Something Inside Him

November 8, 2008

There is something inside me, what can it be?
                       — Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890
Dutch artist

Aside from some prints of religious paintings that my grandmother liked (Jesus weeping over Jerusalem hung in our living room), my first encounters with art came from paperback booklets in my fourth grade classroom. My teacher, referred to as Violet Stone here, but her real name is Veronica Smith (I’m not protecting the guilty anymore), kept them on the bookshelves under the windows, along with the poetry booklets that were in the same format. I had a seat beside the bookshelves, and in the long afternoons when I tired of Mrs. Smith’s voice drilling us in math facts I’d sneak a volume onto my lap and get lost in the pictures and the words. The booklets were on newsprint and the paintings were all in black and white, but I was captivated anyway. That’s how I came to love Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, a painting so powerful that even seeing it reduced from its massive 9 feet by 16 feet to fit sideways on a half letter sheet, I could still hear the horses breathing and feel the dust they kicked up swirl around my ankles.

My first visit to an art museum came my second year in college, when my art appreciation class took a weekend trip to New York. I was shocked at a photograph in an exhibit at the Guggenheim of what appeared to be two teenage boys that was nevertheless labeled “Two Young Women.” When I went on much the same trip my senior year I was a little more sophisticated, and by then had actually become acquainted with young women who preferred to look like, and sometimes pass for, teenage boys, and was not so easily shocked.

I may have seen some Van Goghs on those two early trips, but if I did, they did not impress me as much as the photographs of New York street people and Charles DeMuth’s The Figure 5 in Gold. I already knew William Carlos Williams’s poem that inspired his friend’s painting (usually ekphrasis works the other way, painting to poem), and I bought a postcard size print of the DeMuth as well as one of Paul Klee’s The Red Balloon. Both of them hung in my college rooms, and to look at them now takes me back to those days almost as surely as a whiff of liturgical incense takes me back to grade school attendance at the Stations of the Cross.

So I don’t know for sure if I ever saw The Starry Night in person before I saw it in Baltimore with Lynn in 1992, but I certainly knew it, knew its history, knew Van Gogh’s history. In Baltimore it was shown in a very small exhibit accompanied by the preliminary drawings and journal entries and letters that show the artist working out his ideas for it. The show was beautifully mounted and not crowded the day we were there, and I remember walking into the room where it was and feeling almost blinded by the light streaming from it.

Lynn remembers that trip but remembers mostly being with her friend Caitlin and asking of Rodin’s The Thinker, “Is he maybe trying to think where he put his clothes?,” possibly the oldest joke in art history but coming from a sincere and thoughtful seven-year-old (my seven-year-old) it was impossibly endearing. She does not remember seeing The Starry Night specifically, although she asked to have the poster. She is more aware of what it was like to see Van Gogh’s achingly beautiful sky when she was fourteen, and I have the memory of her eyes wide and brimming with tears at the pain you can see there. She’d put her paintbrushes down by then in favor of a hockey stick and lab instruments, but the efforts we made to nurture the artist in her were not wasted.

The museum was crowded today. When I planned this trip I bought a museum membership at a reduced rate for people who live more than 150 miles outside New York. It paid for itself in free admission for me and $5 for my guest and the privilege of bypassing the lines both for museum admission and for timed entry into the special Van Gogh exhibit. The Starry Night was behind glass, something I don’t remember from before, and hung in a narrow space divided by display cases. Both features seemed to get between me and the experience of the painting. I was much more taken this time with The Starry Night Over the Rhine. I think I learn as much about my own work and process from studying the process of visual artists as I do from studying other writers. We all have something inside of us that sometimes hurts us to express.

Lynn spent a lot of time reading the pages of Van Gogh’s notebooks and letters that were mounted in the display cases. He wrote mostly in French, and I was pleased to see that the French language classes she’d had to squeeze into her schedule when she switched from a Bachelor of Science to a Bachelor of Arts program had, like her art lessons, not been a waste of time. (She also sidled up to people speaking to each other in French to eavesdrop.)

Lynn claims not to care much about art anymore. She just likes The Starry Night. She spent the time I took in the gift shop manipulating cubes and balls and other mechanical puzzles. She told me later that she found the city and the crowds a bit overwhelming, especially after she got off the subway but I got caught behind a stroller. She saw the doors close in front of me and the train move away, and as she receded she looked not just smaller but younger, and I regretted, not for the first time, that she is now too old for me to hold her hand.

It took me fifteen minutes to go to the next stop and come back. She had her phone with her (but I was carrying all the money) and remembered the name of the hotel and how to get to it from the subway stop. She called Ron from the lobby. “I lost Mommy,” she said, her voice wavering only a little.

Well, no, she didn’t, and I haven’t lost her. We’ve both changed since she drew a path to the playground with its trees and its falling stars. The Starry Night will always connect us.

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