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At the end of last week, I managed to view the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art three times: Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon. In other words, I decided to put my membership to MoMA to good use and take advantage of the Member Preview Days in order to avoid the inevitable crowds that will descend upon the museum once the exhibition opens to non-MoMA-Members. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I started drafting this entry that I realized there was a certain poetic coincidence in having the exhibit open on the First Day of Fall, or at least Fall Eve. Van Gogh’s brush strokes in various shades of yellow, brown and red, reflecting and complementing Mother Nature’s own autumnal palette change starting to take place a few blocks north in Central Park.
The exhibit, itself, is quite small in comparison to the usual retrospectives and blockbuster shows. However, it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish with a relative handful of canvases (just under 30 paintings), and a couple of drawings and lithographs. Although there were many masterpieces hanging on the walls of the galleries, I found myself drawn to the contents of some of the vitrines, the display cases in each room of the exhibition. And, so, on this First Day of Autumn, I would like to present the following “excerpts” from the current exhibit.
The first is an actual excerpt from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, which is on display in the first room of the exhibit. Like the early works that surround it, the contents of this letter already begin to hint at Van Gogh’s later, trademark style.
The second excerpt is from the last room of the exhibit. Nothing hangs on the walls in this room, instead, contained in two vitrines (I just really like that word right now) are various books, both poetry and prose (in French, German and English), that were a source of inspiration for Van Gogh. While some of the books on display are “merely” original editions from various libraries and collections, some of them are the actual copies that belonged to Theo — which, more than likely, were given to him by his brother. When Van Gogh would come across a passage or a poem that piqued his interest, he would copy them into his journals, as well as in letters to his family, friends and colleagues. This particular poem happened to pique my interest too.
November 2, 1883
. . .
When dusk fell — imagine the silence, the peace of that moment! Imagine, right then, an avenue of tall poplars with the autumn leaves, imagine a broad muddy road, all black mud with the endless heath on the right, the endless heath on the left, a few black, triangular silhouettes of sod huts, with the red glow of the fire shining through the tiny windows, with a few pools of dirty, yellowish water that reflect the sky, where bogwood trunks lie rotting… The day was over, and from dawn to dusk, or rather from one night to the other night, I had forgotten myself in that symphony.
. . .
Pensée d’Automne (Reflections on Autumn)
Jardin du Luxembourg, November
. . .
Before the end of the day there is a time
When the sun, a weary pilgrim nearing home,
Turns around and looks back
And despite the toils of the day, is sorry it is evening.
Under its long gaze, mixed with a tear,
Muddled nature takes on a new charm
And pauses a moment, as in a goodbye.
The surrounding horizon turns fire red;
The quivering flower receives the dew;
The butterfly flies back to the rose it kissed,
And the bird in the wood sings in bright birdsong,
“Isn’t it morning? Isn’t that the East?”
Oh! If for us too, in this human life,
There were an evening hour, one moment that reignites
The loves of morning and their fickle flight,
And the fresh dew, the golden clouds;
Oh! if the heart, returned to thoughts of youth
(as if hoping — alas! — that it could be reborn),
Could stop, rise up, before faltering,
And give itself over, for a single day, to dreaming without growing old.
Let us take pleasure in the sweet day;
And let us not disturb this fortunate hour.
For the fields, winter is but a good short sleep;
Each morning the sky brings sun.
But who knows if the grave will have its spring,
And if the night will be relit for us by the dawn?
-Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)
Translation by Jeanine Hermann and TransPerfect Translations