Everything but the Ear

The Stems of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

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August 1887, a new species of sunflower was born. The world had never seen anything like these plants. They burst into bloom all at once, sufficient unto themselves. Cut from their stems — as if they’d never had a garden. As if they’d fallen straight out of the deep dark sky, onto an inscrutable, hasty surface, orange and blue solely for their benefit. Where had they come from? Shifting enigmas, half delight, half despair — full power. In one inexplicable instant, four moments: the past tumbled out of the darkness, its face already turned away; two steady disks, unblinking; a third one, closing fast.

They had bloomed for a nobody named Vincent. He’d been coaxing pigments into bloom for the past five years — with mixed effect. To date, he had painted: a series of dark, nearly monochromatic, portraits of peasants; some copies of Japanese prints, stripped of the light grace of the originals; run-of-the-mill impressionist landscapes.

The sunflowers were premature blooms. The rest of the crop sprouted a year later, when Vincent moved to Arles to make masterpiece after masterpiece. By then, he had two years left to live. Two sunflowers.

Where had they come from? The two years which never looked back, when each painting bloomed in its own shade of gold: the years of sunflowers, wheat fields, starry nights?

The easy answer — inspiration, insanity — is no answer at all. The real answer, I think, is much more prosaic: hard work. Van Gogh’s October 1885 letter to his brother Theo ends with what might as well be his manifesto.

LET’S PAINT A VERY GREAT DEAL. That’s the message if we want to succeed, work a lot precisely because it’s slack — then one day, rather than finding all ports closed to us — we may be able to lash a broom to the mast.

Work and all those other things: impressionism, Japanese prints, the light at Arles. During the last two years of his life, van Gogh synthesized every scrap of influence he’d gathered before. It was more than enough.

It’s true that van Gogh’s best work coincided with a period of mental instability unlike anything in his prior years. It’s true that the power of some of his works derives from the expression of terrible pain. It’s true that this pain is something van Gogh self-consciously set out to express. Writing (most probably) of the Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds and Wheatfield with Crows,¹ he said:

I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness.

But the letter continues:

I’d almost believe that these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.

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“What I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside:” Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds and Wheatfield with Crows.

Painting from nature was van Gogh’s antidepressant. And, for the most part, his paintings were not so much anguished as perfect. For the most part, they were a joyful celebration of color, natural beauty, and human psychology in all its forms. For the most part, van Gogh was just a hard-working painter who squeezed everything he could — from Rembrandt to a pair of old shoes, from Hiroshige to suffering — onto his perfect canvases.

Maybe Vincent’s mental illness (if that’s what it was) played a role in his art. Maybe not. Either way, so many other factors contributed to his unique style.

This is a post about these other things. About the events which transformed Vincent from a 27-year-old nobody to a 32-year-old painter of overly dark, old-fashioned portraits, to a 35-year-old genius. About everything but the cut-off ear.

The Time of Ashes

It’s easy to imagine that great artists are born with a mark to set them off from the rest of us, with an unwavering attraction to the one thing for which they were put on this earth. This was emphatically not the case for van Gogh. He was 27 when he decided to take up painting, 29 when he first started using oil paints; 34 when he created his first masterpieces.

Before Vincent was a painter, he was a (mostly) unsuccessful art dealer, a failed theology student and equally failed missionary, and an unemployed grown man living with his parents, spending his time reading Shakespeare and Dickens.

In 1880 — at the age of 27 — van Gogh leaves his family home after an altercation with his parents. He is completely adrift. And then, in June, he writes the most extraordinary letter.

He’s been more or less unemployed for the past five years, but he pleads his case to Theo with a fire of emotion: he isn’t lazy.

Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it!

At this vertiginous moment, he’s only exchanged his question marks for exclamation points — not for answers. He’s made up his mind to act, and act big—without knowing what the action might be. But what he does know — before he knows of brushstrokes and sunflowers — is that he will, he must work hard.

