Federico Zeri,
Van Gogh: Starry Night
(RCS Libri, 1998; NDE, 1999)

Not quite the average art books, the One Hundred Paintings series seeks to delve deeper into an artist's personality, inspiration and society. Each book in the series focuses primarily on one painting; the scope of the study broadens, though, to include other influential artists of the same era and highlights examples of their work as well. This edition's focus is Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

First is a brief synopsis of Van Goh's life during the time period in which he painted "Starry Night." Pertinant details are given, including where the painting is located now, where it was painted, a mention of the ear-slicing incident, Van Gogh's state of mind (very fragile), etc.

With these details in mind, move along to an analysis of the work. This is more than the normal artist-to-layman's explanation of a painting. This is an actual study of brushstrokes, painting technique, color and spatial relationships. One entire page is taken over by a close-up of just the moon, demonstrating the almost sculptural technique Van Gogh employed to explain the drama and depth of his subject. Having only seen prints of "Starry Night" in the past, I found myself returning to that page repeatedly, imagining an entire canvas of deeply etched whorls and swoops.

Other Van Gogh works are introduced, compared, picked apart. An image of a man, dominated by his passion, but also his desire for serenity, begins to emerge. Of course a person is more than the work he produces, but Van Gogh was so convincingly expressive that it is easy to assume he hid nothing. In the section titled "The Genius and the Artist," the mythology of his life is held up against documented evidence. Is it possible that Van Gogh was not insane, as commonly assumed? Perhaps instead he was epileptic, as his doctors of the time diagnosed him. His changing moods are also documented through his own self-perceptions, captured in a series of self-portraits. Very little explanation is needed -- and, thankfully, very little is provided -- with each full-page portrait making its own statement.

After this thorough analysis of painter and paintings, other artists of the time are now brought in for comparison. Though Van Gogh's style is unique and distinctive, his technique was in keeping with the trend of neo-impressionism beginning to emerge at the time. Following the science-minded culture, Van Gogh and his contemporaries began experimenting with color and luminosity, creating brilliant jewel-toned masterpieces. Comparisons between Van Gogh and Eduard Manet or Paul Gaugan are to be expected, but Edward Munch? Yet there is a similar use of color and light interplay.

"The Artistic Journey" is a collection in miniature of Van Gogh's complete works, with a paragraph of text per painting. "To Know More" is an interesting chapter containing blurbs from letters to his brother Theo, excerpts from an article about him and a few quotes. Usefully included is a section on where to see Van Gogh, listing the current location of the most major works.

The series was created by Federico Zeri, an art historian, critic and former vice president of the National Council for Cultural & Environmental Treasures.

This isn't a pretentious coffeetable art book, though it's appealing enough to just page through. As a single edition it makes an educational study of one artist; the collection as a whole is a useful and approachable art history resource.

[ by Katie Knapp ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002

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