The Infinite Café
I’ve had a lot of recumbent time to study Vincent van Gogh’s A Sidewalk Café at Night
a painting about perspective and colour as luminosity (view
). Vincent must’ve had a peculiar fondness for the geometrical rays of the vanishing point in his compositions, a lesson central in his learning to paint (which like everything, he learnt and executed quickly). The composition of the Café scene is near perfect and harmonious, with the vanishing point just left of centre. The rooflines, the awning, the drainage grooves on the cobbled street and even the aligned leaves on the tree all snap in line to that central point of infinity located somewhere near the golden gas light above the waiter’s head. The white tabletops float like saucers in formation away from the centre; and to deter them as subjects from the painting, the people of the café crowd in vaguest definition around this point. An inverted distancing effect: the people are indistinct and distant, the stars are bright and exaggeratedly close, like daisies printed onto the blue fabric of night. The man and woman on the street’s right travel in opposite directions, silent vessels in the night. The blue doorway pillar on the left buttresses the bright expanse of yellow awning and offsets the heavy buildings in darkness opposite. A large quarter of the street is devoted to the rough cobble street, hurriedly scored on an underlay of white and gray. The nearest subjects in the order of perception are the chairs one of Vincent’s favourite objects the first three all face the same direction subtle cues for the rearrangement of mental furniture as experienced in the bedroom with chair painting. The length of the awning and the diminishing heights of the doorways all seem to indicate a stretching of perspective or an unreal scale (again, voiding the front of humans helps). But for all its adherence to perspective and the vanishing point, and the impression given of a funnel effect, this is an unusually flat and undimensional painting, because it instead wants to suggest depth by colour and colour contrast. There is no arranged layering of depth in Vincent’s work; it’s all about straight paint to canvas and not the manipulation of dimensionality. Since perspective is all about true perception of dimension, this painting would be a mess without its bold and direct colours. The colour in turn disguises the fact there’s no real luminosity at work on the canvas, no real sources of light. So in a snap Vincent regresses to a pre-Renaissance attack on painting, as though the culmination in Rembrandt never happened. A modern idolatry of colour perhaps. All the light comes from the yellow and orange of the awning, tempered with green contours and mixed-on-canvas white overlays. The source of light is barely defined as a source; the gaslight is neither background nor foreground and indifferently melded with a basic outline. It is yellow in a field of yellow, ambivalently close. If the gaslight had real luminosity (which I’m sure it did it reality) he would’ve had to create realer shadows and gradations and intensities of light obviously time-consuming details. Every brushstroke is a registration of haste and urgency it must’ve taken an hour or two to paint this scene. In part it’s dirty and amateurish. But it is still a bold transmogrification of reality the only reality here is the paint, the colour. A reality where colour draws a hard wedge (like the awning) between the darkness it doesn’t care for, but without all that religious or allegorical interpretation of Light. You begin to suspect there’s a complementary mindset at work here, that Vincent doesn’t paint what’s Realistically there but what his heart wants to see and harmonise with order and colour.