Vincent Van Gogh and the Four Seasons

Today I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria called Van Gogh and the four seasons. Tickets were moderately priced, the queue took over an hour, the audio guide was useless and it was incredibly crowded. Despite it all it has been the best experience I’ve ever had in an art gallery.

I met a girl in the queue who I thought was Portuguese but she was from Geelong. I saw her eyes light up looking at me but together I just felt we were jaded. We parted ways. A man cut in right near the front of the line but did it so smoothly I must not have felt to say anything. I regret that.

I was shocked that the paintings were just there, unprotected. I’m very grateful for that fact though. It felt intimate. They did seem utterly sublime. Well preserved too. I thought they were brooding but that was just the winter section. They all have a certain headiness to them though, despite being quite tame by today’s standards. Subtlety. Van Gogh’s soul. It takes a heady individual to take Impressionism and leap forward into something else, stroke by stroke.

Despite the crowded vibe the exhibition just got better and better. I looked at every painting. Slower than average but not super slow. It seemed the energy in the crowd improved with every successive painting. Never thought I’d see the day. True progress and the mandate of the arts. Everyone witnessing the same sublimity. Many trying to describe it properly. It’s a funny thing like that, visual art, the way it doesn’t cohere well with language in our soul. Or maybe it does for some people I don’t know.

It was too crowded for me to deeply understand the four seasons theme beyond a mere grouping of the paintings. Nor was I able to grasp the apparent Japanese influence. That’s ok. I’m glad someone tried to put it in a meaningful context. However the artist’s life was much darker than “and the four seasons” suggests.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), like most great Europeans of the past was born into an upper middle class family. With severe mental health issues, he only started painting in 1881, at the age of 28. In the next decade or so he would produce a remarkable 2,100 works. Averaging one work between every one and two days. An archetypal study in Mastery.

He was closest with his younger brother, Theo. As someone with a younger brother, I feel a lot of empathy for the man. It makes me feel what his family life was like.

He was bedevilled by depression and psychotic episodes. Despite this he ate poorly and drank excessively. This no doubt contributed to him infamously severing his own ear. His work was rather unappreciated during his lifetime and he lived in poverty. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol at age 37; dying two days later in his brother’s arms. He epitomises the tortured but genius artist.

He is said to be of the post-impressionist movement. His work is characterised by bold colours and expressive brushwork. He began to be appreciated after his death, as his work profoundly influenced the modern movement. This list has him ranked as the second greatest painter of all time.

Quality Is Always a Result of Intelligent Effort 

“Quality is never the result of an accident; it always the result of intelligent effort”

– John Ruskin

I have an app called DailyQuote which gives you a motivational quote every day. Although I’ve grown disillusioned with the value of such quotes, I do believe they are a good writing prompt. This above quote by John Ruskin is today’s quote.
I like John Ruskin, especially his work “On art and life”. He delves into the hidden meaning of things such as gothic architecture and rust. It made a real sensual impact on me. I can still feel what gothic church spires are all about and the inner life that they sprung from.
Most quotes weren’t originally meant to be quotes. Rather, they came as just one part of a literary work or a speech. They were simply one idea or sentiment among many and often thus were intended to rest on the preceding development. I often find that these quotes are woefully divorced from their original context and meaning. They are presented as a general truth or advice that stands alone, and thus they become like a second meaning unintended by the author. I doubt many authors would mind being quoted, though.
Take Winston Churchill’s famous words: “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. This is often found completely divorced from the context they were said and is taken instead for a general truth or wisdom. An epigram. What he was trying to do was inspire his people to beat the Nazis. He wasn’t trying to give advice to people who are going through a tough time generally.
To truly understand the quote by John Ruskin we have to know where it came from and I feel stupid for having come this far without being able to tell you.
“Quality is never the result of an accident”. Let’s unpack this. Firstly, what is quality? Is it really true that quality is never the result of an accident? The dictionary says that quality is the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind, its degree of excellence. So the quote means that something that’s better than others of its kind never came by accident? The only exceptions I can seem to think of are genetics and the domain of love and relationships.
Arguably there is an intelligent effort involved in genetics by the parents. On some level we’re all trying to apply intelligent effort to make ourselves more appropriate to a partner but sometimes love seems to preempt or even spurn intelligent effort to obtain it, preferring to emerge by accident. Does quality apply to love, though? Is some love better than other similar loves? Comparing like this doesn’t seem to sit right; I believe that intensity is a better means of considering love than quality since it is a subjective feeling. However, I believe the concept of quality would aptly apply to long term relationships. For example, some marriages are better than others. And marriages do indeed seem to require intelligent effort to improve so Ruskin’s quote holds water thus far.
Is quality always the result of intelligent effort though? Well, intuition is a form of unconscious intelligence, so if you’re thinking about the artist that seems to do so very naturally and effortlessly let me stop you right there. Learning any art form most certainly requires effort in some degree.
It seems to me that quality isn’t about inventing something, but rather making an existing thing better. If you set out to make something specific that has already been invented you know what you’re making. You must learn from people before you. I don’t believe the genius exists that can truly make something better than seasoned professionals at the drop of a hat, without the intelligent effort of learning the art form. We simply need to learn from those who have made progress before us and that takes time and energy. Maybe among children but what child can produce something better than a professional adult without intelligent effort?
On the other hand creating something entirely new may be done seemingly without any effort; simply by having the idea come to you.
I can conclude that Ruskin was indeed stating a universal truth. A basic fact about quality. This is useful because we can assume that if we want to improve the quality of something be it good, service or organisation: we know that intelligent effort is required. Given that other people also will be applying intelligent effort and quality is a relative term, we can also conclude that barring exceptional talent we must generally apply more intelligent effort than others if we wish to produce a higher quality.

