This month, Julia and I will be celebrating our nineteenth anniversary. It is an incredible gift to have a companion who nurtures and bolsters your being. It is also a blessing, beyond measure, to have a partnership dedicated to ushering harmonic and melodic beauty into the world.
As an early part of our commemoration revelry, we went into NYC for the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. This transformation of Van Gogh’s paintings is a deeply-moving, waking-somatic meditation that envelops your senses and imagination. I highly recommend going if this exhibit comes to your town. There is a trippy element of genius that engages you on a purely entertainment level. However, the synthesis of the artwork, orchestral music, and the chance to peer into Vincent’s inner landscape, along with a narrative comprised of his own words, is transcendent.
It also reflected the poignancy of having someone who believes in you and your gifts. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, offered him love and support as an anchor in Vincent’s turbulent sea of suffering. Without that love, we would not have these vibrant portals of aesthetic grace.
Vincent’s need for human kindness drove him to illuminate the profound beauty in those he painted. One of his musings: “a peasant in his suit of fustian in the fields is finer than when he goes to church on Sundays in a sort of gentleman’s coat,” is a reminder that we each have a innate connection to nature that makes us far more captivating than our attempts at vanity.
Other than his brother, Vincent found himself mainly isolated. His empathy for humanity was acute and, mostly, unrequited. To sublimate his need for nurturing connection, he plunged wholly into his dedication to generating beauty. But, as he noted, “I put my heart and soul into my work and I have lost my mind in the process.”
What is admirably remarkable is that, even when he broke down and asked to be committed to the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum, he continued to paint. In fact, some of his most beautiful work comes from this dark period of his life–most notably, “The Starry Night.”
A short film at the beginning of the exhibition explored two ways of viewing this painting. The sky can appear as chaotic and the town below, a refuge. Alternatively, the town below can be seen as dark and unwelcoming whereas the sky is potentially a sanctuary of fantastic light. Either way, the shadow of the cypress tree in the foreground pierces both the town and the sky. It was suggested that this could represent human suffering pervading both vistas.
Yet, he asked, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” Even though he only sold one painting in his lifetime and thought of Starry Night and other works as failures, he produced 900 paintings, and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He also wrote over 2,000 letters, mainly to his brother, Theo.
Although he was unable to withstand the pain beyond thirty seven years, his legacy is astounding. It is a kaleidoscope of possibility; a reminder that, at the heart of us, there is grandeur. Even when we can’t see it.
Beyond the main show of the exhibit, which was an aquarium of flowing wonder, there was a virtual reality movie. You were placed in Vincent’s room in Arles and guided outside into the golden wheat fields, through the forest, up to an overlook below the starry night, above a cobblestoned town, down to the harbor, and into the universe. Being able to look in every direction, while wandering through the inspiration for signature masterpieces, made me wish that my father was alive to partake in this splendor.
Feeling Julia put her arms around me at the end of this encapsulating tour made me want to weep with gratitude. This is something that we don’t take for granted. To have someone to share our lives with, be it a partner, family or a friend, is at the heart of our existence. Or is it having someone to share our existence with is at the heart of our lives? It may seem like a subtle difference, but this is not something random that we are walking through. It is a unique canvas that only we get to paint.
In the movie about Van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent’s character talks about his unique view of the canvas of life. “When facing a flat landscape, I see nothing but eternity… I will show my human brothers who can’t see it. It’s a privilege. I can give them hope and consolation.”
Afterwards, we went to the Laughing Man coffeehouse for incredibly smooth, oat milk, cinnamon, vanilla lattes, along with a tres leches and wild blueberry doughnut, whose white and speckled purple-periwinkle hues could have been found on Vincent’s easel. We sat and savored the sweetness beneath the trees, looking out at the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch in the distance. Having just shared a monastic experience, we were granted the opportunity to drink nature in with a renewed perspective. Now, it felt like a honeymoon; our years together, an elongated moment, catching the light filtering in through the canopy of leaves.
That was a bright moment, to carry us through this time of uncertainty. News of variants, and tensions over vaccines, have us consciously and subconsciously aware of our mortality and incapacity to control things outside of ourselves.
The Immersive Experience was more than a gift we gave ourselves for our anniversary, it was a recognition of the cord we travel along in life. This cord can be so thin, it appears invisible; a glimmer caught out of the corner of our eye. In moments of appreciation, when we are fully present, it can become wider than the sea of suffering.
“It is good to love many things for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh