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  • Claire Kalikman

John Walsh’s van Gogh Lecture: A Study of Genius

The Yale Globalist

October 2018

On Friday, October 5th, esteemed retired professor John Walsh gave a lecture about van Gogh. John Walsh is the former director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He graduated from Yale in 1961, where he was a member of Skull and Bones. Over the last several years, the Yale University Art Gallery has organized a number of semester-long lecture series in collaboration with John Walsh. The lectures have focused on a range of topics within the canon of art history. There are two lectures this month, followed by four in April. The lecture was so full that not only was the auditorium in the YUAG completely occupied, but the ushers had to turn people away from the overflow room in LORIA.

I’m curious as to why the lecture series is so popular, when there are only about 20 art history majors per class. How does the popularity of a voluntary lecture series not translate to enrollment in classes? I don’t have an answer to this. People I talked to came from all over Connecticut, from as far as New London and Bridgeport. Many talked about how the movie “Loving Vincent” reignited their interest in van Gogh. The movie is an incredibly innovation in cinema. Artists painted hundreds of oil paintings that together created the scenes of the movie. I think what also made it so incredible is that the film took figures we’ve seen in van Gogh’s art, figures who are recognizable to us such as a postman or a young boy, and illuminated their inner lives and their interactions with one another.

Walsh’s lectures focus on looking closely at the pieces. It seems that the art lecturer’s job is to teach us how to see. What we really need to do is stop, slow down, and focus on one thing. Looking at art here is not just visually appealing, but is also a meditative act. Mr. Walsh said of van Gogh: “That man feels deeply.”

Another important aspect of the artist’s life that Walsh highlighted is that geniuses do not start out that way. One of my favorite quotes about art history reads: “The history of art is not the history of works of art but the history of the manifestation of human genius in art forms.” But even geniuses need practice. If we look at his early works, some of which the YUAG has, they are not particularly striking. But then you see his more famous works, and his ability is astounding. The viewer also wonders how the artist goes from the dark sadness of “Potato Eaters” to the sunny beach scenes of Provence. Again, we can’t have an answer. What we can say is that van Gogh can’t help seeing colors where he should just be a normal person. In “Potato Eaters” for instance, if we look closely at the details of the kitchen table, the piece of furniture that appears a banal shade of green is actually striated with lines of green and pink, much like a piece of tapestry. It turns out van Gogh actually had a fascination with weaving. It’s these kinds of details that make art history so wonderful to explore.

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