Dreams of Color

Excerpts from the book “Color Symphonies for Gauguin and van Gogh”

Without color, life would be gray. This book explores the question why so many people around the world hang reproductions of Vincent van Gogh’s and Paul Gauguin’s paintings on their walls and do not mind waiting in line to see their originals. It is easy to forget that the origin of the artists’ social conflicts was first and foremost a kind of self-sacrifice, as reflected in the color eruptions of their paintings. Brightening daily life with their unconditional artistic passion, the fragrances of the South Sea and La Provence, seeing life as colorful and diverse, and respecting other cultures and their “primitive” ways as a precious asset doubtlessly constitutes their legacy. Both have had a significant influence on modern art and inspired fauvists and expressionists to use strong colors.

As Newton found out in his famous prism experiment in 1704, all colors come from light, and together become white light again. He understood light as something divine, and colors as its reflection, born from the primal conflict – the battle between light and darkness. The gold in van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” appears like a gate to Heaven. In their statuesque presentation, Gauguin’s women, too, resemble icons, his fresco-like paintings heavenly gardens where people pick fruit and carry them in bowls. Another highly important aspect of Gauguin’s and van Gogh’s significance is that, upon visiting exotic places, they tapped into entirely new spheres of color. This inspired them to great masterpieces, mirror images of two souls whose splendor shines through to this day, long after poverty, sickness, and people’s scorn towards their novel painting style have ceased to darken the intense colors of their lives.

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Color Symphonies“.

for Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh

While Gauguin and van Gogh were rather different people, they had some things in common. Besides frequently discussing Buddhist subjects, they shared an intense longing for the south, the sun, and the joy of exotic colors. After reading about the Marquesas Islands, Vincent, too, felt drawn towards the “savage”, now wanting to paint childishly simple pictures like those featured in old peasant calendars. Gauguin had only strengthened his convictions when talking about the suggestive expressiveness of colors. A lot of van Goghs paintings are downright color symphonies. Gauguin, too, was finally inspired by their exchange to arrive at his trademark painting style. At the occasion of Paul Gauguin’s 175th and Vincent van Gogh’s 170th birthday, this idea has brought together 61 artists from 32 countries to honor the expressiveness of colors with contemporary imagery. The editor of this book has divided the artworks from around the world into chapters and added selected haiku poems, quotes, descriptive slogans, and photo illustrations. The result is a multifaceted homage from the imaginative perspective of modern artists.

The Gold of the Sun as a Symbol of Enlightened Beauty

Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh lived in an age, in which, due to the invention of photography, the production of images had reached an apex of representationalism, and artists had intentionally begun to focus on the stylistic potential of colors and their vivid appeal. Eugène Delacroix was among the first to experiment with the possibilities of color. The impressionists used the principle of optical mixtures in pure colors to create lightful atmospheric effects. This tendency coincided with a new interest in exotic art forms like Japanese woodblock prints, Egyptian frescoes, African sculptures, oriental carving, and Indian jewelry. Gauguin had first experienced the colorful luster of Peru and other distant cultures as a child and as a young sailor. And while his two years in Paris had also been productive, van Gogh, too, dreamed of a “studio down south”, and finally fled the monotonous colors of the north for La Provence.

Gauguin, too, felt plagued by the stark contrast between the barren landscapes of Brittany, and the intoxicating colors of the tropics. Even in La Provence he longed for exotic transformation. Like Vincent, he loved the music of colors, which he compared to that of Beethoven. The chaotic mess, however in which his nervously challenged and socially awkward friend lived, disgusted him. Vincent squeezed his colors onto the canvas unmixed, directly from the tube. Both painters knew how it felt to be lonely, dirt poor, and shunned by their loved ones and the rest of the world. Their stark personality differences eventually led to a breakdown. Art, however, remained a common denominator in their lives. They put it above everything else – it was their top priority, their divine calling.

The conflict between artists and society is reflected in the colors of their paintings, seeing as they preferred to paint the sky red or yellow rather than blue, how everybody else saw it. With their boldly exaggerated colors, orange rivers, and red dogs, they relentlessly fought their way to a position no one understood. It was the same energy that drove them towards rebellion, rage, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, long spells of sickness, depression, and escapism. But where could they go on their quest for paradise lost, for equality, brotherhood, beauty, truth, and eternity, the way they understood it? As grace and gift, their life’s work survives!

