“The Starry Night Reflected”

“The problem lies not so much with some feminists’ concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception–shared with the public at large–of what art is: with the naive idea that art is direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is.”

-Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”(1)

Background of “The Starry Night Reflected”

A few weekends back, I was able to see the Van Gogh Exhibition that featured an incredible digitized display of Van Gogh’s work, paired with a historical timeline of the artist and his art-dealer brother, Theo. Perhaps more breath-taking than the paintings, Van Gogh’s turmoil with mental health issues was shocking to learn. Behind the iconic expressive paint strokes of vibrant hues was a painter who struggled to find that very vibrance and life within his own, beyond the canvas. Van Gogh suffered from depression as well as erratic behavior, which eventually saw him staying in a mental asylum in the year 1889. That year also marked the creation of one of his most famous artworks, “The Starry Night.” The painting’s view belonged to one outside the window in his asylum room.

Now equipped with the knowledge behind the stunning painting, I recognize a few things as it relates to Linda Nochlin’s above quote from her essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, which now takes the title as one of the top five best essays I’ve read to date. It must be noted that Nochlin’s argument far extends past the quote above, and while she introduces excellent points that support her stance, I don’t know if I completely agree with Nochlin’s position, though I do admire the wit and truthfulness in her observation. I do think that while the world surrounding us lies at the center of every painting, of every masterpiece, so to0 are the remnants of one’s identity. There’s a brilliant balance of the internal and external at play that I believe both contribute to the success of an artwork. You can’t have one without the other. And sure, the personal attributes may not be as apparent.

“The Starry Night” serves as a perfect example wherein the natural, outward view of the landscape is altered to better reflect the artist’s own feelings and thoughts. Van Gogh’s instability at that specific moment in time informs the swift, swirling strokes of the night sky, with movement playing a significant role in the piece. Maybe it’s not explicitly a ‘direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience’; however, the painting is intertwined with the emotions attached to the artist. When you paint, you are translating the vision inside your head to be consumed by the outside world, transcribing a myriad of ideas with a paintbrush.

Those ideas are born out of that individual’s experience. Moreover, from a personal standpoint, it’s the very pieces that echo what I am feeling, that I deem my greatest work. How else are we to attempt to capture the infinite complexities that exist in and outside our beings?

The artwork I created above, “The Starry Night Reflected” challenges the argument brought forward by Nochlin, by inverting the original painting. Rather than seeing traces of Van Gogh in the night clouds, we see traces of the night clouds on an individual’s face. I do stand by this idea because I think it captures the essence of our human existence in relation to the world around us. We are mirrors just as the landscape is; we reflect one another’s sun-ridden joy, or soul-broken storm. That is why great art does not only welcome one’s personal vision, but requires it. Otherwise, we are left with art emptied of vibrance and truth, for both are so present in each person.

Questions for Consideration:

1. Do you personally think that great art is never ‘direct’ or involving ‘personal expression’? Through this lens, how might we interpret artwork that is direct, or is there no such thing?

2. What is the purpose of art? Do we need art as a population- why or why not?

3. What are the different factors that contribute to achieving ‘greatness,’ particularly in art?

4. In what ways do emotions inform one’s performance in their given craft, specifically art?

5. It’s a common idea that, in order to achieve ‘true’ success in art, the artist has to suffer in some way (mental health issues, tragic life or childhood, etc). Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

Works Cited:

    1. Nochlin, Linda. “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” com, ARTnews.com, 20 Oct. 2020, www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/