Carmen Giménez, curator, on Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night
GB Tell me why you chose this.
CG I chose this painting because I’ve been working with James Turrell for so many years and, in my view, Turrell’s Skyspaces are celestial observatories designed to reveal the mystery of light, physically and spiritually, looking at the sky, looking at the stars and the Milky Way. When I started writing about him, I looked into astronomy and his influences. Of course I thought of the more well known Van Gogh painting, Starry Night, but I like this one because it reminds me of James Turrell. You see the sky but you also see electric light. For James there is no difference between natural light and electric light. And I find it such a beautiful painting.
GB It’s interesting hearing you talk about the natural light next to the electric light. Because the painting shows the human side of Van Gogh that painted heartbreakingly emotional works but there’s also the transcendent element that’s tied to his famous quote that when he felt in need of religion he went out and painted the stars. Which side affects you more strongly?
CG For me it would be the stars rather than the electric light. Van Gogh studied the stars, the position of the moon and the celestial objects. Nothing is there by chance.
GB Was his interest more scientific then, than the stars simply representing infinity?
CG Yes but it also has a religiosity that is sublime. In the later half of the 19th Century you have Jules Verne’s imagination, which seethed with surprising voyages of vertical exploration including From the Earth to the Moon, as well as Camille Flammarion’s popular astronomy books. Van Gogh was inspired by both of them and imagined interplanetary travel. He had all these fantasies, which were so rooted in that moment which would be reaffirmed later by the reality of space flight. Humanity always has the source of light as a reference. It’s biblical, it’s Genesis – and I think it’s also the entire story of Western Art. In 1609, 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei looked for the first time into a starry night with a telescope. He discovered that countless stars composed the Milky Way. There’s a German artist called Adam Elsheimer who painted a night scene in 1609 that’s in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. He studied in Rome and was the first artist to paint the starry night. It was the first time you could observe the Milky Way in a painting. Then look at Vermeer’s painting of the Astronomer, which is on display at The Louvre. The book lying on the table has been identified as the 1621 second edition of Adriaan Metius’s Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae, that talks about astronomical research and geometry.
Of course, I’m very much a Picasso person. He loved Flammarion and in 1926 he did his pictures with dots and lines. He admired celestial maps and he collects those thoughts in these drawings. The stars have been very important in the history of the Avant Garde. Even Picasso in 1928, having been through all these art movements, from cubism to surrealistic influence, returned to the stars.
GB Do you think that studying the stars gives us hope of unraveling the mystery of existence or is the mystery itself beautiful to you?
CG I like the mystery of existence. Nietzsche declared, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” The romantic excitation of the night and the contemplation of the stars appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
James Turrell started out as an aviator. That makes me think of a quotation I love from Sainte-Exupéry about flying: “The landscape was still laved in golden sunlight, but already something was evaporating out of it. I know nothing, nothing in the world, equal to the wonder of nightfall in the air. Those who have been enthralled by the witchery of flying will know what I mean… Mermoz said once, “It’s worth it, it’s worth the final smash-up.””
GB James Turrell and Van Gogh shared a love for twilight. But James wants to present us with light as a thing, whereas Van Gogh wanted the beauty of his paintings to come from within him.
CG I think James Turrell has this different perspective from flying himself. Van Gogh was so strong and so pure. In the words of the Don McLean song about Starry Night, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” I don’t think he was crazy, he was full of love and angst. Starry Night is the most visited painting in MoMA. One of the reasons I chose the Café Terrace rather than the wildness of the Starry Night is that the Café Terrace has a human scale. It feels more peaceful.
GB Do you think Van Gogh had a genius for painting.
CG Yes, he was really rooted in his own vision and his own world. He had this extraordinary brother who helped him, but at the same time Theo was quite helpless. He couldn’t prevent what happened in the end. Picasso knew very well who he was. Cézanne, Matisse, they knew what their contribution was. But Van Gogh didn’t have this. He was very conscious of himself and, at the same time, very disoriented.
GB Have you read the Balzac story, The Unknown Masterpiece?
GB Do you believe in that kind of magic touch he describes, that brings a painting to life?
CG Oh yes. And of course Van Gogh would have read Balzac. In fact it was Picasso who was obsessed with this story and rented the house where it’s set. That’s where he painted Guernica.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
CG It has to provoke a very strong emotion. Something where your heart is lifted and you feel afloat, you feel a great happiness come over you. Art gives that to me. When I am in front of an extraordinary work of art it gives me so much joy.