But on the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless [sic] it becomes firm.

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Sower at Sunset, 1888.

Vincent instinctively reaches for a painterly metaphor — but at this stage, it’s only a metaphor. He doesn’t yet know that it is precisely making sketches into paintings that will be his business for the next ten years. He speaks vaguely but passionately of literature, of medicine, of all the things he would like to learn. He might still become Vincent van Gogh the novelist — or even Doctor van Gogh.

What does the flame know of its future phoenix? Nothing but a burning, shapeless passion.

There are no letters for the next two months. It is the time of ashes.

The next letter is a matter-of-fact request for engravings to copy. Vincent is becoming an artist.

What happened in between? Theo had certainly played a role in Vincent’s decision to pursue painting. He reproaches his brother for forgetting the love of paintings he had cultivated as an art dealer and instead spending his time reading novels. Vincent tries to explain that he finds a spark of the same thing in Shakespeare as he finds in Rembrandt — but Theo doesn’t seem convinced.

It’s hard to overestimate the role van Gogh’s relationship with his brother played in his life. When he says “let’s paint a very great deal. That’s the message if we want to succeed,” he’s saying it right. The brothers are a team. There simply would have been no Vincent without Theo. (To an extent, this cuts both ways: while Vincent was nominally unemployed for the last ten years of his life, he was continually involved in the decisions his brother made in his art-dealing business. The brothers often use the first-person plural when speaking of art-dealing.) Vincent was touchingly aware of his debt to his brother:

I regard myself as privileged above a thousand others in that you remove so many barriers in my way.

I have to try twice as hard to make up for lost time because I began later than others, and with the best will in the world I would have to give up if I didn’t have you.

This is true on a financial level — for most of his artistic career, van Gogh was entirely dependent on the allowance his brother sent him. It’s also true on a psychological level: Vincent has a deep need to recount his projects, dreams, successes and failures to his brother. And, especially, he has a deep need for his brother’s faith in his artistic ability — which is miraculously strong for the many years during which van Gogh’s artworks are almost entirely unremarkable. And it’s true on an artistic level: Theo is the first to suggest that Vincent start using the more colorful palette for which he now seems to have been predestined.²

However exactly it came about — whether the initial idea was Theo’s or his brother’s — by the end of August 1880, Vincent is determined to become a painter. He makes the decision not because of innate talent, not even through a love of painting above all else — but through sheer grit… and because he was too unlucky and idealistic to remain an art dealer.

Following tradition and frugality, Vincent spent the next two years creating sketches and watercolors and abstaining from the more expensive medium of oil paint. But when he finally invested in a set of oil paints — well, it was pure magic.

My dear Theo,

You must excuse me for writing again — it’s to tell you that I take so much pleasure in painting. Last Saturday evening I tackled something I’ve already dreamed of often.

I literally couldn’t hold myself back — I couldn’t leave it alone or take a break from it.

What if we remembered Vincent like this? Not with a razor to his ear, but simply overcome by the joy of painting?

At 27, van Gogh made a leap of faith towards hard work. At 29, he found boundless delight waiting for him on the other side. This delight — the joy, the love of painting — is manifested throughout his letters and his paintings. It never left him for long.

Creation is never just one leap. The next chasm Vincent was to cross lay between dark and colorful paintings.

From Darkness to Light

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Van Gogh’s peasant portraits in the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Van Gogh would have liked the Kröller-Müller Museum. Located in the middle of the Netherlands’ Hoge Veluwe National Park — a paradise of windswept heather and dappled forests — the gallery forms a temple to art in the middle of nature. Glass walls let natural light. On the day of my visit, the glow rivaled that of Arles. In the middle of all this — van Gogh.

The Four Sunflowers are the first thing you see as you enter the collection, which takes up three rooms. You enter through the middle, into a small area with works spanning the whole decade of van Gogh’s painterly activity. To your right as you face the sunflowers is the past; the future — to the left.

