Why Is a van Gogh Painting the Subject of a Twitter Controversy? – ARTnews.com
Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users have embroiled themselves in a heated debate in the past few days, and this has nothing to do with politics, celebrities, or K-pop stans – the topics that normally populate a person’s Twitter feed. The subject of this discourse was far less likely: a famous painting by Vincent van Gogh from 1888 called Café Terrace at Night and a reinterpretation of the French Post-Impressionist masterpiece by contemporary Chinese artist Haixia Liu. For example, a 132-year-old canvas sparked arguments about whether realism was the highest art form and a series of bizarre memes.
How did we get here?
On August 7, a user named Margarita tweeted images of the work of Van Gogh and Liu that feature two stylistically different shots of the same scene. In the van Gogh, a street café in Arles and its guests are decorated in shimmering orange, yellow and deep blue tones. In the Liu rendering, the same cafe is painted in a much more naturalistic way, in a way that better reflects our world. “Should show how overrated Van Gogh is,” wrote Margarita.
On the subject of matching items
But old (and uninformed) tweets never die, and so a lot of margaritas tweeted and made fun of it over the past weekend. A viral tweet with more than 420,000 likes read: “The fetishization of realism is killing art.” Others were more pointed with another viral tweet reading: “I understand why Van Gogh cut off his ear and shot himself in the middle of an open field, as I understand it now.”
What is realism and why are people using it as an argument against Van Gogh?
The definitions of realism are wide and varied, but van Gogh’s artistic output could in some ways be seen as a reaction to capital R-realism that was the predominant type in France in the 1870s, just before van Gogh and those who preceded him Impressionists became active. (Some of van Gogh’s works show the influence of realism – he has depicted poor French citizens in ruthless detail in works like The Potato Eaters from 1885.) The late art historian Linda Nochlin, who wrote a book on realism in 1971, described the movement as such, “Its aim was to provide a truthful, objective, and impartial representation of the real world based on a careful observation of contemporary life.” This had an outwardly political dimension: artists like Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet and Honoré Daumier rejected the bourgeois theme favored by critics of the time and used their art to draw attention to the French working class and its oppression on a daily basis faced. Realism was not “stylistically”, as Nochlin wrote, but less dependent on visual splendor than movements like Romanticism.
The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists then took the innovations of realism a step further, painting everyday scenes in France, but in ways that were aesthetically opposite to Courbet and the like. Her pictures were unabashedly subjective, full of coloristic effects that had nothing to do with life and instead were interpretations of the play of light in a particular scene.
What’s the backstory behind Café Terrace at Night?
Van Gogh was fascinated by light and the way it shaped our understanding of color. When he created this painting, which is one of his most famous works, he experimented with how the night interacted with the lights in the café’s lamps. “The night,” van Gogh once wrote, “is livelier and more colorful than the day.” In this view of a sidewalk cafe in Arles, France, where the artist lived for 14 months while waiting for Paul Gauguin’s arrival in town, van Gogh creates a brilliant contrast between a starry sky and a dining area against the cool blue of the night warm yellow of the interiors. The perspective is shortened so that the road moves diagonally into the distance.
Can Café Terrace at Night be seen in person?
Yes – coronavirus-related travel restrictions allow this of course. It is currently owned by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, which exhibits around 90 paintings by van Gogh. The museum reopened in June and is now introducing social distancing rules. And when you’re in Arles, you can even go to the café that van Gogh once painted. It is now called Le Café Van Gogh and although the name has changed it still has the restaurant’s signature yellow awnings, as depicted in the painting.
Who is Haixia Liu and what does he have to do with Van Gogh?
Not to be confused with a weightlifter of the same name. Liu is a painter born in the Chinese province of Hubei, known for her naturalistic paintings of cafes and alleys in European cities like Venice and Paris. He started out as a graphic designer for a packaging company and switched to painting full time, according to a biography on the Fulcrum Gallery’s website, where his art is for sale. Now his art is widespread online. Cafe Van Gogh (2008), his version of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, is available in prints priced at just under $ 20.
Is Liu’s painting really a reason to abandon impressionism and post-impressionism?
No, it’s not worth canceling Van Gogh and his cohort because they haven’t painted art that looks just like life itself. For van Gogh, what he was painting was reality, even if it didn’t look like it. “It is not the language of painters, but the language of nature that one should hear, the feeling for things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures,” he once wrote.
Who responded best to the controversy?
A user who tweeted a meme with a still image from the Real Husbands of Hollywood TV series, in which actress Angell Conwell holds the now embarrassed comedian Kevin Hart on her shoulder while she fends off another woman. The meme makes it look like Conwell – a representative of the “art community” – is protecting Van Gogh from a woman who says: