Though far from being even remotely informed about art, I have developed an appreciation for it over the years. I stepped into an art museum for the first time when I was 21 years old, a college senior in London on a two-week educational experience unparalleled by anything else I did in the process of earning a degree.
I remember standing in front of Gainsborough's “Blue Boy” and marveling that someone could create something that magnificent out of canvas and paint.
I've taken advantage of opportunities to visit many museums in the years since and never fail to be awed by creative genius. As I was yesterday.
“Sheaves of Wheat,” an exhibit of selected Vincent Van Gogh works, was on display at the Dallas Museum of Art over the holidays. We went on the last day. Apparently, most everyone in Dallas also waited to the last minute to see this spectacular display of genius. But the exhibit was well worth the hour-long wait.
I'm not certain why wheat captured Van Gogh's imagination as it did, but, based on the descriptions of paintings on display, he saw wheat fields as metaphors for life, reapers as symbols of death and the season of a wheat crop as the cycle of existence. I think I get that.
And that's about as far as I'll go with any attempt to explain art, particularly art as complex as Van Gogh's. But I will admit that walking through this exhibit, even when elbow-to-elbow with too many other viewers (some with vast knowledge of art and some, like me, who just enjoyed seeing the pictures), stirred some deep feelings about the wonder of life, the inevitability of death and the necessity of labor.
Many of the paintings were of peasants working in the fields, cutting wheat, bundling it into sheaves, stacking it and gleaning the grain. Workers did not appear to be happy with their lot but resigned to the toil. In one painting, a lone worker faced a horizon of nothing but uncut grain and seemed to labor with a sense of desperation.
These painting were done in the 1890s, shortly before Van Gogh's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in a wheat field. From what I've read about Van Gogh, he was a tortured soul, susceptible to bouts of deep depression and also periods of incredible creativity.
Van Gogh's paintings reminded me of what I see in agriculture and the people who earn their livings from the soil. There is a sense of seasons, of rebirth and too often of desperation.
But mostly I see hope. Regardless of how last season turned out, farmers plant again, expecting to see a new crop emerge from the seed, grow, mature and ripen for harvest. The work is hard, the rewards sometimes meager, but they have more faith than foreboding.
Other folks might see these paintings and come away with a different interpretation. And I might see them again and find something different. But that's what is wondrous about art, especially painting; it never fails to inspire something.