Expressionism, Realism and Van Gogh

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Expressionism, Realism and Van Gogh

For expressionism is not simply a way of seeing things: it is also a way of making them, of painting them. An expressionist does not paint “flat” and in pure tones–he breaks up his tones and applies them with a liberal brush. It is striking indeed to find in Rembrandt, Hals, and the Van Gogh of the Nuenen period, the same concern for realism, the same sense of light and feeling for expressive detail, combined with a use of impasto that is no less expressive.

In short, even the most detached and idealistic Dutch painters bear the mark of their national cultural traditions. Vermeer, however abstract, came under the infleunce of Caravaggio, that is to say, of realism; and, in our own time, Mondrian’s abstractions represent an unusual aesthetic puritanism with a social bias. And Rembrandt’s light is the spiritual expression of an observed reality–or at least of such elements of that reality as may be observed.
But such realism, however frank (as in Frans Hals), is not so much concerned to respect the real, the physical aspect of things, as to express it. And while Van Gogh, as a Dutch painter, was certainly deeply attached to reality, his almost religious deference for it was not divorced from painterly considerations.

Hence that arbitrary lighting, that no less arbitrary, dramatic and often caricatural distortion–in short, that rugged, uncouth expressionism in which there is nevertheless a glimmer of the total lyrical expression that would later be his. So it is that this essentially lyric painter began by painting the plebeian reality of his time, just as–he must have imagined–Rembrandt and Hals painted the bourgeois reality of theirs. The Head of an Old Peasant Woman, painted at Nuenen, and the hands of the Potato-Eaters thus echo in their crude, awkward way the Portrait of Margaretha Trip and the hands of the Regentessen.

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