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Gratitude for a Sunflower

News St Martin – Talking Points

Sunday 16 February 2014

In the last week of constant wind and rain what better way to spend half an hour than visiting “The Sunflowers” at the National Gallery.

This free exhibition offers the chance to see two of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings side by side for the first time in 65 years – the first one owned by the National Gallery and the other from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Side by side with each other, one compares details, enters the story. Van Gogh painted seven paintings of sunflowers in 1888-89. The National Gallery version was one of two he hung in Paul Gauguin’s bedroom as a way of welcoming him to the house in Arles where they planned to paint together. He wanted to capture a sense of joy and the warmth of sun-drenched Provence. “Painting them,” he wrote to Theo, “takes the energy and concentration of one’s whole being.”

The Amsterdam version was painted as one of three in 1889 after the two men had quarrelled, the experiment in communal living had failed and Vincent suffered a breakdown. At first sight the painting looks almost identical. Then one begins to see differences. The rich focused golden warmth of the earlier painting has become slightly more jagged, and stylised, a pale blue, mauve has entered his palate, the centres of the sun flowers are paler, wider, like torches (eyes) looking out at you. It’s as if the sunflowers in the later version are more out of control, ecstatic sunflowers, but in the blaze of glory that precedes decay. Van Gogh wrote “my paintings are a cry of anguish, while symbolising gratitude in the rustic sunflower.” They were of course scorned in his time, now visited by millions. How strange the peaks and troughs of human life. I come away with gratitude. Gratitude for having looked again, looked deeper, seen both the longing for the warmth of companionship, and the rejection – and surpassing all, the blaze of the Eternal, the treasure beyond price – seen in an ephemeral sun flower.

Revd Richard Carter