Capturing life

The bridge of Langlois at Arles with laundresses *oil on canvas *54 x 65 cm *March 1888 *

When I was seventeen and studying art, I visited the school library for inspiration.

During that difficult couple of late-teenage years, books, particularly art books, transported me elsewhere; somewhere where mundane requirements like time and maths lessons and trauma didn’t exist.

So I was searching for inspiration when I sat down that day. But I was also looking to escape.

As I creaked open a huge book and began to flip through, I experienced a moment of change I still remember now.

The dark wood of the table, pitted with pencil lines; the lurch of the bentwood chair; the quiet of people definitely not talking, promise; a tick; a tock; and then, there on the page …

Van Gogh’s ‘The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing’, 1888.

In the silence of our school library, it screamed. It sung and stamped its feet. It took off all its clothes and streaked through the corridors. And all I could do was stare and stare and stare.

I couldn’t not look at the sky – the water – the burning colour of the bridge – the sense of place and time stolen in a photographic instant. But most of all I was enchanted by the life that had been captured and pinned to the canvas.

It’s hard to paint or sculpt or draw nature not because it’s complex (which it is) or detailed (which it is) but because it is alive.

There is no green laid down on the page which has the vibrancy of a leaf with sap running through it.

Yet here in Van Gogh’s work was the nearest thing I had – and maybe still have – ever seen to capture that; an attempt to document the life which is present in all our moments of observing nature and our place in it.

Because that is what I see when I look outside. I see a great whispering, shimmering mass of Life that’s bursting at the seams, from branches and beaks and babies and brown river rocks. It is there. And we are all part of it.

Great creativity is the process of trying to keep life still enough, for long enough, so we can all get a good look at it.

It’s a big ask, and we need to have the right conditions to do it.

But – it can be done.

The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing, 1888, Kröller-Müller MuseumOtterlo, Netherlands (F397)

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