Van Gogh’s starry night: a philosophical analysis

The Starry Night by Van Gogh
By fabiogabetta

Circles, madness, torture: these are the first words, first concepts that the vision of the work of Van Gogh suggests me. The circles are, first, mentally, those ones Van Gogh sees in his sick mind, but nevertheless  true. Truth lies, we have no doubt, in having a deep imaginative mind, which allows us to understand the profound and true meaning of things, a meaning which seems to me to put on philosophical and psychological characteristics at a time. To understand this, we must defer to a series of citations, each of a different nature but which, nevertheless, I think complementary.

  1. The philosophical reference to the starry sky

The starry sky above me, the moral law within me.
(Kant, Critique of Practical Reason).

With no doubt, the first thought that occurs to come is linked to Kant: the immediacy and naturalness of the existential and ethical choices of each of us, the philosopher from Königsberg and the painter from Zundert too , can only be accepted as a priori, transcendental, universal reality, valid for all men and for each individual. Kant and Van Gogh, in this sense, are just two individuals  who inspire Universality, which requires the action of a Spirit – almost in the Hegelian sense – that transcends the particular individual and the same particularism that occurs on contact with the starry sky. These statement can be interpreted  as thee realization of a ‘romantic harmony, where singularity and plurality, individual monist and multiple reality meet and merge into a higher synthesis.

Van Gogh’s Starry Nifght (1889) – MoMA – Museum of Modern Art – NY – USA

But, we said, first thing that must not be questioned are our own ethical and existential choices: the moral law within us, a concept which belongs to us in its spontaneity, as well as the vision of the celestial body are free. This sort of gratitude implies a non-reflective and, therefore, not philosophical approach to artistic world. So here is the scope of this primitive standpoint by Van Gogh, with can perceived as immanent to its circles that, apparently, can alarm anyone who is looking for the hidden meaning of Van Gogh’s painting. Even it can be understood as a paradox, the underlying philosophy hidden in this fundamental work is anti-philosophy conception: it’s a philosophy which, while referring to Kant and Hegel, also seems antithetical and oppositional to the same philosophical speculation. The philosophical significance for whom of us who are disposed to admire the starry sky can not be conceived by rational reflection, that, by its deeper nature, mediates between sensory perception and interpretation that follows. Reflecting and speculating, in fact, mean to put distance between the object and the observer’s notes: these incomprehensible distance makes an experience that, psychologically, has sense in the immediate consciousness. The result is to assert  the existence of the starry sky as something obvious! We have no need to meditate, reflect on the sky existence and, thereby, the starry night is one of the most extraordinary gifts that are delivered to humans.

The art is able to reconstruct this immediacy and speculative-less  philosophy, voided of any obsessive effort of rationality and reflection. The moral law is within each person, who freely chooses her own destiny, to begin with the realization of the universal rules of life. But some contradictions are given, because of our centering on philosophical interpretation of Van Gogh’s starry night: knowing how we can be moral does not mean a passive acceptance of the social rules of the community in which we live. Conservatism and bigotry do not belong to the genius,  who is capable of new views of what, apparently, may even seem trivial – and, maybe apparently only, what more trivial of the starry sky? Yet, the contemporaneous technology hasn’t the eyes of the poet and artist, to turn to it just a look sincere and passionate: a few men are effectively capable to scan in the sky and see the endless lines and endless circles of light that brights in each aster, a light which brings every star to be intimately connected to any other celestial body. Only the artistic-poetic genius is accomplished to see what men can not see, because of their permanent blindness: only Van Gogh – and with him, I would add, the great contemporary artists too – can experience new and unique visions, which, although starting from physical phenomena, from the sensible world, also are turning to the intelligible Plato’s world, even if the intelligible, after all, is a sort of a way to declare the explanation for the phenomenon, permitting to what is irrational to become understandable. So, this reducing every explanation of the artistic works to something rational is a great limit, which may be overcome: no artist can accept  without any huff the idea of experimenting new roads that can be described by short philosophical words! But the art needs no explanation. Thus, although the view of the starry night is something phenomenal and physical universe-linked and even if the explanation is hypothetically intelligible, the inclination of Van Gogh, once again, turns to the ‘ unintelligible , irrational, emotional and expressiveness, anticipating , but do not lick it never really in contact with the motto ‘of artistic expression, which will be central in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

So, we enter the second quote that the work The Starry Night seems to suggest: it is hardly necessary to recall that it must be understood in continuity with what has just been analysed before.

