of the room.

I stood there motionless for a few moments. Finally, I realized they were not coming back and made my way to “The Plain of Auvers.” Glancing around to see if anyone was watching, I stooped down to pick up the envelope. My fingers were shaking as I lifted the flap of the envelope. I pulled out the card. The familiar whorl of white clouds against blue sky startled me.

I opened the card to see faded purple handwriting. The date in the upper right hand corner was from forty years before. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I didn’t read the note, but on the upper side of the note, on the top inside half of the card there was a “PS” printed in larger handwriting. I felt my insides melt at the words of the postscript: “Some day we will look at ‘The Plain of Auvers’ together. I promise.”

I looked in the direction the two old ladies had exited. No one was there. They were gone. As silently as they had come.

I slid the card back into its envelope and placed it back on the floor against the wall. It reminded me of people laying mementos and notes at the bases of the graves of dead artists and writers. I stood up again and stared at the painting. The bare spots of canvas always cried out to me; how intentional had they been? I yearned to touch the three-dimensional texture of the dried paint, to run my fingers along the vari-directional lines of color that made up the different fields.

I remembered Henrietta pointing out to me the use of color and the texture of the brushstrokes that created the patchwork of fields. I was the one who noticed the blank spots on the canvas. Or at least mentioned them. I asked Henrietta if they had been intentional or if the paint had just fallen off over the years. She looked at me strangely for a moment. No, she said, the paint hadn’t fallen off. The artist had merely been revealing bits of his soul.

I remember her fingering this charm she had on a thin gold chain around her neck. It was a small electric guitar. When I asked her about it, she said it was Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. She had seen him once in concert. “In fact…,” she hesitated for a moment as she reached into her beaded fringe bag and took out her wallet. I could see her driver’s license, photos of us as babies, and a Safeway card. She took out this worn ticket stub. She said it was from the Jimi Hendrix concert. She had saved it all these years because it was on that night she had decided that in order to be true to herself, she would have to betray those she loved most. Granted, it had taken her a while to get up the nerve to actually leave, but she kept the ticket stub because it reminded her of the moment she had made up her mind. That ticket stub was the blank space on her canvas.

She told me to open my hand. As I did so, she pressed the ticket stub into my palm and closed my fingers around it slowly and kissed me lightly on the forehead. That is the last time I remember my mother kissing me.

I looked at “The Plain of Auvers” for a little while longer. Then I opened my own purse and took out my wallet. Next to the only photo I had of my mother was the faded Jimi Hendrix ticket stub. I slid it out and placed it along the wall next to the old ladies’ card. And then I turned and walked away. I felt reverence for “The Plain of Auvers,” a painting that had also seen Vincent Van Gogh during the last year of his life.

Henrietta never made it back to New Mexico in her van. In a drab little hotel room somewhere outside of Clinton, Oklahoma, right off of Route 70, she had downed an entire bottle of sleeping pills and consumed a large quantity of vodka. Ironically, it wasn’t the mixture of drugs and alcohol that killed her. It was the fact that she aspirated her own vomit and drowned, much as her idol Jimi Hendrix had done before her at age twenty-seven.

My father was stunned, speechless. He never talked about it. My older brother and sister shrugged it off; they lived in denial for years. Why should they care about a woman who had run off and left them? I was the only one who knew they were wrong.

I knew they were wrong because I had seen the blank spaces in my mother’s canvas. The same blank spaces that made a brilliant artist go out into the middle of a field on a beautiful sunny day and shoot himself.

Vincent Van Gogh took thirty-six hours to die. The doctor attending him decided not to remove the bullet, and this may have been what actually killed him. He died at age thirty-seven. He had painted for only ten years. “The Plain of Auvers” was but one of his many self-portraits.


Blogger bucky said...

This is good.

1:21 PM  
Blogger bucky said...

This is good.

1:22 PM  

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