Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s best known paintings. It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This piece exudes psychological meanings and I would like to focus on several details and make some conclusions about “the bigger picture.”
In many ways, this piece is all about contrasts. Dark blue and black hues oppose the bright whites and the yellows in the sky. The sharp needle-like tops of the cypress tree almost pierce the round halos around the stars. Interestingly, the whites and yellows of the stars resemble chicken egg contents (which in particular cooking styles must be kept unmixed and intact when pan fried) — a far fetched interpretation, but it brings home the idea of fragility. Several Van Gogh biographies and dedicated monographs imply fragility to be one of the artist’s personality traits. Some details from the painting:
To expand on the ovum allegory, it is possible to draw a parallel between the artist’s emotional state and a delicate egg: he is being poked and menaced by the cypress — dark, enclosing force representing a threat (or several threats) — until the shell breaks. When that happens, the artist’s soul becomes completely stripped, vulnerable to the extreme, and whithers. Eventually Van Gogh went mad; the view we are seeing is one from his mental asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France.
There is another striking contrast: the enormity of the stars vs. the seemingly Lilliputian buildings of the town. What was the city for such a man as Vincent Van Gogh? The depiction on the piece leads one to assume it was an afterthought, perhaps a bundle of mundane problems, however unavoidable — which he preferred to ignore, and never really learned to cope with.
It makes sense that these houses appear so small — for the artist, they indeed were small. What was big for him — the universal questions about life, death and God, and how they all relate to each other — was depicted in appropriate cosmic proportions; the stars and how they came to be often allude to these questions. The artist expressed his world view on this canvas, making it a brooding, philosophical work of art.
Yet another contrast is that of nature and the city, of the untamed and the civilized. It is well demonstrated by the opposition of the tree in the foreground to the church on the outskirts of the town. This contrast may also be seen as the manifestation of the artist’s personal conflict with the religious institution, ensuing from his personal experience. After all, he failed as a clergyman, largely due to his rebellious and uncompromising character.
Van Gogh brings forward elemental ecstasy as an alternative to the stiffness of established clergy; unbridled sentiment expressed in art vs. prettified channeling through the fixed text of a prayer — this painting may be seen both as a personal prayer and a defiance. The composition is inherently unbalanced, and very dynamic; appropriately, it spirals the painting to psychological heights or depths. If it is true that van Gogh engendered expressionism, this piece of his may be considered as one of the springboards for this art movement.