“To Go to a Star”: Participation Mystique in Starry Night Over the Rhône
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,” said the father of luminescent stars in velvety blue night skies. Perhaps there is more to the dreams he paints than the beauty of colour. Dreams of starry night skies kept haunting young Vincent, as he had once related to his friend, painter Emile Bernard, in 1888; thus, Starry Night Over the Rhône came forth, only to be the ancestral parent of his flagship Starry Night, in which he depicted the night view from his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, and Café Terrace at Night.
In Starry Night Over the Rhône two lovers walk by the river; there is a sky-illuminating constellation, The Great Bear, only to be paled by the stark brightness of gas light reflections on the face of the water. Standing in front of this masterpiece at the Musee D’Orsay, contemplating, I find a vision of the artist depicted here: a ‘blue’-print of Vincent’s destination—and destiny. He had reached for the stars, but in his own way: “Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.” And he certainly takes that route, leaving behind him a whole trail of stars, thousands of art works produced in such a short period of time. As if the purpose of his life was to give life to these paintings, these expressions of nature, of the human psyche with all its universality: “I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”
His life was a journey to these stars, his “death to go to a star” an abnegation of the self, a declaration of his mission as a vehicle for art. As Carl Jung once said: "The unborn work in the psyche of the artist is a force of nature that achieves its end either with tyrannical might or with the subtle cunning of nature herself, quite regardless of the personal fate of the man who is its vehicle."
My other live encounter with Starry Night Over the Rhône was an immersive experience at the Van Gogh Alive exhibition (in Dubai), where people felt as if they were literally swaddled in Van Gogh’s paintings, words, and spirit. The Starry Night paintings projected on the surrounding walls around us, along with the music and artist’s quotes resembled those of poetry, visual poetry, which he strove to compose with colour: “Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.” So Van Gogh’s poetry transcends the paper only to find itself transferred onto canvas. But to look at, to feel, to take in and be taken in by the blue and yellow tidal brushstrokes actually brought out the pulse in his visual verse and gave life back to the artist.
Blue speaks the language of a hundred metaphors, and the illuminating yellows in the night sky and on the surface of the river express a thousand emotions: “How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun.”
The interactive exhibition rooms were reverberating with life, with the extension of a life unfulfilled except after its end, with the legacy it left behind. It is not as if Vincent had any unfinished business, but the paintings were actually continuing his own work, his own life. As the artist himself had said, “The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.” And as his paintings live on, he lives through them. And in some way, so do we through this experience that Lucien Lévy-Bruhl would have dubbed as participation mystique, or “mystical participation.” Returning to Carl Jung, who clarifies Lévy-Bruhl’s term, “it denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.” The response most people have with Van Gogh’s art is of a very emotional nature, creating a palpable mysterious intimate relationship between the observer and the painting.
This is the kind of relationship Van Gogh had with his artefacts, and the kind of relation we have with them as well. In them we see the immortal side of his identity: a whole life of colour, pain, and happiness-seeking despite the life of suffering he had led. We hear the poetry spoken in a universal language, the language of an experience we all share, the experience of love, life, and pain combined and expressed by colour. This was how Van Gogh, like many of us, knew life: “The way to know life is to love many things.”
But the question remains: Why Van Gogh? What is it that makes this artist, despite his late artistic vocation and early death, live up to his name and be a “Vincent”, a conqueror for more than a century?
With Van Gogh, there’s so much about soul in colour—about rhythm, and dance. He found a fortune of colour and life in illuminating the night sky: “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”
There is so much to see and even listen to in the synesthetic artefacts that he had intended for us to both see and hear, as he had once stated: “In painting I want to say something comforting in the way that music is comforting.” His musical paintings were both solace and therapy to him, the embodiment of the tortured artist archetype. In this almost-audible work, there is music along with the stars over the Rhône —a melody as above so below, both in the sky and on the river’s surface, where blue and yellow strokes dance to the tunes of one another. He believed in perfect pairings of colour in order to create illuminating effects in night skies: “There are colours which cause each other to shine brilliantly, which form a couple which complete each other.”
Then again, along with the stars, Vincent’s eyes still speak to us through his self-portraits. At the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, there is another Van Gogh self-portrait (1887 version, before the infamous ear-slicing). As I stand in front of this brush-stroked selfie by the world’s most loved Dutch master, the large gamut of yellows, greens, and blues in his wandering face once again recalls the person in the picture, the icon behind the painting. I stand there for a while, despite the queue behind me, for isn’t it Vincent himself who had once claimed that, “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning”?
And there is just an incredible depth of meaning while conversing with Vincent’s own self-rendition—there’s the pain, the passion, and the path to the stars he chose to take in his Starry Night Over the Rhône.
