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Starry, starry night

On Vincent van Gogh?s death anniversary, a glimpse of his spiritual side through his most famous painting.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2006 14:01 IST

The starry Night’ was completed near the mental asylum of Saint-Remy in France, 13 months before van Gogh’s death at the age of 37 (he shot himself in the chest on July 27 and died two days later).

Van Gogh painted this scene inside his cell from memory and the deep emotion in this painting make several people find great spiritual meaning in it, as if the artist had an intense vision of the vastness of Creation and our own insignificant place in it.

It’s said of this painting: “The Starry Night vibrates with rockets of burning yellow while planets gyrate like cartwheels. The hills quake and heave, yet the cosmic gold fireworks that swirl against the blue sky are somehow restful.” Vincent Willem van Gogh (March 1853 - July1890) was a Dutch painter classified as a PostImpressionist. His now-famous paintings depict things, places and people from his world with bold dots and dashes, saturated with subtle colour.

Mythified as the stereotype of the tormented artist, there are several misconceptions about him. That he cut off his ear (it was only the lobe), that he killed himself because no one recognised his talent (in his last six months life he received great praise that shocked him), and that he painted in mad fits (he worked when lucid).

He produced all his work, about 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings in the 10 years before his suicide. Most of his best-known work was produced in his last two years and in the two months before his death he painted 90 pictures! Vincent’s bouts of mental breakdown, now attributed to bipolar disorder, were made worse by overwork, much of it outside in the hot sun, his poor dietary habits and his addiction to tobacco, coffee and alcohol, especially the vile potion fashionable in his time, called absinthe. (You can still get it in France and it smells and tastes like saunf-flavoured lighter fluid). His brother Theo did his utmost to help him financially and emotionally and was devastated by his death (they are buried side by side).

A major show of 71 paintings was held in Paris, 11 years after Vincent’s death and he proved to be an enormous influence on 20th century art. Van Gogh’s letters, most of them to Theo, were published in 1914. Irving Stone’s biographical novel Lust for Life is based on van Gogh, which became an Oscar-winning film of the same name, starring Kirk Douglas.

In 1972, singer Don Maclean (Of Bye Bye, Miss American Pie fame, a song later sung by Madonna) wrote the ballad Vincent, also known as Starry, Starry Night (the song’s first words). This was also sung by Josh Groban in 2002 and a punk version appeared too, by the band NOFX.

In classical music, composer Einojuhani Rautavara wrote an opera, Vincent, in 1986 and re-used the theme in his symphony, Vincentiana.

The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa drew on Vincent’s life in his 1990 film Yume (Dreams), which was based on Kurosawa’s own dreams and featured none other than Martin Scorsese briefly as Vincent in a section called Crows.

Vincent put in hours as a Bible teacher in classes for miners and workmen.

He writes in his last years, in a letter to Theo on April 9, 1888, that, “Among other things, I have spoken on the parable of the mustard seed, the barren fig tree and the man born blind…At a meeting this week my text was Acts 16:9 (St Paul’s adventures): ‘And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia and besought him, saying come to Macedonia and help us.’” In the same letter, he wrote, “I must do a starry night with cypresses or perhaps over a field of ripe corn. There are some extremely beautiful nights here. I am in a constant fever of work.”