News broke yesterday that a rare, early work by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in the town of Laren, south of Amsterdam, where it had been on loan from another Dutch museum for an exhibition. As I mentioned recently following a theft of Old Masters from a college gallery at Oxford, with so many museums closed for no one knows how long, sadly we can expect more of this sort of thing over the coming weeks and months, and Van Gogh has become a very popular artist in the world of art crime. With this painting in particular however, I was struck by the fact that the way we each choose to look at it can tell us a lot about how we choose to look at the circumstances in which all of us find ourselves in at present.
“The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” (1884) dates from the artist’s early period, before he moved to France. The darkness of this picture is at least partly reflective of the artist’s unhappiness during this part of his life; perhaps his most famous early work, the rather gloomy “The Potato Eaters” was painted just a year later. While stylistically one could be forgiven for thinking that the stolen picture and the humble peasants eating their meagre meal were by completely different artists, there’s perhaps more of a unifying aspect here, since the artist himself clearly could not find much comfort or beauty either indoors or out when he was creating these works.
The ruined church in the background of the stolen picture was the predecessor of the one that was being pastored by his father at the time Van Gogh painted this image. He had come back to live with his parents after failing elsewhere, and knowing this fact one can be tempted to read the painting by only using only that biographical information. For example, we could conclude that no doubt the artist’s situation made him feel trapped, like this dark figure in the walled garden full of dead or dormant plants and trees.
However if we were to just leave it at that, we would engage in what I suspect many of us are guilty of doing, in this season of plague and pestilence that has been visited upon mankind at present, and that is failing to keep our senses open to the possibility of hope, even if deliverance seems very far off.
Note that even though everything in this picture looks gloomy and foreboding, and that ruined old chapel looking like a bit like a witch’s hat doesn’t help, there’s actually a good reason to read it another way. Van Gogh is telling us that it’s springtime. Spring must not be confused with summer, of course: yes, we get sunshine and warmer temperatures and the return of birds, but we also get the unexpected snow squall, or days of gray skies, or horrible wind gusts that shake the shutters on the house all night so we can’t sleep. In this image we are not seeing the full-blown, tulips-bobbing-in-the-sun that we probably think of when we think of Holland in the spring.
Nevertheless, the obvious evidence of spring here is the fact that there are hints of green among the trees and shrubs, and along the grassy paths. The overcast sky is threatening, yes. At the same time, it’s also a harbinger of the coming of rain showers, which will help all of these emerging things to keep growing and eventually come into full leaf and flower.
With this mindset, we can look at the painting in a different way.
We could, for example, conclude that the artist is documenting a kind of confinement which he believes will eventually come to an end. In this interpretation, that walled garden with the closed door becomes not a prison, but a way for him to remain protected at home until it’s safe for him to go out again. (Sound familiar?) The figure in the center of the picture is standing on a clear path, albeit one with a sharp angle where it turns to run alongside the wall. When he takes it, it will lead him to that door in the wall, which will then prove to be his way out of this confinement.
You may certainly choose to disagree with this interpretation. However how you choose to look at this piece is part and parcel of the same decision-making that you engage in when communicating with others during this time, when we all feel as though we have been forced into a confined space against our will. We can and should acknowledge that everything is bloody awful right now, and it probably will be for a long while yet. And yet look: the sun is still up there, doing his job, lighting up those high clouds that we can see at the top of the painting.
Let’s hope that this work is recovered soon.