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Posts tagged ‘Sunflowers’

Tuscany Part I: Sea, Sand and plenty of Sunflowers

While the Norms have been up and down the great boot of Italy, I have been indulging in a more relaxing affair – I’m just back from a sumptuous and sensation-tickling trip to Tuscany and the electric city of Bologna, and as a result I have so much to share that I barely even know where to begin. With sights, sounds and flavour sensations as ripe and abounding as the offerings of Italy in the hot months of the summer, I am felicitous with fresh inspiration, enlivened by my experience, and freshly fulfilled by a holiday of multisensoral pleasure.

Perfectly aligned parasols and loungers

I begin my tale in the balmy fresh light of a lazy Saturday morning. I had jetted out to Pisa after work, and arriving close to midnight, the only impression I had thus far gauged of my seaside Tuscan location was the lucid clarity of the fresh sea air (a marked-comparison with central London) and the enticing smell of the pine forests that loll lazily down to the sea edge. In the morning, it was my eyes which gorged ravenously upon the visual sensations all around. From our hotel window, an expanse of golden soft sand, tidily raked every morning, was broken only by the perfect alignment of a hundred blue parasols sat atop neatly arranged loungers. In the distance, green hills were faded into a pale turquoise because of their distance, while further yet still, an almost translucent outline of the island of Elba rose mysteriously above the horizon. While my eyes took in the scene, accompanied by a pure light warmed by the yellow lustre of an early Mediterranean sun, my ears pricked up to the gentle swish of an intermittent wave sliding, rather than crashing, upon the sandy shore. No angry traffic here, no rush of suited Londoners running to squeeze their way onto a delayed, crowded tube. Rather, the only people were those beach workers, silently preparing the space for the later arrival of tourists and locals alike, while nearby, the steamer of a large coffee machine pumped into action for a day full of making creamy cappuccinos and rich espressos.

It was straight to the said coffee bar that we headed, a moment to which I had been looking forward ever since booking my flights some months ago. Nothing surpasses the cappuccinos in Italy, whose coffee is creamy, not bitter, and whose foam is indulgent and thick. Gone is the Cafe Nero takeaway and the sprint to the office – here we had all the time in the world to indulge on the beach’s edge, before the sun warmed to its midday ferocity, and the crowds descended.

True italian cappuccino

The crowds descend with coloured parasols aplenty

When that moment came, we were already gone. My partner took me to see a sight which was bound to get my camera clicking and my artist juices running – a nearby field of sunflowers bursting from the dry soil in a sea of vivid yellow, contrasting sensationally with the deep blue sky all around. Standing in that field, surrounded by flowers equalling me in height was truly incredibly. It was no wonder that these flowers had inspired Van Gogh so. My favourites were the older, dying flowers, with the large human-sized faces, loaded with an incredibly intricate pattern of seed pods, the petals now wilting and drying up, but the flower, in the last stages of its life, still desperately faced towards the sun, turned to its master in relishing the last days of its existence. In Italian, sunflowers are called girasoli, which literally translates as it turns sun – and true to form, it was remarkable to note how these amazing flowers were all turned in one direction, a carpet of yellow faced towards the sun, and a wall of green when seen from behind.

A carpet of yellow

And another of green

I could have stayed amongst the sunflowers all day, but alas, my photographic adventure did constitute some form of trespass onto this farmland, albeit in the name of art. We returned thereafter to safer pastures – to the incredibly vineyard views of a vineyard known to my partner’s brother, and a nearby field with large bails of hay perfect to inspired Monet himself.

Hay for Monet

What Milan exudes in fashion and Bologna offers in food, Tuscany has in countryside views which stun and inspire in equal measure – I’m giving a whole post over to these lavish landscapes tomorrow. But the great benefit of where I was staying (Donoratico) was that having had my fill of inland views under a progressively searing sun, the coast with its relieving sea breezes was never far away, and it was to the soft sandy beach of Donoratico that I returned that afternoon, wiling away the hours splashing around in soft silky seawater with light pale-ocre sand squishing softly beneath my toes, until the sun retained its former morning pallor, before retreating back under the horizon in hues of orange, then pink and then a devastating crimson red. Until tomorrow…

Sunset over the Alta Maremma coast

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Dutch Masters Season Part 1: Van Gogh

Its atmospheric canals may be frozen (or perhaps now melting?), its wooden clogs uncomfortable on the feet, and its multi-coloured fields of tulips yet to burst into life, but Holland has so much to offer, especially to art lovers like myself. I’m not overly familiar with the Netherlands – I went once on a geography field trip at school, when we concentrated on the art of land reclamation and urban morphology, but it has always saddened me that I never had time to appreciate the cosmopolitan, thriving city of Amsterdam and all its multifaceted cultural offerings. This weekend, all that will change, as the Daily Norm will head to Amsterdam and hopefully posts bursting with accounts of the great city, its art and its buzzing life will swiftly follow. In anticipation of this exciting event, the Daily Norm is happy to launch the Dutch Masters Season, a three-part series looking at masters of Dutch art, as well as Norm reinterpretations of three Dutch masterpieces. This will be followed by a Sunday Supplement examining the influence of a particular Dutch supremo on a family portrait I created in 2010, and then my trip to Amsterdam will explode onto your screens in a (hopefully) spectacular fashion.

