A Little Art History: Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone

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Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Arles, France, in September 1888. Oil on canvas. (From the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.

If I had to name one, and only one, painting in the world that takes my breath away each time I see it, it would be Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, the lesser known of his “starry night” paintings, painted in September 1888. Later, in June 1889, he would paint The Starry Night, the one he is famous for, similar in color but vastly different in tenor — a night sky painted shortly after the artist voluntarily committed himself to a mental institution in southern France and which, it has often been suggested, reflects the artist’s troubled mind with its brushstrokes that undulate, spiral, and seem to pulse with emotion. Whether that is a fair assessment, I’m not sure (who are we to say with any certainty whether the artist’s mindset was troubled or lucid in the moments when he was creating), but what is true in viewing The Starry Night is the feeling of an artist consumed by his subject — there is something almost manic in its expression — whereas when viewing his earlier canvas, Starry Night Over the Rhone, one is overcome by the very hush of this work: the exquisite sense of wonder and beguilement. Starry Night Over the Rhone is a romantic work, by which I mean that it speaks of Van Gogh’s romance with the town of Arles, in the French countryside, where he had arrived from Paris just seven months prior. In Arles, he fell in love with the land, its colors, and the quality of light that southern France is known for, and in the short time he lived there (a little over a year) he completed 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and watercolors. His inclusion of a man and woman strolling in the foreground of Starry Night Over the Rhone underscores its romantic air, but that they appear so small against the night sky which both envelopes and eclipses them is even more telling of the kind of enchantment Van Gogh was under.

“I need a starry night with cypresses or maybe above a field of ripe wheat,” the artist wrote to his brother Theo in April 1888, and subsequent letters to others reveal that it was an occupying thought. Writing to the painter Emile Bernard in June, he mused, “But when shall I ever paint the Starry Sky, this painting that keeps haunting me?” — and in a letter to his sister sent in September, around the time he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone, he said, “Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day,” This sentiment, articulated verbally and then given fullest expression in a painting of the most vivid blues imaginable — ultramarine, Prussian blue, cobalt — is the siren song that continually draws me to this work. It reminds me of the twilight blues in my own part of the world, so intimately felt in late summer and autumn when the atmosphere is less humid. Skies that are rich oceans unto themselves with their push-pull magnetism: first a suede-like expanse of dusky blue upon which the stars slowly, softly wink, so unhurried they make you wait and practically count them; then a period of absorption when the sky seems to fold into itself, deepening to indigo and finally to black, propelling the stars forward in quickening fashion until they are infinite and crisp in their brilliancy, appearing everywhere, all at once.

Van Gogh was facing the southwest when he painted this nighttime scene of Arles’ waterfront, yet he painted the Big Dipper (or the Great Bear, as he referred to it), a northern constellation, into this scene. Taking this kind of artistic license with his subject makes perfect sense to me: it accentuates the romantic mood of the work, as almost anyone who has ever looked at the night sky can identify the Big Dipper and most of us take joy in seeing it. It’s such a full constellation – the constellation that most imparts a feeling of grandeur; that it’s also universally recognizable makes me think Van Gogh understood that hanging these northern stars over the southern panorama would make the viewer feel included in the scene — part of the wide world and its mysterious cosmos — rather than someone standing separate and apart from it. I can think of a great many paintings and artworks which leave the viewer feeling like a bit of an outsider, often for valid and understandable reasons, such as works done as private commissions and those done as studies (neither of which were intended for a greater audience), as well as works intended as political statements, or enigmas, by artists who wanted to make us think a little harder. Some of them are masterpieces and some I have enjoyed quite a bit, but for the most part they aren’t works that move me. Starry Night Over the Rhone not only moves me, it sweeps me off my feet. An artist who can create something that feels so intimate and, at the same time, so universally understood is an artist who has achieved the sublime.

Van Gogh’s life, on the other hand, as everyone knows, was not sublime. He had wanted to start an artist colony in Arles – it was a place he wanted to share with others – and for a brief time he did share it with the renowned artist Paul Gauguin. Alas, the two men fought, indulged their vices at the local brothels, and in a final confrontation, the already emotionally troubled Van Gogh cut off a portion of his own ear with a razor (the entire outer ear or the lobe, depending on the source), scaring Gauguin back  to Paris. After voluntarily committing himself to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, he would eventually paint The Starry Night, the version that became his most famous canvas. In this version, the artist seems no longer separate from his subject, beholding it from afar in a romantic way, but frenziedly immersed in it — almost as if he has been become one with the night sky. A year after painting it, Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. According to his brother Theo, his last words were “The sadness will last forever.”

I would like to think that somewhere in the deep chemistry of the universe an awareness has reached him of the considerable beauty he created, that is undying and will last forever, too.

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Saint-Rémy, France, in June 1889. Oil on canvas. (From the permanent collection of the  Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.

