Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. This week, the Girls get into a celestial mood over the North American Total Eclipse, leading to a discussion of one of the art world’s most famous lunar landscapes. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Dania was standing on a chair, trying to measure across the wall to find the midpoint where the nail would go. Absolutely OCD about centering and focus, she was determined that the painting be hung correctly. After all, it would be a focal point and conversation starter in the room – they had specifically ordered the print out of a desire to make the walls of the apartment less bland and beige.
Stretching the tape measure across the wall, Dania locked the length and marked the 40″ point on the wall in pencil.
“Don’t draw on the wall, Dania,” Eleanor said. She, and the canvas, were slouched on the couch, watching Dania balance.
“It’ll be covered by the painting,” Dania chided. “And covered by the Command Hook anyway.” She returned to the ground and proceeded to press the adhesive onto the back of the hook.
Glancing over to the canvas again, Eleanor looked from the moon in the swirling sky to the ever-glaring Chicago sun, out their window. “When is that eclipse supposed to happen?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” Dania said. “At 1:19pm, that’s the moment of maximum coverage. You coming to Adler?”
“I can’t, remember?” Eleanor shrugged. “I’m working through the day.”
“Right, I keep asking,” Dania said, climbing back onto the chair to press the hook to the wall. “Sucks, Gwen can’t go either.”
“I mean, we’ll probably go outside when it’s happening, since it’s rare and everything,” Eleanor said. “But I won’t have those fancy glasses.”
“Missing out,” Dania said. She gave the wall another shove, as if to negate the 30 second adhesion process. She left the hook on the wall and sat down across from the painting. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night looked back at her in the non-optimal lighting of the apartment. She knew the painting probably glowed more under the curated light at MoMA, where the real copy lived. Nevertheless, the spirals of the blue and gold sky retained their momentum, even in reprint.
“Is it up?” Gwen said, entering.
“Gotta give the hook time to stick,” Dania said.
Gwen picked up the painting and held it in front of her. The backlight from the window gave the print a slight luminescence as she looked it over.
“The Starry Night. Nice high resolution print, too. Although, I do wish it captured the texture of the paint, somehow.”
“The texture?” Eleanor asked.
“The pigments,” Gwen added. “The painting has this distinct topography to it, since Van Gogh used such thick brushstrokes. Here, you can slightly see it.” She turned the painting and pointed at different locations.
“The crecent moon has this outline that gives it depth when lit,” she explained. “All the stars have a ring around them, since he made them by pushing the brush down on the canvas. The Cyprus tree on the left is a layer of green paint with lines almost sculpted into it.”
“Cyprus tree!” Dania said, looking over Gwen’s shoulder. “That’s what it is.”
“What did you think it was?” Gwen asked.
“I dunno,” Dania replied. “Never really thought about it. I guess I would have said tree, but it’s all wobbly. Could be smoke, could be a church like the other one in the middle.”
“Nope, Cyprus trees,” Gwen said. “It’s a symbol for death in Impressionist paintings, reaching from the Earth up to Heaven.”
“Sure,” Dania said. She tiled her head. “Or,” she continued, “it’s a big ol’ smoke tree.”
Gwen’s eyes deadened. “Sure,” she conceded.
“I’m just glad we got the one with the bright yellow stars,” Eleanor said. “You want that to pop against the black background. You wanted the darker version.”
“It’s more accurate to the original painting,” Gwen said. “The original is basically shades of dark blue and black. The gold paint isn’t like golf leaf. It’s dimmed, even under the best lighting.”
“Maybe,” Dania said, “but I thought the point of Starry Night was the stars, rather than the night.”
“It’s both,” Gwen said. “Starry Night is one of the most famous paintings about the background rather than the foreground. See how the painting is two-thirds sky? That was an insane way to paint a landscape in the 1880s.”
“Well, Van Gogh was insane, right?” Dania asked. “With the cutting off of his ear and everything?”