So, without further ado, let us begin this brief cultural survey of Dutch artists with this feature on a painter who is without a doubt the most famous Dutch master of them all… the indomitable sunflower-loving, paint-eating, ear-lopping saviour of colour, Vincent Van Gogh.

What can be said about Van Gogh that hasn’t been said before? A couple of years ago we got a huge anthology containing translations of his numerous letters, allowing us an invaluable insight into the artist’s sensitive, insightful mind. Last year, a new biography was published, sensationally claiming that rather than killing himself, as is the fabled (and much romanticised) tale, he was quite probably killed in a tragic accident involving local children playing with a gun. Every year some weighty international art institution holds a retrospective of his work, and chocolate boxes, t-shirts and mouse mats containing starry nights, sunflowers or a green faced portrait with decisive brush strokes and vibrant colours fly off the shelves of souvenir shops all over the world. So of course there isn’t much left to say. But where there is renown, let a Norm refresh. Where Van Gogh bandages his ear, let a Norm bandage his face. Yes, I give you, in the style of Van Gogh, Norm with a bandaged face…

Norm with a bandaged face (after Van Gogh) (acrylic on canvas, 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

And the original…

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889, Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

So why did this particular Van Gogh work inspire me? (After all, there are countless Van Gogh portraits to chose from, as well as a number of portraits of the local postman, the doctor, Gaughin’s chair and the like). Well to start with, this painting lives close to home for me, part of the wonderful collection of London’s Courtauld Institute, where more often than not, you can get this portrait, as with many of the other impressionist masterpieces in the collection, all to yourself, while Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, kept down the road at the National Gallery, is surrounded by a permanent semi-circle of tourists and school groups. But then there’s the bandaged ear, which is after all emblematic of the legend that is Van Gogh.

Van Gogh: souvenir hell

It happened one dark night in December 1888. Paul Gauguin, the tumultuous Tahiti-loving artist was staying with Van Gogh in the Yellow House in Arles, Provence. They argued savagely and Van Gogh came at Gauguin with a knife. At the last minute he turned on himself, cut a chunk out of his ear, and attempted to gift it to a local prostitute who sensibly alerted the authorities thus probably saving Van Gogh from bleeding to death. This painting, one of two containing the bandage (and therefore suitably amplifying the tale), was painted a month later in the comparable calm of post-cataclysmic reflection, with Gauguin gone, and Van Gogh all alone, once again, staring in the mirror in contemplation.

Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (1888, Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

For me, it’s the perfect Van Gogh, because it gives us snippets of everything he represents. Broad, almost vibrating brush strokes expressing the rawness of his emotions, and the vigour and haste with which he sought to express his feelings on the canvas. A colour palette which is bold, unforgiving, almost happy despite the downbeat subject portrayed. On the wall hangs a japanese print, a recognition of the great influence of Japonisme in his work, while to his right, an easel and canvas is in progress – here I have used a bit of good old artistic licence, adding the sunflowers which are so equally emblematic of Van Gogh – just in case you weren’t immediately sure who I was referencing with this painting! In this way, the warmth of Provence contrasts with the coldness of winter portrayed in the artist’s thick coat and strange furry hat, an outfit which appears to isolate Van Gogh from the viewer, enveloping him in a melancholy introspection which is shared with the audience only through the piercing gaze of his sickly green eyes.

Well there you have it – and it looks like I had a lot to say after all. For me, Van Gogh is a master. Sometimes his works are criticised for being overly loose, coarsely painted and unsophisticated. But you only have to look at his early portraits of peasants, such as his saturnine masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, to recognise his skill as a draftsman. Rather his coarse, thick application of paint allowed him to paint fast, and this was crucial in allowing him to express his vigorous and volatile emotions on canvas, as and when they moved him. And it is this living, breathing, unforgiving emotional intensity which remains so evident in his canvases today in every decisive and quivering brush stroke, capturing audiences and inspiring biographers and curators aplenty, whether it be through sunflowers, cypress trees or in the sorrowful eyes of his many self-portraits. This is why, to my mind, Van Gogh is a true Dutch master.

Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Come back tomorrow for Dutch Master number 2.

Postscript: In case you were wondering, no, Norms don’t have ears, but that doesn’t mean that this Van Gogh pretender couldn’t have inflicted a grizzly wound on himself in the same general area!