There’s a book called “Talent is overrated” by Geoff Colvin. His thesis is that something called “deliberate practice” is what determines the winners in their respective fields from the also-rans. I’m struck by the similarity between Ruskin’s idea of intelligent effort and Colvin’s idea of deliberate practice. In essence, they both mean to work but work smart.

The Philosophers’ Zone: The Artist and the Philsopher

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In the decades leading up to the first world war, Vienna was a vibrant and daring place. There were many artists and thinkers challenging the status quo.

The artist Gustav Klimt and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, both famous, were actually contemporaries. They came from very different backgrounds though. Gustav came from a rather impoverished background and entered trade school. He painted portraits of society people to earn money while he was studying. Wittgenstein on the other hand came from an elite background and lived an idyllic lifestyle in various places in Europe.

Gustav’s portrait pictured above is actually of Ludwig’s sister: Gretel Wittgenstein. And it happens to be an interesting study in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ides. Ludwig published two works: Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations.

Tractatus established a “picture theory of meaning”. There’s not much meaning in objects, rather it’s in the relationships between things that meaning arises. You can call a rose anything and it will still smell the same. There’s no good or bad, only relationships. For example a knife is good if you’re tied to train tracks, but it’s bad if it’s in the hand of an attacker. People are not objects though, they’re subjects with a set of meanings.

From the perspective of the Tractatus, the painting made a statement in the juxtaposition of the woman, her intellectual upbringing and her involvement in high society. The abstraction represents the intellectual climate of the Wittgensteins. Interestingly this was one of the first examples of abstraction in art. The dress and the look on her face represents her attraction to society and there is a tension there as well indicated by the hands which are not pictured.

In Philosophical Investigations, he rejects a lot of what he said in Tractatus. He posits that “picturing” is merely one aspect of language among many. To name a few others we can use language to berate someone or communicate with them. Essentially with this work he puts “picturing” in a greater context, as merely one possible use of language among many.

An interesting analogy was made to examine language’s role in determining meaning in our lives. Consider the cases of Kaspar Hauser and Robinson Crusoe. Kaspar was locked in a dark, isolated place from birth and never learned a language. Robinson Crusoe was a literary character who was trapped on an island alone, after he had learned the language. When asked what it was like, Kaspar replied that it wasn’t like anything: things simply had no meaning before he picked up a language. Crusoe on the other hand would have many experiences meaningful to most other people. Our privately meaningful moments are actually meaningful through language and are thus much more public than we think.

The painting seen from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s Philsophical Investigations takes a different, more modern view. It would see that the painting has many different meanings, depending upon who is asking. To name a few different ways it could have meaning: as being the dawn of abstract art, juxtaposition, a cultural artefact, milieu of the time, economic, sentimental, scientific, biographical.

To me it seems that the latter way is much closer to the truth. Perhaps that’s just because it’s become highly successful and accepted as common sense by now though.  The first is an interesting model but is indeed far too narrow.  Is it to him that we owe the knowledge that things can have many meanings? It is a wonder how nuanced our worldview has become compared to earlier times.

This podcast gave a nice vivid picture of early 20th century Austria and three interesting figures from that time as well. I can feel the imaginative images, the emotions, the dawning of newfound wisdom attached to all of this. It has indeed had an impression on me. Also it’s particularly interesting to learn about the dawn of abstraction, the interesting juxtaposition of the painting and a root from which common sense as I know it has grown out of.