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Analyzing Van Gogh’s OLIVE ORCHARDS: Consciousness, Perception, Visual Meaning - Understanding Art

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Video from Empire of the Mind

Analyzing Van Gogh’s OLIVE ORCHARDS

"Vincent Van Gogh was a troubled man. He embodied the tortured genius and the starving artist—selling only one painting in his entire life, living often at the expense of family who believed in his potential as an artist. He was always something of an outcast. “He was rather unsociable, which made him difficult to live with. People were often afraid of him, because of his wild and unkempt appearance and his intense manner of speaking. The way he looked and acted alienated people, which did not make life easy for him.” (Setbacks and Perseverance: An Artists’s Life by Leo Jansen, and Nienke Bakker in Vincent Van Gogh, Ever Yours: the Essential Letters) I doubt many people could remain completely sane in such a continuous state of failure and alienation. Van Gogh certainly could not. In 1889, he arrived at a breaking point, suffering a series of mental breakdowns in which he succumbed to hallucinations, spent days in complete confusion, unaware of what he was doing, and cut off his own ear. With nowhere else to turn, Van Gogh admitted himself to the psychiatric clinic in Saint-Remy, where he was to live for a year, during which time he continued to work, and produced some of his most famous works of art—like the starry night—as well as lesser known works of art such as this series of Olive Orchards. Much Like Starry Night, these paintings are alive. In one the trees are like flames of fire. There's an upward motion, that makes you feel as though you feet are being lifted off the ground in a hot air balloon. In another the low roar of a moving river or gust of wind tears through the branches. The motion here is different: it winds and weaves in and out of the trees as if there’s a river-like currant that makes us think for an instant that we are on the banks of a stream that is flowing away from us to the distant mountains. In a sense we are: we are on the banks of the stream of consciousness. Many paintings seem to capture the single frozen frame of a paused film. But when it comes to our real life experience, there is no pause button, no frozen instant. There is not even a single present moment. You can't pinpoint a single, monadic point in time that is the, quote, 'present.' The present is a transmomentary series, a plural of moments. It is a 'happening' thing, it is ongoing. We live, and think, and feel in a gray area somewhere between remembering what has just happened to us and expectation, imagining before our eyes what our futures hold. Van Gogh painted this world. Not the world of a single frame, paused in motion, but several frames at once. He paints the world as it exists in phenomenal experience; there is no clear line of demarcation between past, present, and future, nor is there a clear, convenient divide between perception & emotion, seeing & feeling. To see is to feel, and to feel is to see differently. I can’t help but seeing these paintings as deeply religious. There is something of the Garden of Gethsemane in them, the garden on the mount of olives, the garden of suffering, where drops of blood are sweated out in prayer, feeding the roots of the Olive Trees, the symbol of peace, prosperity, feasting, and anointing. When Jesus died hanging from crossed boards, the sky, we are told, grew dark and the earth quaked—when he prayed among the Olive Trees of Gethsemane, one would think the way of things warped not unlike this. In actual fact, Van Gogh was engaged in discussions of the Gethsemane theme with fellow painter Paul Gaugin when he painted these Olive Orchards. The latter had painted an explicit scene of Christ in the garden in 1889, and Van Gogh responded with his own Olive Orchards that same year. But Christ is nowhere to be found in Van Gogh’s paintings. Van Gogh explained that there was no need for a Christ figure. “One can express anguish without making reference to the actual Gethsemane, and... there is no need to portray figures from the Sermon on the Mount in order to express a gentle and comforting feeling." “I shall not paint a Christ in the Garden of Olives, but shall paint the olive harvest as one might see it today, and by giving the human figure its proper place in it, one might perhaps be reminded of it." Van Gogh’s belief on things is often hard to pin down—over the course of his life he played the part of both the fervent religious devotee, and the disillusioned skeptic—but it’s hard to deny that there is a spiritual quality flowing through these paintings, the murmuring song of the Chinese Dao which flows like a river but is unnamed and unamenable. The last great mystery beneath all things." transcript

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