Stepping inside the right-hand room is like walking to the other side of the mirror. The paintings are everything that the mature van Gogh isn’t. By which I mean — they’re not colorful.

One wall is lined with small, dark portraits — studies for his famous Potato Eaters. There’s more Rothko in them than van Gogh — Rothko shrunk down and stripped of soul. The portraits are clumsy, grotesque, and relentlessly, unflinchngly dark — literally and metaphorically.

(An important caveat: I don’t know for sure how dark the paintings were when van Gogh created them. He often used cheap, short-lived pigments,³ and it’s possible that this has darkened the portraits over time. Even so, they were certainly much, much darker than the work he would soon be producing.)

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the early portraits are less than 100% worthless. There is, it turns out, plenty of van Gogh in them — though at the time they were made, not even van Gogh himself knew what that meant. The brushstrokes are heavy and prominent. There is a keen interest in human suffering, psychology, the life of the poor. (I don’t know whether to call this “compassion” or “brutality.”)

Paradoxically, even the dark palette springs from the very same sources as the brightest hues of van Gogh’s late works. He was fascinated with light — not the light of the academic painters, carefully filtered through a north-facing studio window. Not the light you control and conquer for the sake of subtle form — but the light you learn and love for its own sake. (As this fascinating article on the relationship between art and the development of electric lighting points out, evening interiors in van Gogh’s time really were as dark as he represents them.) A painting of a dark room by lamplight is about light in a way in which a painting set at noon in a studio can’t be. Indeed, van Gogh said as much in an 1885 letter to Theo, complaining about his Dutch contemporaries:

In many cases, what they call brightness is an ugly studio tone in a cheerless city studio. It seems people don’t look at the half-light in the early morning or in the evening, it seems nothing exists other than midday from 11–3 — truly a very respectable hour! — but — often as characterless as Jan Salie.

Three years later, van Gogh had moved to Arles to pursue bright sunlight. He no longer saw midday as characterless. Speaking of his portrait of the peasant Patience Escalier, he remarks that

the colour suggests the scorched air of harvest time at midday in the blistering heat, and without that it’s a different painting. (…) Oh, the beautiful sun down here in high summer; it beats down on your head and I have no doubt at all that it drives you crazy. Now being that way already, all I do is enjoy it. (Letter to the painter Emile Bernard, August 1888).

Van Gogh changed his mind about the midday sun — but what didn’t change was precisely his commitment to the pursuit of character, of striking effects of the light. The impulse which pushed him to place his Potato Eaters in a dark room is the same impulse which pushed him into the direct sunlight of Arles. Indeed, van Gogh explicitly said that the portrait of Patience Escalier

is absolutely a continuation of certain studies of heads done in Holland.

Absolutely. Van Gogh’s technical dexterity may have increased between 1885 and 1888, his attitude towards noontime may have changed — but he was still depicting exactly the same long-suffering soul.

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“Absolutely a continuation:” Head of a Peasant Woman (May 1885) and Portrait of Patience Escalier (August 1888).

It’s not just portraits which continue the investigations begun with the studies for the Potato Eaters. Around the same time as he extolled the noonday sun to Bernard, he wrote

But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, it’s just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in ‘En ménage’ by J. K. Huysmans: the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendours.

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When he did (thank goodness!) go beyond smoking a pipe in his bed, he created masterpieces which continued the project begun in his 1885 peasant portraits in more than one way. Not only were The Starry Night and the lesser-known Starry Night Over the Rhone superb studies of the night, they also expressed a spiritual element that had long preoccupied him. For van Gogh, the night was inextricably linked with divinity. In a letter to Theo describing Starry Night Over the Rhone, he admits to

a tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion — so I go outside at night to paint the stars.