There was so much sorrow behind every star: “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” Suffering from schizophrenia, manic depression, hypergraphia, and Geschwind syndrome (temporal lobe epilepsy), Vincent lived in a time when there wasn’t much support or acceptance for his psychological turbulence, constantly teetering on the edge of derangement: “I wish they would only take me as I am.” According to Martin Gayford’s biographical novel, The Yellow House, “The brushwork has a flurried quality, perhaps reflecting Vincent’s anxious condition.”
He probably felt the need for help—voluntarily admitting himself into the Saint-Rémy mental health institute, and mentioning “persecution mania”, among his other sufferings, to his brother, Theo, in one of his letters. However, there was more than the challenge of suffering—there was a late vocation that somehow negated the artist’s identity—his paintings were the new ‘self’ that had emerged from him. The paintings displayed more than technique and effort: his works were a part of him, the eternal part that would live on for many years after the young artist has left the world. His legacy, the thousands of art pieces scattered around the world in the protective abodes of famous museums, are his alter-ego, everything he wanted to achieve, and everything he wanted to be during his lifetime.
Paintings of the artist (who couldn’t sell more than one painting during his lifetime), once filling the walls of the Yellow House, have now filled the world’s museums. I have had the chance to contemplate many of these masterpieces in different places: Sunflowers at the central hall in London’s National Gallery (arriving at its current home in the 1920s—despite the time of great resistance to modern art then), Thatched Roofs Near Auvers (his very last painting) and Cabanes Blanche at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, the famous Les Vessenots in Auvers encased in Madrid’s Thyssen Bornemisza museum, Tete de Femme at the Reina Sophia, a self-portrait at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and the famous painting of his Arles bedroom at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.
Vincent the artist was the man who had sold only one painting during his lifetime, the man whose art (including Starry Night Over the Rhône) had only been exhibited twice during his lifetime (at self-organized displays in Montmartre). His paintings, however, are the other Vincent, the non-Vincent—the rich, the accepted, the appreciated, and the immortal: “The pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived.” He never lived to see any of that success, but he gave life to these paintings. His identity today is one of the most assertive ones in modern art history; through them, Van Gogh remains—alive. Today, four of the top thirty most expensive oil paintings in history belong to Van Gogh.
This post-impressionist who never belonged to any school of art has turned various elements of nature into motifs; he is seen in every sunflower (“The sunflower is mine, in a way”) as well as every bottle of Absinthe, and his life and works have inspired various modes of art like Martin Gayford’s novel The Yellow House (and its film version) and world’s first fully oil-painted rotoscoped animation movie, Loving Vincent.
Van Gogh’s road of “death to go to a star” had not only been that of physical demise, but that of ego dissolution: “I consciously choose the dog’s path through life. I shall be poor; I shall be a painter…” He chose to be a vessel for art and to dissolve his ego in it, allowing his imagination “to expand away from the egoistic mood, [in order to] become vehicles for the universal thought and merge with the universal mood."
Participation mystique with his masterpieces, then, has kept his identity, as well as ours, well-preserved: as Jung would describe,“an individual may have an unconscious identity with some other person or object.” This is how Vincent merges his soul with painting. This is how the Vincent becomes in-‘vince’-ible.
Editor's Note: This piece was written for the Ekphrastic Van Gogh Challenge, for Starry Night Over the Rhone. Out of consideration for its length, The Ekphrastic Review decided to publish it separately from the other entries for this artwork.
Jung, Carl, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6: Psychological Types ed. and trans. by
Gerhard Adler and Richard Francis Carrington Hull (Princeton: Princeton 2014)
Jung, Carl, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, ed. and trans. by Gerhard Adler and Richard Francis Carrington Hull (Princeton: Princeton 1978)
Jung, Carl, Man and His Symbols, ed. by Aniela Jaffé (New York: Dell, 1968)
Gayford, Martin, The Yellow House (London: Penguin Books, 2007)
Roula-Maria Dib is a university professor at the American University in Dubai where she teaches courses of English language and literature. She has published some poems, essays, and articles in magazines and journals such as Renaissance Hub, The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies, Agenda, Two Thirds North, and The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS). She recently completed her PhD in Modernist Literature and Psychoanalysis from the University of Leeds in the UK. Her dissertation focused on Modernist literature (namely the works of James Joyce, Hilda Doolittle, and W.B. Yeats) in light Carl Jung’s psychological theory of individuation, or spiritual transformation. The themes that pervade her work usually revolve around different aspects of human nature, art ekphrasis, surrealism, and the collective unconscious.
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