Artistic Vision

van Gogh’s “Irises” (Getty Museum)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Since early today, I’ve taken virtual tours of the Louvre and Getty Museums. I began at the Louvre, the first museum popping into my mind because of its fame. The tour provided opportunities to pause before various artworks, to see and learn in detail about each. I’m interested in exploring the Louvre’s art, perhaps because of my fascination with the French film, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, which has a focus on fine art. But I left the Louvre and will return later.

Instead, I went to the Los Angeles Getty Museum, where often, I used to wander, sketch, and write about whatever captured my imagination. Many years ago, The Getty (as an unidentified bidder) acquired van Gogh’s “Irises” at a then-unheard of price of (I believe) $40M. That inspired me to go and see for myself that painting. There’s no recalling what I might have expected, either because of the artist’s incredibly famous name or the hugely-ticketed world famous painting. At the Gallery and for a long while I stood before it peering and slightly dumbfounded.

Physically, the painting seems relatively small, it’s certainly pretty and well executed, and resembles its hundreds of printed images. I tried to grasp what made it worth forty-grand (and probably more, if the auction house had revealed publicly that the unknown party competitively bidding was The Getty Museum; that’s an interesting story for another time).

Those days, I dreamed of becoming a writer, was enrolled in a creative writing class at UCLA, and practiced my writing much as possible. The painting and my questions about it seemed a good place to start putting immediate observations on paper. Maybe I’d work up some decent ideas and learn more about creativity. I pulled from my backpack a notebook and pen, stepped back and looked closely at the Irises before beginning to write.

I wrote first about the numbers of them and their overall arrangement, before graduating to their various sizes and stances. By now, having filled almost an entire page, my interest in the irises, overall and individually, had started to perk. I knew that ultimately it would be essential to develop a point of view, to have an opinion about the painting’s single white iris, featured at center left, and perhaps the whitish leaf balancing it at far right.

Popular opinion is that the white iris represents van Gogh, himself a social outsider. This has focused great attention on the work and an appreciation for that mysterious white iris. By the time I got around to writing about the white iris, I had become entirely fascinated by the work’s complexity and its artistic perfection. I could now see it as a whole with that single odd iris. In the end, I could not interpret the white iris as anything other than the popular conclusion. It probably is how van Gogh saw himself among others.

I learned from this experience that very great works of art are exactly that, and recognized that van Gogh’s brushstrokes are from a master painter. I also learned that an art viewer must take plenty of time to see details, to think closely about a work’s elements, each singularly, and all in total.

My virtual return to The Getty brought back a personal event of great learning. I’ll continue to organize my thoughts around that experience, perhaps to write more about those irises and me.

Dear Friends: This is a good time to visit a museum and escape to the recorded past. Diana

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