Expressionism -- Van Gogh's Starry Night Essay

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Expressionism -- Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Starry, starry night, paint your palette blue and grey,

Look out on a summer's day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.

Shadows on the hills, sketch the trees and the daffodils,

Catch the breeze and the winter chills, in colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity, How you tried to set them free,

They would not listen they did not know how

Perhaps they'll listen now (Don McLean, "Starry, Starry Night)

Iconic artist Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night -- a swirling sky that appears to have galaxies with blotches of stars and a snug little community (Saint-Remy) beneath featuring the tall steeple of a church -- from a scene he witnessed looking out his window in the Arles asylum. It is a wonderfully warm and wildly different painting. Some say the swirling theme is very similar in context to the "Whirlpool Galaxy" by Lord Rosse, about 44 years prior to the time Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" in 1888. But no one is saying it is plagiarism or copycat work because Van Gogh was singularly original and unique with his expressionistic style. This paper critiques Van Gogh, his wonderful painting "Starry Night," and the paper reports on expressionism from several points-of-view.

What is Expressionism?

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Randolph Schwabe believes that "Expressionism is not a good label" but since expressionism is the opposite of "Impressionism," it does serve a purpose. According to Schwabe, expressionism is really the "concentrated presentation of emotion" that is drawn based on the artist's consciousness (Schwabe, 1918, p. 140). The artist involved in expressionism is in actuality insisting on responding to his feelings about the world rather than trying to reproduce the "external world," (Schwabe, 140).

Essay on Expressionism -- Van Gogh's Starry Night Starry, Assignment

Schwabe praises the work of Hans von Marees, who passed away prior to Schwabe writing this essay, but "since his death has steadily won respect as a sort of John the Baptist of German art" (141). And even though it is possible his "compatriots" may tend to, in his permanent absence, "exaggerate his importance" and yet Schwabe believes that in the genre of expressionism von Marees has "produced work of true monumental value" (141).

The author explained how hopeful he was that expressionism didn't simply "…sink into a mere art movement" but rather he wished that it would emerge as "…the spiritual and religious existence of the new century" (141). That said, he admits that expressionism "provokes great differences of opinion" which any great art genre tends to do.

Hermann Bahr presents some very interesting and provocative ideas about expressionists and their motives. The expressionists "vituperate each other," Bahr explains (Bahr, 1992, 117). The word "vituperate" means to blame or to use harsh words against something, or to censure something. So Bahr is saying expressionists, while they may mock and criticize each other, all "turn away from Impressionism, even turn against it: hence I class all of them together under the name of Expressionists" (Bahr, 117).

Moreover, Bahr explains that while impressionism attempts to "stimulate reality," and while it strives for "illusion," the expressionists uniformly "agree in despising this procedure" (117). Critically attacking expressionism, Bahr asserts that the public may not be able to fully understand "…a single one of their pictures," and yet viewers can relate to the fact that the expressionists "do violence to the sensible world" (117). Everything that has been known about painting up to the point that Bahr was relating to (he lived from 1863 to 1934), "is now denied, and something is striven for which has never yet been attempted" (117).

Passing expressionism off as "but a gesture," Bahr quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote that "…the first and foremost duty of Art should be to beautify life…Thereupon she must conceal or transmute all ugliness…" (Bahr, 120). Nietzsche also said that some humans are "deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images; their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see 'forms'" (Nietzsche, 2000). Was Nietzsche alluding to painters, artists, creative people when he insisted that "Their senses nowhere lead to truth" but rather they are "…content to receive stimuli and, as it were, to engage in a groping game on the backs of things"? (54).

Harshly Nietzsche examines the idea of dreams, and insists that "…man permits himself to be deceived in his dreams every night of his life… [and moreover] what does man actually know about himself?" (53). Does nature "…not conceal most things from him… in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels…and the intricate quivering of the fibers!" (Nietzsche, 53).

Response to Nietzsche and Bahr

Actually if there was a chance to offer rebuttal to Nietzsche one could certainly point out that a creative giant like Van Gogh used his dreams -- and his madness -- to create a new way of looking at the surface of things. There is no deception associated with the work of a great painter Van Gogh. While his life was twisted into strange realities due to his mental challenges, the work that he produced was a lovely reflection of nature. Did Van Gogh know himself? Does it matter? Of course he received stimuli and the "Starry Night" painting is a direct result of the visual stimuli that Van Gogh received by looking out his window in the asylum.

As for Bahr's viewpoint, which was entitled to share with readers, he is way off the beaten track of fairness and genuine critique when he asserts that painters such as Van Gogh "do violence to the sensible world." And if expressionists despised one another, it matters not in the least to the young man who goes into an art store and buys a print of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and proceeds down the block to a company that sells frames. The young man has a professional framer place his print of "Starry Night" into a dark oak wood frame, and takes his purchase home to find an ideal place on the wall of his apartment. There it will hang, and all eyes entering the apartment will immediately be drawn to that print like hummingbirds to nectar in a lovely flower.

What did Van Gogh (and others today) reflect about his painting?

"At last I have a landscape with olive trees, and also a new study of a starry sky," Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, to whom he would send the painting (Hulsker, 1986). Van Gogh also informed his brother that he wasn't attempting to "…return to the romantic or to religious ideas, no" (Hulsker). He added that even if "it is exaggerated" it does become a picture because the "…lines are close and deliberate" and moreover he asserted: "In the Name of God, the mountains were blue, were they? They chuck on some blue and don't go telling me that it was a blue rather like this or that, it was blue, wasn't it?" (Hulsker).

It is certainly true that Van Gogh had a particular fascination with the cosmos. The swirling galaxy-type image in this painting is eerily similar to galaxies that the Hubble space telescope photographed in 2004. And though Van Gogh was mentally in a strange place, his vision and his ability to paint from his consciousness (as Schwabe explained). The narrative in the Van Gogh Gallery explains that Starry Night is "…one of the most well-known images in modern culture as well as being one of the most replicated and sought after prints" (Van Gogh Gallery).

Some of the main features of the painting relate in a way to Van Gogh's passion to help those people who were poor in that era; in fact the Van Gogh Gallery explains that Van Gogh actually tried to "evangelize" those in poverty, and hence, there are reflections in the painting of that desire on the artist's part, the Van Gogh Gallery asserts. There are eleven stars in the painting, and the Van Gogh Gallery believes it is possible that Van Gogh was alluding to a passage in the Book of Genesis, chapter 37 verse 9:

"And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me" (Van Gogh Gallery).

The way Van Gogh has the stars and clouds and the crescent moon placed, it tends to keep the viewer's eyes moving from point to point in the painting. It is a memorable painting, not just because it is Van Gogh's painting, but because it is so totally different, so unique and stark, even a bit frightening. The big swirl that seems to be moving into the sky scene has turbulence connected to it.

The tree in the foreground is a cypress tree, and unlike some cypress trees I am familiar with, it shoots straight… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Expressionism -- Van Gogh's Starry Night.  (2012, February 26).  Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

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"Expressionism -- Van Gogh's Starry Night."  26 February 2012.  Web.  11 May 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Expressionism -- Van Gogh's Starry Night."  February 26, 2012.  Accessed May 11, 2021.