 

 

The Best Part of Summer…

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… is planting flowers and watching them grow. I got a late start this year, but this is how my yard is shaping up so far.

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My yard is so shady that to get much color in it, I rely on annuals. Maybe I should rethink that, though, as the flowers that seem to do best are my perennial daylilies and rose campions, both of which bloom profusely and require little care. Plus they more or less reflect the wild, blowsy nature of my yard which, despite the fact that it isn’t as well-manicured as I’d like it to be, is still much loved. I’m in heaven when I’m outside lying on the lawn reading a book or just watching the birds. It’s the best part of summer for me — what is yours?

 

Perfume and a Movie: Musc Ravageur and Stranger Than Fiction

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There were many times in the past when I thought about writing a review of Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur — an iconic fragrance among perfume lovers. The last time was at Christmas, when I roughed out my ideas for a post which I had planned to title “In Lieu of Eggnog.” Wearing Musc Ravageur was a delicious substitute to indulging in that sinfully good beverage; I think it probably saved me from packing on five pounds. However, Christmas came and went without me writing the post, and the reason had little to do with me being either holiday busy or holiday lazy. I like Musc Ravageur a lot, but it’s one of those musk-centric perfumes I feel hesitant about reviewing since I’m not certain I smell all of it — which is to say, the musk portion of it. On the manufacturer’s card that came with my sample, Musc Ravageur is described as “Sensual and sophisticated. Powerful yet perfectly controlled. Dramatic and mysterious.” A little further on, the adjective “lusty” is used. If this description were borne only on the wings of a marketing label, I might not question why my own experience of the fragrance doesn’t match up. Thing is, there are a number of credible reviews on perfume blogs, vlogs and scent forums describing Musc Ravageur in these same lusty terms, making it sound like the itty-bitty, perfect thing to wear if you want to be, well, ravished (in the purely hyperbolic sense of the word).

I suspect I’m anosmic to certain musks (not all, but some). I don’t “get” the sensual, powerful, dramatic and lusty elements of Musc Ravageur that other folks do. Sweet and sophisticated is how it comes across to me, and if I were writing the marketing blurb it would say something like, A vanillic bonbon for grown-ups. Yummy, cuddly and lightly boozy. There is more of a gourmand sensibility to Musc Ravageur than a carnal one, and more of a sense of softness than drama or mystery. To my nose, it’s the scent of confectionery with a side of fuzzy blankets. While not the kind of animalic musk I associate with sex, I would agree that it’s sexy in the way that it speaks of cozy intimacy and sweet indulgences. In regard to the latter, it occurs to me that candies, cookies and other treats are sometimes referred to as “naughties” (because we’re being bad when we eat these sensual, calorie-laden morsels). The act of eating naughties while under the covers with someone is very much the vibe Musc Ravageur gives off (to my nose, anyway), and though I intend no double entendre with that statement, in stating it I realize I’ve more or less made the olfactory leap to how others perceive this scent.

Still, I’ll keep this post where I originally intended it — on the PG-13 rated side. And along those lines, I have in mind a movie that is the perfect cinematic treat to pair with Musc Ravageur.

Hoffman and Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction is an offbeat, romantic film full of talent. Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Queen Latifah play key roles, but it’s the subdued performance of Will Ferrell that might surprise you, if all you’ve ever seen him in are the goofball comedies for which he is known. Here Ferrell plays the straightest of straight men: a by-the-book, IRS taxman named Harold Crick, whose lonely existence seems to hinge on the numbers he keeps in his head and which govern his daily practices. He brushes his teeth a precise number of strokes each morning; he ties his necktie in a single-knot Windsor, instead of a double, to save 42 seconds of time; and his math skills form the basis of most of the conversations he has with his office colleagues (they treat him like a human calculator and he really only has one friend at work). If he were a character in a novel, Harold Crick would be an easy character to kill off — which is exactly the plan novelist Karen ‘Kay’ Eiffel (Emma Thompson) has in mind. Harold, as it turns out, is the lead character of one of Kay’s novels — a fact of which he is unaware until one day he hears her voice in his apartment, narrating the mundane routine of his life. To say he is disconcerted is understatement. Especially when, at the bus stop one evening, while resetting the time on his wristwatch, he hears her crisp British voice intone: “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death.”

Not surprisingly, hearing a statement like that becomes a catalyst for change, which is where Dustin Hoffman’s character comes in. He plays a college professor, an expert on literature theory, who initially thinks that Harold is nuts yet agrees to help him identify the author. Hoffman’s character brings sly humor to the film: humor that is light and dry like champagne in comparison with the darker, quirkier humor of Thompson’s character Kay, who is nutty in the way that writers often are when the writing is not going well. No small-time author, she’s a literary star with a bad case of writer’s block, desperate to find a way of killing off Harold Crick for the ending of her unfinished book. Her publishing company has even sent an assistant (Queen Latifah) to help her finish, thus underscoring the fact that time is ticking away. Of course, no one is more aware of this ticking than Harold, who knows he must track down the author and make the case for his life before she literally writes “The End.”

Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction

Perhaps he also knows that his case would be better made if he lives some, first. As fortune would have it, around the same time he begins hearing the voice Harold is sent by the IRS to audit a bakery owned by a young woman named Ana Pascal (Maggie  Gyllenhaal). Feisty, intelligent and openly hostile towards Harold when he shows up (after all, she’d already written a detailed letter to the IRS stating why she would only pay 78 percent of her taxes), Ana makes Harold’s job as difficult as she can. Nevertheless, Harold finds himself physically attracted to her and quietly accepts the abuse she heaps on him, which includes digging his way through a mixed-up box of receipts she presents to him in an intentional state of disarray. Out of respect for the way he handles the situation — and proving she also has a soft side — at the end of the audit Ana presents him a plate of freshly-baked, chocolate-chip cookies. It’s a gesture he almost ruins (it goes against IRS policy to accept gifts, he tells her, thus insulting and getting her guard up again) but later rights. The old Harold — the person he was before he heard a voice determining he could be dead any day now — likely wouldn’t have bothered to recover from his error, despite the attraction. The new Harold — who is still very much himself, but a man willing to change his habits — finds a way to win over Ana Pascal. And watching that happen, even when you know it is about to happen, is the tender, chewy, delicious part of this film.

Maggie Gyllenhaal yelling at Will Ferrell

I won’t spoil the ending and tell you what kind of transaction occurs between Harold and the author who seemingly holds his life in her hands, who is known for her “beautiful tragedies.” Except to say that when he falls in love, his life becomes his own more than it is Kay’s, and it’s the small things — the cozy delectables of life — that trump death and taxes. Seeing Harold wrapped up in Ana’s arms in her fluffy bed, listening to their pillow talk, watching him at a later point eating her Bavarian sugar cookies: these are the kinds of things that many of us crave and find sexy. They are also good talking points for a perfume like Musc Ravageur. I know I don’t have to make the case for it — it already has many fans. But if I did, I would say that its commingled aromas of sugar cookies, warm blankets, rum-splashed eggnog, and musk (that may or may not smell dirty to you) conveys a feeling that is beyond intimate. Other musk perfumes should be so lucky!

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than Fiction

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Will Ferrell in bed

Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur eau de parfum was composed by perfumer Maurice Roucel and has notes of bergamot, tangerine, cinnamon, vanilla, musk, and amber, according to the company website. (A number of other perfume sites, such as Basenotes.net, list the notes as being top notes of lavender and bergamot; heart notes of clove and cinnamon; and base notes of gaiac wood, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, tonka, and musk.) It can be purchased from the Frederic Malle boutiques and website, as well as from fine department stores such as Nordstrom and Barneys. A 50-ml bottle is currently priced at $192 and a 100-ml bottle is $280.

My review is based on a spray sample I acquired at Barneys department store in San Francisco during a shopping trip with perfume blogger Undina three years ago. I can’t believe it took me this long to write about it!

Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur photo from Fragrantica

Images are film stills from Stranger Than Fiction, released in 2006 and directed by Marc Forster. The screenplay was written by Zach Helm. I love the film so much that I purchased a digital copy from Amazon.com (where it can also be rented through their video-on-demand program).

Bottle image of Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur is from Fragrantica.com.

Welcome to The Curious Rarebit!

boxer-3You could say I have an infatuation with rarebits. Not just the one with the elegant long ears and buff-brown fur coat, pictured above, who lives with me and my husband, but these kinds of rarebits too:

  • the exquisite sentence or paragraph that falls out of a book and must be held up to the light to be admired more closely;
  • quiet still-lifes that twinkle in backyards and front stoops of the town where I live;
  • irresistible aromas that stop me in my tracks, whether those tracks are through the wilderness, the local coffee shop, or through the corner of my bedroom where my perfume collection is arrayed on a dresser;
  • foodie discoveries that are sort of like happy accidents (things I’ve discovered on my own … which makes them really rare, since I usually rely on recipes)
  • and, last but not least, film scenes so delicious –  or mind-blowing – they require extra chewing time.

These are the kinds of things you can expect to find on these pages in the days ahead. All of them will be small – these are bits, after all – and though most of them will probably be of a serious or wistful nature, some of them will likely be as cheesy as, well, a slice of Welsh rarebit. Or fondue, which is maybe a better comparison of the small things I’ll be offering you to nibble on: small but nourishing little nuggets, meant to be shared … to inspire kinship in the partaking.  That, and a side of rabbit – my  house rabbit, Boxer, who is my daily reminder that life need not be a meal taken alone (as well as just how good a home can smell when fresh hay is thrown into the mix!).