During their seemingly careless time in the south, ecstatic states of creativity alternated with spells of deep depression. Arles inspired Vincent to produce 190 oil paintings and 108 drawings in a single year. The sun, exotic fruits, and nature also abounded on Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Gauguin was thrilled and painted like a maniac. The work both artists produced during these times are hymns of color that sparkle like gems. They bear testimony to their great enthusiasm, deep love of life, and high ethical values. Doubtlessly, the two painters also experienced intense happiness in the landscapes of their dreams. Van Gogh went to Arles following Toulouse-Lautrec`s advice. He reveled in the local colors and painted at great speed, capturing the most luscious parts of southern beauty.

In the blazing sun of Arles, yellow became Vincent’s favorite color. The cornfields of St. Remy, too, resembled golden oceans. At the local sanatorium, sun flowers gave way to intensely colored irises, almond blossoms in front of blue backgrounds to cypresses and olive trees oscillating between blue and green hues. Vincent used all varieties of yellow. In the sunflower paintings and the still lives with quince and lemons, he even applied yellow to a yellow background. Even the inside of his yellow house appears sunny. In his nighttime paintings, on the other hand, he used the contrast between yellow and purple to make the stars sparkle like diamonds. His boats by the Mediterranean resemble flowers in shape and color. He also knew how to express the dark temptation of a night club in tones of blood red. Even in his portraits of Madame Roulin, Dr. Gachet, and the postman, colors exude music.

Van Gogh compared the brush to the bow of a violin, dancing across golden strings. And when Gauguin painted a virgin with a halo in “Ia Orana Maria”, just like Vincent, he saw hidden principles like harmony and contrast in the bright colors, that cast a unique spell and could not be expressed with any other medium. To both painters, the sun was a symbol of divine promise and liberation from worldly bonds. The latter was clearly visible in van Gogh’s early work “The Potato Eaters”. They experienced the summoning of colors to sublimate matter and harness the power of ungraspably brilliant light as an existential thrill, and painting as liberation.

The women in Gauguin’s South Sea paintings wear the sweet scent of geranium blossoms in their hair. They posed for him in pareos with bright flower designs and the unbelievable idleness of a distant, careless world. Gauguin tried hard to learn their language and get a feel for its colorful melody. He was curious about the myths and legends of the South Sea, in which the rainbow is born from divine sleep. Gauguin described the complex fragrance of colors and shapes in his book “Noa Noa”. In his mind, Tahiti’s capital Papeete was too European and decadent. Instead, he was drawn past the shores of the ocean with its coral reefs into the mountains, where he saw steaming waterfalls, mango trees, coconut palms, and peacocks. His unique synthesis of shape and color symbolically expresses his affectionate devotion, and translates feelings into visual statements. His paintings speak through the powerful musicality of suggestion.

Using ornamental simplification and boldly combining elements in unconventional ways, the artist composed mysterious harmonies from unique blends of color qualities. Typically, Gauguin used scales of red and pink, lavender and violet, purple and blue in sharp contrast with chrome green and sun yellow. The individual color values bring out the specific qualities of objects. Juxtaposing similar tones produces a rising scale and culminates in even more intense brilliance when met with contrasting hues. His exchange with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé also influenced Gauguin’s views about art. Mallarmé, on the other hand, admired Gauguin’s ability to express so much mystery in such bright colors (see quotes section in this book). As Vincent’s final crow paintings, Gauguin’s „Nevermore“ features a raven that, hoping to evoke a poetic echo from its observers, seems to pass a dark final sentence. In spite of the great lack of understanding they encountered during their lives, however, the higher essence of their art, the fascinating divine secret that lives in it, has made both color giants unforgettable to this day.

Strong Colors

Arrayed in stunning
Yellow, the feathers of the
Acanthus flower.

As the pink hue in
The clouds fades out, the morning
Bursts into pure gold.

Sunk deep into red
Cherry lips the cup of the
Hibiscus flower.

There in the feathers
Of the macaws a dazzling
Dream of ocean blue.

Sources: Please see the authors, poet and bibliography in the above link to the online book (imprint at the end of the book)!