One of Vincent van Gogh’s greatest works is The Night Café, a masterpiece in red and green depicting the local bar above which the tormented genius was living during his time in Arles. Painter and acclaimed van Gogh biographer Julian Bell gives his passionate view on why the painting is worth going to see at the Yale University Art Gallery and explains how Vincent’s interest in the shadowed zones of life took form amidst a deeper, wider context formed by the great social novelists and muckrakers of 19th-century Europe. Both van Gogh and Bell, literary artists, ask: can a work married to its own medium succeed on the same terms as literature?
When people call a painting “literary,” they rarely speak in high praise. Good taste and standard modernist wisdom tell us that paint should make us think about paint and not about the things poets and novelists get up to. But …
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Julian Bell is a writer and painter. He is the author of the recent biography Vincent van Gogh.