Aug 25, 2013

Flowers Painted At The Asylum

In 2005 I visited the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and one of my all time favorite paintings is on permanent display there, the Irises by Vincent Van Gogh. 

I was at the museum on a weekday, early in the day, the weren't many people in the salon where the Irises are on display. I was able to get very close to the painting and study and enjoy it for a long time.  I was amazed at how thick the paint is on the canvas, the brushstrokes determined, the emotion palpable.  

From that visit, from the 20 or 30 minutes that I walked around the painting, standing close, moving back, trying to imagine the genius, Vincent, how the idea came to him, did the flowers calm him, was blue his favorite color, why one white iris..... all of those thoughts became the poem that is included below. 

The poem type or style is ekphrastic. It is poetry written in response to works of visual art. Many believe that early forms of ekphrastic poetry emerged from ancient Greece, around the 5th century B.C. The word ekphrasis literally translates ek 'out' + phrasis 'speaking'. Speaking out! 

Flowers Painted At The Asylum is the first poem in my Master's Thesis, The House of Saturdays. From time to time I will include poetry as part of my blog posts and provide details or background on how the poem came about.  I hope you enjoy this one, it is one of my favorites.

Flowers Painted At The Asylum 

Vincent, I passed your garden this Thursday 
and bowed my head. 

The earth so dry beneath the irises, 
I hurried for water. 

Where exactly did you imagine those colors ? 
Under what sun did you paint those blooms ? 

What courtyards did you visit? 
What masters did you seek ? 

Who at Saint-Remy sparked your passion?
Tell me Vincent, what came first, the palette or the pain ? 

What did your eyes really see when facing the canvas?
Tell me, was the yield of blue....... the color of your life ?

And the one white flower, was that your marker ?
The one white iris, an anchor for your sanity, 

A signal of your strength, of your grip
in that thick blue forest of blooms.


From the museum website: 

In May 1889, after episodes of self-mutilation and hospitalization, Vincent van Gogh chose to enter an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. There, in the last year before his death, he created almost 130 paintings. Within the first week, he began Irises, working from nature in the asylum's garden. The cropped composition, divided into broad areas of vivid color with monumental irises overflowing its borders, was probably influenced by the decorative patterning of Japanese woodblock prints. 

There are no known drawings for this painting; Van Gogh himself considered it a study. His brother Theo quickly recognized its quality and submitted it to the Salon des Indépendants in September 1889, writing Vincent of the exhibition: "[It] strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life." 

Each one of Van Gogh's irises is unique. He carefully studied their movements and shapes to create a variety of curved silhouettes bounded by wavy, twisting, and curling lines. The painting's first owner, French art critic Octave Mirbeau, one of Van Gogh's earliest supporters, wrote: "How well he has understood the exquisite nature of flowers!"