Meeting An Old Friend For the First Time

Irises, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) oil on canvas, 27.99″x 36.61″,
Getty Center Room W204, Image Source

Meeting and Old Friend for the First Time

by Adam R. Nettesheim

Last Spring Jennifer and I spoke at “Harbor”, the Bible Lecture series at Pepperdine University.

It was a wonderful to be in Malibu California and to see Jennifer again and to explore the conference together. We were honored to present a session called “Seeking God Thru the Arts” where we encouraged our audience to look for how God might be speaking to them and their communities through the engagement and creation of art. Our session was on Friday evening and so during the week we were able to spend time being inspired by various other speakers and activities the conference had to offer. It was a feast for the mind, heart and soul and I highly recommend.

The day before our talk, my Dad and I decided to go on an afternoon trip to the Getty Museum.

We were awed by the scope of this museum and fascinated by how such diverse and beautiful art from across history had been collected into one space. I was given the advice about art museums that there is always too much to take in, so pick one or two pieces you want to give your full presence and attention to, go see them, and then what time you have left, give to the rest. And so I did. As beautiful as the paintings by Rembrandt, Turner, Monet not to mention the Illuminated Manuscripts and the Roman Statuary all were, I was there to meet an old friend for the first time. 

Cliché’s can become so for good reason and even though many may know and love Van Gogh’s work, he is anything but cliche.

I came to meet Van Gogh. The Getty museum holds a number of his sketches and one of his paintings. It was the reason I had come. I anxiously tapped my foot as the tram climbed the hill towards the white welcome center of the museum. I squirmed like a child at Disneyland who is excited by all of the rides around him but is really hoping to meet Mickey.  We picked up a map and like pirates searching for the lost treasure we walked as quickly and as politely as we could to the building housing art painted after 1800, the West Pavilion.

We climbed the stairs and walked through a room full of incredible art. My eyes darted from frame to frame, like a bloodhound sniffing the ground in a frenzy. I walked around a corner…and there, at the end of a long room, hung in the most prominent place was the object of my mad search. My pulse quickened as my pace slowed and the room around me seemed to fade.

My feet finally stopped and at last I held my gaze on the brushstrokes…I couldn’t believe it… and as the magnificence of this moment slowly sank into my awareness I kept saying “I am standing in front of a Van Gogh!!”

The plaque reads ‘Irises’, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853-1890, Oil on canvas.Van Gogh painted Irises in the garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he was recuperating from a severe attack of mental illness. Although he considered it more a study than a finished picture, it was exhibited at the Salon de Indpéndants in 1889. Irises exemplifies van Gogh’s practice of working directly from life. Its energy and theme – the regenerative powers of the earth – express the artist’s deeply personal belief in the divinity of art and nature.”

I felt a warm sensation and a lump in my throat as my eyes climbed up and down every brush-stroke and swirl of paint.

I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh did not consider this a finished painting, but merely a study. That did not matter to me. This painting was my connection to my dear friend. This board and this paint were from his hands. The paint captured his breath and the air molecules trapped underneath the dried pigment from the day he painted it 130 years ago. And the place he painted it was the same place he painted the great “The Starry Night.” Van Gogh painted both these masterpieces and many more while in an asylum in the south of France. I can imagine him there with His ear still bandaged from his infamous self-inflicted severed ear. In some ways we can consider this piece a part of his art therapy. His desire to heal and his drive to create coming together. I felt a sadness for this dear friend who loved and lived and lost. Who knew such sorrow and pain and yet at the moment he was splashing purple and green and yellow and white and orange and red and brown and black to this canvas, he was striving to find the light again.

I adored his signature on the bottom right of the canvas. Simply “Vincent”.

It broke my heart to think that one year later, he would succumb to his darkness and take his own life. I cried for my friend.

And yet, Van Gogh’s work stands as a beacon of beauty and his life, regardless of its end, declares that there is still light to be found even in the darkest of places. That there is light and high beauty forever beyond the furthest reach of shadow.

And I cannot be anything but grateful that he dropped these breadcrumbs that all point to this light. What a courageous thing it is to believe when you don’t see. To strive even when you feel weak. To have courage even when you are frightened. To have faith in things hoped for and unseen.

After what seemed like a lifetime I noticed the other museum patrons around me, crowding in to snap a selfie or a quick photo, then quickly moving on. I was shocked at what felt like disrespect! I wanted to stand on a chair and shout “People! Can you not see what a gift this painting is?! What light are you missing by not standing before it?! A photo cannot replicate the beauty of seeing the light dance across these swirls of paint! Why not just look at a picture online at home and save yourself the expense! Please! Come, see it from the side angle! Stand further back! Kneel up close and look at it from below! This is a treasure and this artist gave such a gift to you! This is a window into the mind of one of the worlds great men and a beautiful soul! Why do you disregard it so?! They that have eyes, let them come and see!” 

Eventually, it was time to move on. I had lost all sense of time. My Dad said that I had stood there for the better part of an hour…it did not feel that way to me. A bit sheepishly, I decided to snap a selfie of my own. I wanted to keep proof that I was there. I needed a witness bearer that I had this experience. Then I tore myself away and spent much less time with Turner and Monet and Rembrandt. And then I found myself seeing great masterworks as I walked by quickly, snapping a quick cellphone photo and moving on to the next. One could have easily shouted my critique for the masses at me as I passed such masterpieces. They were also, each in their own way, windows into the mind of masters and portals by which God engage with our imaginations and hearts. But maybe each of us only needs one door into paradise.

Maybe it’s gluttony and foolishness to demand more. I certainly enjoyed much more art that day…and yes, I took a few selfies. But my heart remained with the door opened for me by my friend Vincent.

Van Gogh is not Jesus. But he points me to Jesus. Van Gogh is not God but though he captures my heart and draws my spirit in, he makes me love our God the Father even more. 

I came to Pepperdine to meet with my friend Jennifer.  I came to the museum with my Dad.  I came to that room to meet Van Gogh. And I left having spent time with my oldest Friend and God the Father. 

I could not help but wonder if how I felt about the passing crowds was how Jesus’ mother felt at those sneering at Jesus as He hung on the cross, the cross that is symbolized by the wooden one I wore around my neck. “Do you not understand what He is giving for you? Why do you disregard it so? Why can’t you see?”

God is declaring His love all around us. In the faces of our family, in the air we breath, in the smell of flowers and the kindness of a stranger or the beauty of the sunlight as it dances through an open window.

When your is heart quickened by a song or your eyes widened by a beautiful illustration or your tongue dances at the taste of a delicious meal, in all these things God is declaring, “Can you not see? I love you.”

They that have ears, eyes, tongues, noses and hands, let them hear, see, taste, smell and feel.

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