Expressing the inexpressible

Over these next three weeks, let’s look at ways at ways artists attempt to express non-rational experiences with their gods.
Vincent Van Gogh was a 19th century painter who tried to make a career out of becoming a Christian preacher for the poor, before becoming a full-time artist. Many of his most intimate ideas are expressed in his paintings and in his letters to his younger brother Theo, an art collector who supported him throughout his career. Read through the selection of his letters in our section for the week. They are taken from
Van Gogh tells Theo to “have more hope than memories (letter 37), and not to “immerse too deeply in the worldly mire” (letter 43). Go through the letters that are posted in our readings. (It’s OK if you don’t understand the immediate context for the letters.) Describe some of the issues Van Gogh struggles with, and how it relates to expressing “something” more than a “thing.”
Next, click through some of Van Gogh’s art at Many of Van Gogh’s paintings are of Nature, and yet, as he writes, the beauty “of Nature is not the same as religious feeling” (letter 38). How does he express this difference? Describe some details of his paintings of nature that might highlight some of his remarks on art and religion. Give concrete examples from the texts and his art. For example, many art historians believe his sunflowers and night skies express more than literal flowers and empty space. You’re not expected to know anything about art history. Just start giving your interpretation of particular paintings when you think religious connections may be relevant.
Lastly, check out our short video on the paintings of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman. He is famous for his lithographs featuring Navajo women, as you will see. Gorman’s religious tradition, and the gods who make up the tradition, are quite different from Van Gogh’s. Still, pick out details of specific Gorman paintings (you don’t need to know their names) that you think expresses a religious yearning that is similar (or different) from Van Gogh’s.

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