Van Gogh had broken with organized religion in by 1880, but just a year earlier he had tried to become a preacher. In 1879, he worked as a missionary in a coal-mining town in Belgium. He was deeply moved by the poverty of his congregation. He gave up his lodgings to a homeless man and opted to sleep on straw himself — which caused church officials to dismiss him from the position for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”

Van Gogh saw a spark of something sacred in the eyes of the poor members of his congregation — the same spark he later glimpsed in the starry skies of Arles. It’s hard not to think of Kant’s famous proclamation:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

From Darkness to Color

It’s fascinating to read the future back into van Gogh’s dark portraits like this, to see the common sensibility underlying pairs of paintings which, at first glance, couldn’t seem more different from each other. It turns out that van Gogh’s masterpieces sprung from many of the same sources as his juvenile work: a love of light in all its forms (including the light of nighttime), a feeling for human psychology (especially the psychology of the downtrodden) and a pursuit of the spiritual.

But it’s even more fascinating to see van Gogh’s early dark paintings as they must have seemed at the time of their creation — which is to say, unremarkable. Take away the portrait of Patience Escalier, and the 1885 Head of a Peasant Woman is just the clumsy and and needlessly dark effort of a beginner 32-year-old.

Like most walls, the wall of dark portraits in the Kröller-Müller Museum is opaque. On the other, invisible, side lies a masterful explosion of colors. I imagine van Gogh chipping away at the wall, trying to break through to the other side. How did he know which part might give way? There was no certainty, no inevitability.

Of all the things missing from van Gogh’s early peasant portraits, color is the most striking. After all, the later brightening of his palette isn’t just a cosmetic improvement — color is the heart and soul of van Gogh’s mature art.

By the time van Gogh arrived in Arles, he was committed to the pursuit of color:

It’s not possible to do both values and colour. (…) You can’t be at the pole and the equator at the same time. You have to choose. And I have high hopes of doing that, too, and it will probably be colour.

How did he get here? Sometime between 1885 and 1888, van Gogh’s work turned colorful. When and why?

Here’s the standard answer. Van Gogh became acquainted with impressionism when he moved to Paris in 1886 — and the following year his own work turned colorful in response.

If you want a one-sentence answer, this will do. Van Gogh’s introduction to impressionist art in Paris was certainly the drop that spilled the cup of color. But that’s not the whole story. A host of earlier factors conspired to make him receptive to impressionist influence.

In fact, in a strange way van Gogh’s dark paintings were already colorful.

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A matter of mixing: Basket of Apples (1885) and Apples (1887).

In a letter dating from October 1885, van Gogh describes the color theory behind his Basket of Apples. The palette is based around the complementary colors of red and green. According to Vincent, some of the apples are red, others are green, and others are a “particular pink” gotten by mixing red and green. (The pink is so “particular” that it might be more natural to call it by a different name, like “brown.”)

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Mood through color: Rubens’s Descent from the Cross.

Vincent read Delacroix’s writings on color theory in 1884 — that is, before his peasant heads. His paintings may look like ones executed with a monochromatic brown palette, but his blacks, greys, and browns are often mixes of complementary colors. The mature van Gogh instinctively reaches for pairs of complementaries (like the orange and blue in the portrait of Patience Escalier) — but so does the van Gogh of 1885. The only difference was that in 1885 van Gogh was mixing complementary colors into the same areas of a painting, whereas by 1888 he was placing them onto the canvas unmixed. His 1885 technique was really only a step away from the one of 1888. Of course, the real feat was knowing in which direction to take that step — and impressionism and pointillism were indispensable compasses here.

All the same, the three months before van Gogh’s move to Paris, which he spent in Antwerp, were equally pivotal in his development as a colorist. It was here that he fell in love with Rubens. He tells Theo that he adores Rubens’s The Descent from the Cross

because it is precisely he, Rubens, who seeks to express a mood of gaiety, of serenity, of sorrow, and actually achieves it, through the combination of colours.

Van Gogh’s mature use of color had as much to do with this ideal of emotional expression as with the impressionist desire to capture light effects.⁴ Van Gogh was also deeply indebted to the uniform color planes of Japanese prints. He began collecting such prints in Antwerp, before his encounters with impressionism.

