The Starry Night
In October of the year 1993, I and a handful long-haired, grunge-music and radio enthusiasts from my university journeyed to New York City to attend the College Music Journal’s yearly festival. We ended up being wined and dined by industry names large and small, an alcohol-fueled hurricane of distorted guitar riffs celebrating alternative music.
This was an exciting time for me and the entire episode is something I hope never to forget. There is a single moment, however, that enjoys a place of solemn honor in the halls of my memory: seeing Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” with my own eyes.
It was October. We went sight-seeing. We did many things, and one of them was a handful of museums. None of the others knew much about visual art, being focused more on music, either being in bands or radio. I, however, had been studying painting for the bulk of the prior decade.
The MOMA was fairly empty, so the three of us wandered lazily through the galleries. Here and there were canvases I knew, sprinkled among works unknown. I passed these famous works, entirely non-plussed at their presence in the halls. I had studied these works for years and yet none of them held weight to me. I was disappointed at this.
I remember: someone was gawping at a Mapplethorpe print and I moved on. The next moment I was face to face with one of my favorite works of all time. Dumbstruck.
There it hang, sans pomposity, on a wall within New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
I could have reached out and touched it. Ran my fingers over the texture of the paint, made my mark upon the frame.
The perverse imp chained in my brain thought about doing so. Luckily, the idea of such a vulgar sacrilege shivered my soul and stayed my hand.
I stared at the painting for several minutes as whirls of understanding unlocked in my skull. It is a far different thing to see van Gogh’s work as textbook photograph or a low-resolution jpeg and admire its beauty than to stand before its feverish radiance.
Much of the lighter “paint” in the work isn’t paint at all. Rather, it is the yellowing canvas that peeks through the oils. Van Gogh just. . . didn’t paint there. This is something that they don’t teach you in school: that one of the most talented, innovative painters in all of history was sloppy.
I can see a manic van Gogh violently scraping the color in circles with a palette knife, the furious specter of his insanity serving as midwife to the brilliance. There is a dread music echoing through his skull, a relentless tune driving him ever forward to communicate in a language understood by no-one.
My eyes crawled over the dried texture of the oil, reading it as sheet music. I could feel the symphony within me, faintly building in volume, my pulse a staccato drum-beat. This was the Rosetta Stone to a different language, one that would push and push and push through the frail membrane of my sanity.
A glorious, fragile epiphany.
Behind me: a faint cough that shattered my reverie. I immediately cast around for one of my friends with whom I could share this experience.
“Dude! Dude! Come here! Dude, you have to see this!”
He shambled over. “What is it?”
“Dude. This is one of the most important paintings in the world. It’s one of my favorites,” I gushed.
He had the grace to look at it for a few moments before saying “huh” and wandering off, exactly as non-plussed as I was before.
I, however, was a changed person.