“Some scholars think he lost the ear in a tavern brawl…”
“Wasn’t he in an institution at some point?” Eleanor remembered. “It’s possible that to him, the world just looked like this. Not literally – but if he saw the world a little wavy, maybe that’s why he painted it like this.”
“Or maybe it was just a windy night,” Dania said. “That’s my favorite part, right there.” She pointed at the swirl, right in the center of the canvas. “The Big Wind Gust, right there by the Really White Star.”
“It’s not necessarily wind,” Gwen explained. “It could be light diffraction, or the Milky Way, or just an artistic choice.”
“It could be anything,” Dania said. “That’s why I like the painting so much. It doesn’t really feel real to me, but like a painting. You can see all the brushstrokes, even a little bit of empty canvas at the edges. And it feels like the waterfall on the right is running by quickly…”
“What waterfall?” Gwen turned the canvas back. “You mean the mountain?”
“No, the waterfall,” Dania said. She pointed to the light blue mound at the right, between the black-blue mountains and the green fields. “Beneath the mountain.”
“That’s another mountain, Dania,” Gwen said, smiling. “Why would there be a waterfall in the South of France?”
“Well, it’s not super accurate, right?” Dania countered.
“Some of it is,” Gwen said. “They traced back the star positions to the date it was painted, and the stars are in the right places.”
“Really?” Eleanor said, her jaw agape. “That’s attention to detail.”
“He even got the entirely accurate giant crescent moon,” Dania smiled.
“There are liberties taken…” Gwen began.
“Like the waterfall!” Dania said. “Although actually, it could just be a giant wave. See, the little squiggles at the bottom are like the mini waves on the shore, and it’s about to crush the entire town.”
“I see it!” Eleanor said, holding the painting with Dania. “Honestly, the entire painting kind of looks like it’s underwater. The sky always looked like a giant river to me, like a boat just sailed through it.”
“Right?” Dania said. “It’s like the stars are above the water, and you’re looking up at them from below. Maybe that wind gust is a current or something.”
“So many things!” Eleanor said. “And so pretty to look at and interpret!”
“To be fair,” Gwen said, spoiling the fun, “most historians have ideas about the interpretation. It’s death, it’s anxiety, it’s a hallucination since he was about to be institutionalized. All valid.”
“I think it’s peaceful,” Dania said. “Which is weird, since it’s so active, with the swirling sky and all. But I just love all the light in it – but it still feels like it’s at night! I’ll never know how he managed to nail getting both at once.”
“Honestly, it’s kind of spooky for me,” Eleanor admitted.
“Spooky?” Gwen asked. “How?”
“Well, it’s got this big dark tree in the foreground, overlooking a city that he kind of painted smaller than to scale. I remember as a kid, I could never make out the perspective in the painting. It always looked like a big tree next to a tiny little city. The swirls in the sky are almost like these beaked serpents – you can kind of see their eyes and mouths if you squint hard.”
“Serpents?” Gwen squinted, but saw nothing. “That’s a new one.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “I mean, I’m fine with having it in the apartment, don’t get me wrong. I like it more now than I did as a kid. But it’s always darker for me than I think most people read it.”
“Well then,” Dania said, standing on the chair with the canvas, “it’s a good thing we got the lighter print of it.”
“Are you hanging it now?” Gwen asked. “Doesn’t the nail have to wait for twelve hours?”
“Eh,” Dania said adjusting the wire on the back to hang the painting straight. “It’ll do.”
Dania stepped down and looked up at the painting. The Starry Night hung proudly in the middle of their wall – two feet wide, about two-thirds of the original size – with the light from the window now hitting it sideways.
“I want to see what it looks like in the whole room,” Eleanor said. She walked to the corner, and looked over the room. The painting was a vibrant blur of blue and yellow looking over the room, the image distinct even as its colors mixed together at a distance. The mountains almost looked like clouds now, a white ribbon in the sky behind the Cyprus and overshadowing the town. It was a conversation starter, all right.
“I wonder what it will look like in the Eclipse light,” Dania wondered aloud.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons