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Vincent Van Gogh as seen through filters

29th August 2012

Vincent Van Gogh has come to be one of the most celebrated post-impressionistic painters of his generation and among the best-known artists of all-time. History vindicated him; it was inevitable.

His work is noted for its use of bold brush strokes, delicately complemented with a refined use of light and an impassioned use of colour. Here was a man who possessed the magical ability of being able to load meaning into the mundane, with, for example, the swirly blue sky of The Starry Night symbolic of the early days of the universe. All with just a seemingly innocuous brush stroke.

But what if what we see in this work, along with his entire output, isn't actually accurate?  A thought-provoking essay from Kazunori Asada, a Japanese medical scientist who specialises in colour, has been attracting greater attention recently.

At the centre of its argument is the theory that Van Gogh was colour-blind, and that his brilliant masterpieces are, as a consequence, distorted realities, which would have been significantly different through "normal sight".

It has to be noted that this isn't a new idea, it has been suggested before that the troubled painter may have had some sort of eye deficiency, which allowed him to create his distinct palate. Where the Japanese scientist's study differs is in the time and effort he has committed in exploring the matter.

Asada explained that the idea came to him when he took part in the Colour Vision Experience Room, a simulator that allows you to see the same kinds of hues across the spectrum of colour-blindness. In the room were some reprints of the Dutchman's paintings.

"I found that these paintings looked different from the Van Gogh which I had always seen," he wrote in his essay, which was published late last year.

"I love Van Gogh’s paintings and have been fortunate to view a number of the originals in various art museums. This painter has a somewhat strange way to use colour. Although the use of colour is rich, lines of different colours run concurrently, or a point of different colour suddenly appears."

What he then found was that the incongruity of the colours, as he described it, dissolved in this room, as well as the dissolution of the "roughness of the line", revealing something else. This something else, he said, with confidence, was brilliant. What we all see is a shadow of what it should have been.

Intrigued by this revelation, he then sought to examine Van Gogh's work in greater detail, using a "chromatic vision stimulator", which delivers the same results as the Colour Vision Experience Room.

What is palpable, according to Asada's observations, is that Van Gogh's actual works are less natural than they might have been, had he not been colour-blind. Consequently, everything is heightened as a result of the condition.

Take Wheat Field Behind Saint-Paul Hospital: In the original, the fields are an intense and almost sour orange, the sun feverishly bright. In the so-called corrected version, the fields are more subdued with a placid golden glow with the sun more contemplative.

Consider also a self-portrait, composed of an array of blue shades; the actual version is again sharper, bitter almost. Asada's version is more realistic, calmer even, displaying less anguish perhaps.

Here lies the problem with Asada's assumption that, through filters, Van Gogh's work is improved or rendered more truthful. It's a bold claim and perhaps its fault lies in its scientific approach. Asada is not purely rational in his approach, he admits to having a fondness for his paintings, and acknowledges that we all see the world in a distinct way.

The perceivable anomalies in Van Gogh's art, his unorthodox use of colour and style, and, alas, his uneasy nature, characterised by severe anxiety and spells of wretched mental illness, assembled to create a mesmeric sense of the world.

In a way, no artist ever aims for perfection, nor should we expect things to be immaculate. Perfection, so the great Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi noted, is dangerous.

Though Asada's thoughts are certainly welcome, as has been his effort to explore Van Gogh from another vantage, we should let our own eyes make their own unique judgment of his oeuvre. In that we have a personal connection, and if it means we see life through rose-coloured glasses, then so be it, art gives us that privilege.

Cadogan Tate is one of the most respected fine art transport companies in the world, specialising in shipping artwork in a safe and secure way.

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