2. The intuition of emotion as irrational

What emerges from the very beginning by viewing the works, the emotional and hallucinogenic oil on canvas by Van Gogh Unlike Kant, who can not accept the emotional aspect of man, since it is full of irrationality, canvas in the emotional and irrational emerges clearly, as a result of a specific resolution by the painter. It was said that the choices are not objectionable and that, at the same time, the visionary genius is only a glimpse of something new and different in what is so obvious, or not to appear worthy of representation, or reflection. But this opens the horizon to be less ethical universality, in the first instance, we have also said to glimpse both the Prussian philosopher, both in Dutch. Ethics is so universal, but must be individualized and made an integral part of our own lives: each of us must provide their own answers to their questions in a very personal and what one dialogue with himself: the scope of philosophy, with his inability to actually reach the explanation lies in leading the individual towards the irrational, emotional thanks all’afflato that is immanent in what we experience. The sky is an experiment which, while having within himself the letters and figures of his rationality, though not be limited the rational, logo-centric, entirely the result of a thought that closes in on itself. The circles in the painting abounds, in this sense, have little Belonging to the circle and the spiral Hegelian dialectics with which, step by step, passing through at different times, in an effort of denial and negation of the negation transition between thesis, antithesis and synthesis leave open. In contrast, only the art is, philosophically, the true synthesis, which does not need at all of these abstract steps of a philosophy which, instead of dialogue with humanity, is against a prisoner to itself. Emotion is the faculty irrational intuition. This is the primary hub: the emotion is what is irrational, unintelligible, or not reportable summed up in words. What the painter sees, in other words, is purely ineffable.

Why should the universe represented as circles? Each vortex is, in fact, the symbol of a mental journey and is itself a mental journey that Van Gogh does. While the curved lines represent a kind of gauge railway , the rails or roads that connect the universe, the choice of the painter can only indicate how the universe is alive, open, perfectly knowable, provided we have the desire. Therefore, the conclusion we just arrived, that the emotion and irrationality tend Van Gogh, as well as in expressionist who follow in his footsteps, to coincide, should be partially revised. Of course, the emotional and the irrational is this instance there can be no doubt. But the ineffable nature of what a given drift is true and false at the same time: rather, we perceive the ‘aphasia painting by Van Gogh and his inclination all’incomunicabile only because we are not able to place ourselves in tune to the end with his deep and intimate understanding of things, the universe, with its geographic and cadastral maps of tissue that lines running from one place to another in the sky. If, instead, we were able to identify ourselves to the end in the Dutch painter, how to perceive the ineffable immediately become communicable, because, again, is the philosophical truth and rational to have annihilated and aphasic language. In short, the artist really knows how to communicate and inform, as long as we transcend the language of men to rise to the language of heaven, shattering cosmic entity that goes beyond the tangible, to make it truly divine. The vision of the starry night vision is so distorted, not phenomenological in the Kantian sense of the term and physical, cognitive, and vision is not conscious of sensory, but it is a vision of emotion, that releases unreleased parallels, because it can anticipate the human soul in the contemplation of the infinite that fits with the finitude of our world. And the journey of Van Gogh, his night vision, is a real trip, which shocks the common average man, because he is not able to go beyond what is imprinted on the retina, but the emotions are not retinal, are psychological and therefore, almost a pun, it can be concluded even more rewarding of the objective, totally sterile.


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