Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sunflowers on a Cloudy Day

A friend said sunflowers always remind her of Van Gogh. Me too.

What a marvellous legacy he made for himself on just the few paintings he did of Tournesols, let alone everything else.

Even though the French and English names have exactly the same root I love the French more because - tourne-sol -, and maybe this is just because I'm not fluent in that language, always says to me 'turn to the sun' whereas the English sun flower just says 'flower of the sun'.

Like dandelion - 'dents de lion' - means lion's teeth.

When I was seventeen I visited Paris to stay with a French girlfriend and her family, Elisabeth Lemmer she was called. She'd been on a school exchange from Paris to Northumberland (how culturally advanced my school was for such an outpost of the English Isle). We met at the end of a barn dance two days before their two week stay ended and we smooched to 'I'm not in Love' by 10CC and naturally I fell in love right then in a farmyard in the middle of nowhere on a muddy floor strewn with wet straw.

Anyway, when I visited Elisabeth she was working, or going to school or college every day and I was alone in Paris, tongue tied with 'un sandwich jambon fromage s'il vous plait' as the pinnacle of my speaking ability and I went to Jeu de Paume which, I'd heard somewhere, from my mum and dad probably, was the gallery of the French Impressionists.

Well what do you expect to happen when you see, right in front of you, the full, oil on canvas, gouache and charcoal whatever paintings that you're incredibly familiar with because they've been part of the visual narrative of your daily existence - in magazines, books, adverts, documentaries, history lessons and art classes - all of your life? What did I expect? I don't know what I expected, really. I was a bit excited, I was looking forward to it. I was nervous that I might not even find the gallery because my French was so poor. I thought maybe that I'd got the name of the gallery wrong because Jeu de Paumes meant something about games, plus I didn't know how to pronounce it.

I found it, I went in, I think it was free on the carnet of Metro tickets I had, I walked around, I went up one flight of flying stairs in this large airy, sandstone and white grand interior, turned into a room where the light was falling brightly onto the walls with large paintings all around them, looked to my left and there was Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' right next to my shoulder - and its impact hit me like a pail of water chucked in my face - BAM! Dizzy, standing still, I just totally span off with the shock the beauty of this image had on my senses. I was caught totally off guard, nothing could ever have made me ready for that shock this completely familiar painting gave me when I saw it for the first time - I'd seen it a thousand times on postcards, posters, coffee table books and adverts. Really; it was a bit embarrassing; it made me cry.

There were all the other works around me too, Manet, Monet, and so on, after the Van Gogh had released me it seemed I could really FEEL their passion, their dedication, their love of the world, the love they had for their medium. Gushing emotions. It was like I could see, feel, touch, the earth shattering revolution in art which they'd created (What? Pretty much a whole hundred years before I was standing there?) actually unfurl in front of me. I could feel the shock of the new smashing down the old and the staid and dreary that had been salon stuff before them being swept away by the power and energy of these pictures. I could hear the hubbub, I could see of the society people in top hats and bustles, the buyers and collectors, who were outraged by the sheer energy that poured off the walls from these paintings when they saw them for the first time. It was a wild moment.

Completely unexpectedly it was a most moving day of my life. I'd never realised before this moment that emotions could be so powerfully engaged by things outside one's head; I could never forget it.