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The greys of the Hague School: “A Dutch Road” by Van Gogh’s mentor Anton Mauve.

But if van Gogh was already reading about color theory in 1884, if he was so susceptible to the exuberant glow of Rubens’s paintings and Japanese prints, why did it take him so long to start using intense colors? His association with the Hague School of landscape painting, (in)famous for its love of grey, was certainly a key factor. But a different, equally important factor is often overlooked: money.

Intense pigments are expensive. Van Gogh may have simply been too frugal to use them until the end of 1885. In August 1882, he describes what I believe to be his first oil palette.

You will understand that I’ve limited myself to simple colours in both watercolour and oil (…) I believe this is a practical palette, with sound colours. Ultramarine, carmine or something else are added if absolutely necessary.

In December 1885, he finally understood that these colors were absolutely necessary for him.

Cobalt — is a divine colour, and there’s nothing so fine as that for putting space around things. Carmine is the red of wine, and it’s warm, spirited as wine.

So too is emerald green. It’s false economy to do without them, those colours.

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The scarlet bow in this painting marks the beginning of van Gogh’s commitment to color. (December 1885)

Economical considerations may have been the factor which initially pushed van Gogh away from bright pigments — but they were also partly responsible for his ultimate embrace of color. He justifies his move to colorful, sunny Arles to his sister Willemien like this:

nowadays people are demanding colour contrasts and highly intense and variegated colours in paintings rather than a subdued grey colour. So I thought for one reason and another that I wouldn’t do anyone any harm if I just went to what attracted me.

Was it all about fashion and profit, then? I don’t think so — but neither was it all about innate sensibility. Van Gogh was naturally attracted to color — but he probably wouldn’t have let himself pursue it if it hadn’t also lain on the path to (expected) profit.

Where had the sunflowers come from? The abstract background and striking composition — from Japanese prints. The color — from Rubens, Japanese prints again, impressionism, fashion, and Vincent’s own inclination. The emotion was Vincent’s own. He had won the power to express it through years of hard work.

In the end, we can explain van Gogh’s masterpieces in the same way, and to the same degree, as anyone else’s. Masterpieces never come out of nowhere. They are always preceded by concentrated effort and they always tie together multiple strands of influence. And yet they are also always as unique and unpredictable as the people who make them. They make sense in hindsight — but only in hindsight.

After the Ear

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I didn’t expect the Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear to move me. Yet here I was, teary-eyed in its presence.

Vincent’s face is inscrutable; painfully blank. It’s like he’s used up every feeling just to drag himself in front of the canvas and now he’s all out. He’s wedged between a Japanese print—the inspiration of the past — and a blank canvas — the question mark of the future. Three white corners: the Mount Fuji of the print; the bandage over the ear; the canvas.⁵

It was this blank canvas which squeezed tears out of me. A white corner adjacent to the white corner of bandage, it’s asking: what paintings will come of this? How will the tradition of the past combine with the tragedy of the present into the treasure of the future?

It’s not just a question; it’s a resolution and a promise. There will be more paintings. No matter what, Vincent will drag himself back here, to the canvas. He will keep acting out his hope until it comes back.

I like to think that the blank canvas stands not only for the paintings of the future, but for the Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear itself. When van Gogh put the final touches on this masterpiece, it wasn’t finished yet. It was a portrait of a man with a blank face, a face which might have come to express so many things. What if his brush had turned out too heavy — what if this had been his last painting? The ambiguous expression would have solidified into despair. But it might equally have come to look triumphant: a man getting up after a fall, taking one hard look back, and resuming his march towards a long and successful life.

Instead, the man in the portrait lived another nineteen months — long and short enough to keep his expression forever inscrutable.

I don’t know what made van Gogh cut off his ear. I do know that the painting he made out of this event is as much about his determination to work hard as it was about the incident itself.

