Sunday, January 22, 2006

Painting 2 of 10: Les Bateaux De Sainte-Marie

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.

After the sombre gloom of Butler's Balaclava I thought I'd leaven the loaf with probably the most cheerful of the 10 paintings on my list.

I knew Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer long before I knew of Van Gogh because my family had a print of it hanging on the walls of our various houses throughout my childhood and teens. Before I understood the power of art to comfort this painting was part of the reassuring permanence behind our various front doors as we followed my dad from one Air Force posting to another. Mercifully, despite being uprooted and moved every two years or so- new school, new friends, new towns; the same old newness time after time- Air Force houses were pretty much the same inside. Much the same furniture followed us from house to house, and the same applied to the pictures, prints and paintings on the walls. Thus Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (along with an L.S. Lowry reproduction, various Victorian military portraits, and a Maori war club hung on the wall) takes its place as an indicator of stability in the face of a constantly changing view out of the windows.

To me today Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mere doesn't immediately bring forth images of the sunny Mediterranean that must have fired Van Gogh with the tremendous enthusiasm and optimism he splashed on this particular canvas (according to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, "in a matter of days, he produced two seascapes, a view of the village and nine drawings."). The early June light he reproduces in the sky gives the painting a feel of the North Sea coast of his native Holland and despite their distinctive colours and design the boats suggest working beaches anywhere; places like England's Cromer, or Spain, or Gambia, or Bali .

It certainly doesn't look warm, and even with my family's odd travel patterns ("off-season is always cheaper") I can't help but associate the Med with balmy temperatures and cheap snorkel/mask combos bought from Maltese gift shops. Thanks to Van Gogh's urgent brush stokes and the suggestion of movement he gives to the sky and the ocean I'm able to engage my other senses fairly easily. I've already touched on the weather, but with a little imagination I can smell the mixture of salt water, wet nets, and bait; I can feel the sand blowing around in that brisk breeze; and being the Englishman that I am I feel a distinct urge to walk up from the beach to the promenade and get fish and chips and a Whippy.

One last reason I enjoy this painting so much; the angle he presents. Many shorescapes present the p.o.v. of looking directly from the shore or town out to sea- very epic and no doubt designed to make one wax philosophic on the relationship between solid ground and moving sea, humankind and its environment etc. Van Gogh however turns everything through 90 degrees so that you are looking at the scene from the perspective of a man who was obsessive enough about his work that he apparently didn't care if the tide came in and soaked his shoes. When he was on the manic swing of his bipolar disorder he must have been as overbearingly enthusiastic as a St. Bernard puppy.

Van Gogh painted extremes of mood and the sheer emotion poured into his work can make one exhillarated or fill one with trepidation. Thank goodness my parents decided upon a print one of his most optimistic works to hang on those ever-changing walls.

No comments: