Van Gogh the Painter Electric

excerpt from “The Reception of Electricity: How Poets and Artists Responded to Electricity, from Mary Shelley to Marcel Duchamp to HP” 

“The Night Café,” a few lost souls with their heads down. It’s three o’clock in the morning, the darkest hour. One would expect low light, consumed by shadows, especially from the painter of “The Potato Eaters.” Instead, the room is strangely bright. A few oil lamps hang from the ceiling. But there up front, top centre, right above the billiard table, a glaring yellow orb hovers like a UFO. Any doubts that this might be an electric light bulb are dispelled by the presence of an uncompromising, hard shadow on the floor below. This kind of violent, Manichean chiaroscuro could never be caused by the gentle, unfocused projection of a flame. As far as I can tell this must be the first representation of an electric light bulb in the history of painting.

The revelation of colour in Van Gogh’s late painting is due not only to the sunshine of the Mediterranean. What he shows us is a new kind of light, electric light, flooding the psyche with its hallucinatory incandescence. The joy of August, expressed in golden wheat fields, hides the wintry alienation of the “The Night Café” and its sickly yellows. The promise of the enlightenment runs cold. Science fails, reason turns to madness, night into day. By red and green, “those terrible things, men’s passions,” are unleashed. This painting anticipates the dissonance of 20th century existentialist alienation and electricity is the culprit.

Around the same time, van Gogh would portray the very essence of electric light in his painting of sunflowers. This is without question the brightest painting that had ever been made up until that time, and it’s still one of the brighter paintings around. Updating Rembrandt, whose self-portraits seemed to generate their own light, van Gogh’s light literally pours forth from the image. This thing is shining at you like the headlight of a train. Sunflowers is not the representation of light but light itself, the production of electric light in painting.

The completion of van Gogh’s vision of the future is “The Starry Night.” Above the dreaming town the wheeling stars announce radio waves, the ionosphere, outer space, interstellar communication. Van Gogh can feel it coming.

(adapted for the web from “The Reception of Electricity: Radio as Art in Literature, Painting and performance,” published in Radio as Art, Concepts, Spaces, Practices, Thurmann-Jajes et al. eds., Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2019)

Watch the full talk: “The Reception of Electricity,” presented at 7a*11d, Toronto, 2018