Coda: Wheat Fields

There’s a corner of the Van Gogh Museum which is almost a piece of nature.⁶ A little bench faces a painting of a forest and three paintings of fields. I come here after the turmoil of the Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, sit down on the bench, and let the golden expanses soothe me.

Wheat fields are quintessential Van Gogh, perhaps more representative of his art than any of his other works. Wheatfield with Crows is the last and most famous of the series, but there were many before it, more measured but equally perfect.

The subject of the wheat field encapsulates Vincent’s entire artistic project. It gives him complementary golds and blues of field and sky with which to express his love of color. It’s a piece of nature in which he can lose himself, but as a man-sown thing it’s also only one step away from a portrait.

It’s also a powerful symbol. In Christianity, wheat is a spiritually charged motif, which plays an important role in parables and is connected to the Last Supper. It symbolizes transformation, rebirth, the afterlife. Wheat fields also represent the peasant’s toil, the act of sowing with faith but without certainty of reward. The wheat field is the “moral law within me” and “the starry sky above me:” it’s a grand sublime expanse suggestive of infinity but also a manifestation of human faith.

Vincent idealized peasants, and his wheat-field paintings are both homage and emulation. He was too sickly to plant fields, but not to paint them. His wheat fields are a measure of his toil, the seeds he sowed for the glory of God, to germinate or wither in the hands of future sower-painters.

The June 1888 Wheatfield is one-third green and blue splotches. I get lost in the mess of paint, of wheat. It makes no sense, this blue where there should be yellow, this chaff. Then I look up at the horizon and this unkempt tangle becomes something else: a snatch of sky. A chink in the wall.

I think of Vincent sowing the seeds of his hard work, creating the field of his life from the bottom up. The bulk of the work is only splotches: dark peasants, faux impressionism. The premonitions of sky which, down there, might still have been mistakes: the clumsy impasto on his peasants’ faces, the sunflowers out of nowhere. And those two years near the horizon, transforming even the past into perfection.

And then the abrupt, premature frame.

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Wheatfield, June 1888.

When I decide to sit in front of the Wheatfield, I still don’t know what it might symbolize. Yet I already sense that, more than desperate self-portraits, more even than sunflowers, this is van Gogh. I feel a great peace in this painting’s presence. I love the way it makes my head tilt towards the high horizon, my eyes catching only a glimpse of the clear sky.

[1] You might be wondering: “wait, isn’t Wheatfield with Crows van Gogh’s final painting? Didn’t he kill himself immediately after completing it? How could he have said anything about it to Theo?” The answer is that while no one knows for sure what van Gogh’s final painting was, it probably wasn’t Wheatfield with Crows. No other pair of paintings fits the description of the two wheat-field paintings he mentions to Theo in this letter — 19 days before his death — quite as well.

[2] At the time, Vincent is unconvinced, in part because of a healthy scepticism towards artistic prohibitions. In response to the fashionable dictum that one may not use black pigments, van Gogh reasonably asks

What does that phrase mean, one may not?

His rejection of this rule also has to do with his ability to see the colors within blackness. Blackness isn’t just one shade;

Frans Hals must have had twenty-seven blacks.

[3] His use of so-called fugitive reds in this painting, which caused the initially pink roses to “wilt” to white is a poignant example.

[4] In some ways, van Gogh had already gotten everything impressionism gave him from the Dutch and Flemish masters. Rubens gave him color; Hals and Rembrandt gave him the pursuit of impressions.

What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael — so many others — as far as possible just put it straight down — and didn’t come back to it so very much.

And — this, too, please — that if it worked, they left it alone.

Above all I admired hands by Rembrandt and Hals — hands that lived, but were not finished in the sense that people want to enforce nowadays. (October 1885.)

[5] Note that van Gogh had altered Mount Fuji in Sato Torakiyo’s print in a way which makes the shape of the white part of the mountain more closely resemble the bandage and the white canvas.

[6] More precisely, it’s a corner of the temporary exhibition on the influence Japanese art had on van Gogh.

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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