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Vincent Van Gogh and the Power of Human Connection
Expressions, Episode 1
Welcome to Expressions, a series that explores how we express our shared humanity through art and culture. In each installment of this series, we will examine art and culture from across the globe – both past and present - through a human lens to inform and inspire a better understanding of ourselves and our world. Subscribe and join us on this incredible journey!
Art Has Always Been Intrinsically Part of Humanity
Ancient cave paintings are some of the oldest forms of art. The oldest known images created by humans are thought to be about 70,000 years old. One of the best and oldest examples of cave art is the depiction of a bull in Lubang Jeriji Saleh, a limestone cave complex in Indonesia. The painting is that of a bull and is about 40,000 years old.
As an example for music fans, archeologists discovered bone and ivory flutes in Germany dating to about 35,000 years old.
And if jewelry satisfies your art craving, ivory beads were found at a Paleolithic camp in Siberia dating back about 21,000 years ago.
So whether we look at painting, music, or handicrafts, art has been an essential part of the human experience since the dawn of humanity.
Art Is Universally Human
Art has always been the focal point of human expression; sounds, gestures, carvings, and creations have all been used by humans for so long to express themselves, to say what we want, and to tell stories that continue to exist even after thousands of years.
The most striking feature of art is its universality and how it reaches and connects human beings across space and time.
An abstract array of lines, shapes, and paint smears can convey a range of concepts and emotions to the viewer. I am always amazed by how an artist uses a specific color; somehow, we can know what they felt or wanted to express.
To reflect on the fine arts from our post-modern perspective, we can see how human relationships have formed and evolved with the arts throughout history. Human beings are social animals. This implies our need and ability to form groups and connections with each other and suggests a wide range of social modes of contact where art continues to play a pivotal role. Music festivals are a great example of this.
There have been different thematic periods of art throughout history when multiple artists have created their unique and specific genres. This is how artists can approach the same subjects repeatedly and make us feel a new or different emotion with every new rendition. Even today, when someone says sunflowers, it is not uncommon for people to think of the 19th-century Dutch painter Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter (1853-1890) who created one of the most profound painting techniques, which caused an illusion of movement in the painting. He is considered one of the most popular and influential fine artists due to the immense joy and connectivity his art brings.
Van Gogh wasn't famous or successful during his lifetime; he had difficulty keeping steady, healthy relationships with the people in his life, including his family. He lived in poverty and suffered from illness for most of his life. He was considered a failed artist in his day and eventually took his own life after being committed to a mental asylum.
Incredibly, Van Gogh is now one of the most imitated artists around the globe, giving people across different nations and cultures something to marvel at and immerse themselves in as part of our endless search for beauty and hope.
Shared Meaning through the Human Condition
There are multiple emotional commonalities in Van Gogh's artworks that attract the onlooker and transport them to a particular vision of everyday life. He used paint to depict emotions, often his sadness and misery. In The Potato Eaters, he sought to capture the bleak existence of country life using earth tones to craft the shapes of his subjects with a rough, bare hardness indicative of their harsh rural farm life.
Delving further, everyone can feel the signature hues of bright yellow in some of his paintings. It is a fantastic feat for an artist to bring everyone to feel the same warmth and brightness with just an image of fields or sunflowers. We look at Van Gogh's flowers to find happiness; the fantastic rendition of movement in his paintings keeps us staring into the work, forgetting, if just for a moment, our troubles.
The contrasting circular motions of the Starry Night spiraling in the dark sky are not what Vincent saw from the window of his asylum, but he depicted it with such vibrance, which is still reproduced in the work of thousands of artists. Just think about how many people today are connected through a single technique of brush strokes!
Why Is Our Connection to Art Important?
In today's capitalist-driven world of cubicles, solitary living, and the obsessive pursuit of financial gain, work-life conditions can take a heavy toll on people as they did in Van Gogh’s era. And this is where art comes in.
Art is a shared medium that makes people feel less alone and more a part of a greater whole. A novel example of this was the recent COVID-19 lockdown period of isolation and painful social alienation, which showed us just how influential art is in human life. The alienation and loneliness of Van Gogh is a clear parallel to the loneliness of today's individuals in an overpopulated, precarious world of ever-evolving technological complexity. Yet, we can always return to the essential beauty of his swirling glow of stars and flowers, the rich realness of the people depicted in his portraits, and the vast imaginative expanse of his fields.
One of the most visited and ardently loved art experiences recently developed is the Van Gogh Immersive Art Experience. Crowds of people have visited this exhibition to witness the meticulous display of his artwork. What does it mean for those who roam around the walls of the exhibit, adorned with images just a few clicks or taps away on their smart devices? This is precisely what the human-art connection entails: to experience someone else's emotions and life experiences through the art they have painted, the quality of their strokes, the context of their work, and the impression it leaves on our hearts and minds.
In the end, be it Van Gogh or any other artist, the link between human beings is explored, created, and strengthened through our artistic modes of expression. Art is how we stay connected and provide solace to each other through life’s triumphs and troubles, sharing our happiness, sorrow, and yearning using amalgamations of banal lines, subtle tones, and dashes of color.
To art is genuinely human.
Art is the great mirror of the human condition, where we see introspectively into ourselves, our relationships, and our world. What artists and works of art inspire you? How does art help you feel connected to people and the wider world? Let us know in the comments below.
All artwork featured in this article is the creative property of the creators, except for public domain works.
Research and guest contributor for this article: Shah Bukht Fatima