Sunflowers | Vincent van Gogh | 1888 – Part 4
Comes from Part 3
Symbols and meanings
The most cliché interpretation on the Sunflowers lies on the fact that once cut, the flowers quickly wither. Because of that, Vincent’s painting is generally thought to symbolize “the ephemeral of life” or something like that. Although this is a perfectly valid interpretation, we are going to see that there is lot more than that to it.
The painting has a deeper symbolic dimension. When we hear the word “sunflower”, we immediately relate it to the sun. It represents, in almost all cultures, a god or, at least, a manifestation of the divine. Pagans divinized the sun as it was the one who brought life, the one which made the crops grow. When Christianity replaced the pagan cultures, it used to fuse representations from these cultures with their own to make Christianity more accessible to the non believers. That’s why, in the early Christian paintings, the saints and holy figures were represented with a halo around their heads. This halo was nothing more than a symbol of the sun that, has we said, referred to the absolute. In the bible, in the book of John, chapter 8, verse 12, Jesus himself says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. So, it is not surprising that the light and the sun had, for Vincent, a deeper meaning: they represented the God he wanted to please during his whole life, whether in his attempt to become a pastor o in spreading his Word to a coal miner’s community in Belgium. His tireless search for sun and for pure light (the reason why he moved to Arles) was, also, a metaphor of the search for God.
But we have to go beyond. To the subject itself: the sunflowers. The Dutch religious accustomed to have books and posters with drawings that pictured different verses of the bible. So, anyone committed to the church knew the symbology of the sunflower. As it, as the day passes, points its flower towards the sun with the aim of better absorbing sunlight; metaphorically represents the ideal of the Christian life: the man constantly looking at God. We must not forget that Vincent’s father was a minister of the church and, therefore, there is no doubt that he knew this symbol.
Not by chance I have entitled one of the previous posts as Different yellows. In many works by the artist, the color yellow has a fundamental importance. If we look at his wheat fields, the room in Arles and, obviously, his sunflowers; along with his preference for “the yellow house”, we would realize that Vincent had a particular obsession with this color. But why? There is a psychological approach to this. If we look at the significance of the color yellow in Max Lüscher’s Psychology of colors, we would find that the color represents “… the clarity that reflects light and, this way, irradiates a bright calmness to everyone. The yellow corresponds to the free relaxation, to dissolution. It is a relief from the tiring, from the exhausting and from the inhibiting”. Calmness? Relaxation? Relief from the exhausting? Having read the previous post, we know that Vincent’s personality had opposed characteristics from those. As we said, he was shy, introvert, troubled and suffered. Because of this, Vincent’s preference for the yellow acted as an attempt of compensation in order to incorporate what he lacked of. It is, the artist had no calm, or relaxation, or relief: that why he painted them. Another proof of this is that, after Arles, the artist, a little crazier, was admitted in Saint Paul’s Hospital, in the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There, in the period he was lucid between his seizures, painted many of his most important paintings. However, during one of these seizures, Vincent started to eat one of his yellow paints, which cost him an intoxication and a confiscation of his paintings as a punishment. The incorporation of the yellow in this event, instead of being symbolic, was real.
Finally, the signature of the work is also interesting. Vincent didn’t sign many of his paintings, but only those who “had soul”. But he generally did that in the corner of the canvases. In Sunflowers of 1888, the artist signs directly in the vase, for all to see, showing his pride for the painting and telling us another last thing:
Sunflowers is not a still life, is a self portrait.
~ by Álvaro Mazzino on February 4, 2011.