A Painful Song of Love (Van Gogh’s Last Day)

Seven paintings by Matteo Massagrande for a dramatic monologue by Marco Goldin

Vicenza, Basilica Palladiana
7 October 2017 - 8 April 2018

The show is on display in the last gallery of the exhibition path and it is included in the Van Gogh. Tra il grano e il cielo admission ticket.

The smell of evening

Marco Goldin

For a year and a half, I had been thinking around Vincent van Gogh’s life and work in preparation for a new exhibition of his works. Initially, I didn’t consider his life very closely but then became increasingly affected by that intensely burning existence, which more than ever before became the center of my own journey and of my world. By examining his life more closely and being in touch with his spirit, I had also hoped to find myself. This was no out of any vague desire and even less something calculated. It came naturally, as is often the case with what is recorded in the “book of the hours” of each of us. The story of his life flowed out of my hands and heart; it was inverted under the inner rim of my eyelids, and from there pressed to be released from every side and toward everywhere. There was no measure in this, yet a measure had to be found: the rule that must always rectify emotion. I have curated several exhibitions on and around Van Gogh for the last fifteen years. Each time squeezing out a juice that inexorably had the taste of truth and was never fake. It always concerned the world of his spirit – the innermost depths of the painter. While every new pause for reflection is different – pauses spent contemplating the artist’s most personal thoughts – there is also a moment when a magic spell arises. It implies a secret and then you feel compelled to describe that magic more than ever. I believe this kind of thing happened to me in these circumstance, since, almost without realizing it, I found myself firstly retelling Van Gogh’s life, and then highlighting the work – his drawings and paintings. Of course, his life had come into the other exhibitions that I had already devoted to him, but not so powerfully, not with this overwhelming need to get close to his spirit. His letters are almost steeped in his spirit, from the first letter to that last one never sent to Théo, found in his pocket after his death. And so in a wholly naturally way I gradually found myself getting increasingly closer to his spirit. And from that window I looked out at the world, his – but not only his – fateful world. I won’t conceal the fact that the feeling was so intense as to verge on tears. I looked at a gaze looking at the world and looking at love – through the spirit. I then began to realize that an exhibition on his works might not be enough. This was an ambitious thought but without being presumptuous. Was anything more necessary? His works are already beautiful and terrible enough, full of smells and sounds, of silence and cries, of moons and suns, of wheat and sky. And full of nights and stars, when you look up toward the infinite and the immense. And you have his eyes in front of you. Full of everything in life. Yet his spirit had brushed mine, a slight touch, maybe accidental, maybe not. And his spirit touching my spirit had aroused in me the desire to tell another story, and I felt the need to speak out, but in a different way. So I began to think of how I could describe this contact, this mute gong that I felt resounding and vibrating in me whenever I looked at his drawings and paintings, or read his letters. And when I loved his life with a new passion. Because there is one fundamental thing I must say and it reflects the fact that every exhibition is different as an adventure of feeling and spirit: every project comes at a different time in life and so one is never the same as another. If I now tell Van Gogh’s story in this way, I know it won’t be the same story in a few years’ time. And this is the beauty of creating. It is never the same and always follows the movements of the spirit and ultimately is an expression of the spirit. We will never be the same people who started out on the journey, and further on, we are travelers because each station changes us and we set out again from each station, when the life that we live is truth and spirit. And we start again from each station, carrying what we have experienced and what has changed us. And for those who have the chance, the time comes to tell the story. It’s inevitable, because not telling the story would torment us. So I wanted to narrate Van Gogh this way, in the way you see in this exhibition and in this book. First, I wrote a monologue for the theater, in which Van Gogh is thinking out loud, under the last tree of his life. He is talking about love. An unresolved love, never really experienced. For a while, that tree is the center of the world, the place in the universe to which everything converges. A man is abandoning this world and leaving behind him a perennial wake. He has left a mark that will never be forgotten. That’s why so many people feel so much love toward him. I wrote that monologue in one go on a Saturday afternoon last spring. Then, after a couple of months, I corrected some parts of it and eventually completely rewrote the rest. When I took the manuscript in hand again, I felt a desire, this time a really strong desire that I should involve a contemporary painter in the project. Not so much to illustrate some scenes of the monologue (there seemed to be no lack of material), but so that he too would make a song from it, a colorful song. I began to consider which artist might experience this same feeling, this same spirit – the burning life I had put in Van Gogh’s Painful Song of Love. I decided that the painter could only be Matteo Massagrande, whom I admire and love for the images that he creates, but also for the true, genuine urge to paint in the wide, often painful, sea of feelings. At that point, I said: “I’ve written this piece, read it and tell me what you think. Then, if you want, if you feel like it, try to isolate some scenes and see if you can make paintings of them. I won’t say anything else. I won’t even ask which verses you have chosen, because this exhibition must be music for four hands. I’ve written and you’ll paint. We’ll only met again, if you accept, when you show me (I imagine) some studies and sketches, and then the paintings. Lastly, I will write some more, add words to your paintings that are coming into being.” And that is what happened. Matteo Massagrande agreed to paint on the themes of A Painful Song of Love (Van Gogh’s Last Day) and chose freely – without consulting me – the scenes that moved him most. He selected them and now I looked at the paintings, like a pearl necklace, to which one pearl after and another had been added with the passing days and weeks. He chose the scenes and turned them into something of his own, set them in his own world. And that was exactly what I had hoped for. I had wanted him to create images that were born out of my words, but which at the same time had a precise reality and absoluteness independent of my poetry. In short, they were his paintings and nothing else. Not only a consequence, but much more a belonging to the world of the phenomena of the spirit and feelings. And I’m glad that is what happened. Because it is so good to find that someone has understood your feelings and has made them his own, in this case through unaffected painting in the name and on behalf of Vincent van Gogh. On looking at the seven paintings, and, earlier, the over twenty studies that Matteo Massagrande has devoted to the Painful Song of Love, one word forcefully, tenderly comes to mind: intimacy. Something that has to do with both the world of private rooms and the world of the universe; with time flowing in rooms and with time that surrounds the cosmos and expands to an extreme – and to us unknown – unlimitedness. Whether he is painting a figure seen from behind, gazing at empty rooms, or a starry night seen from the height of small mountains, or whether he is painting a bed and the snow beyond the windows, or birches thrusting skyward in the light wrapped around the heart of a winter afternoon, Massagrande speaks in his silent language of the intimacy of the soul. For him interior or the exterior, a room or nature, no longer matters, because his colors always stand for the deeper being, which surfaces and manifests itself as an absolute. But he does so following the suspended, solemn, way of poetry. These images are both timeless and yet steeped in time. They are part of time because they are part of life, but they also share the fate of the forever. Massagrande’s painting, with its deep subtleties, accompanies the existence of that fate, its manifestation, and its dissolution in the kind of mists that we first saw in childhood, in a field or on a river bank, at dawn, or when evening is full of smells and is an endless yearning. These paintings must be seen together, because they are stations which we all draw near to and from which we have all set out. None is more important than another because they are in front of our eyes like a rising scent, a growing silence, a music heard from afar, which we don’t fully grasp but sense that it is there expanding in the air. And this is comforting, because the world is still beauty and it is wonderful to know that there are painters who can express this secret beauty, that they can narrate and make a song of it – a song of love and nostalgia. Massagrande has painted the flowering floor of an old house like waves and foam on the sea. With the same secretive intimacy, he painted the sky made of precious stones and silence. He let the white of crumpled sheets become the white snow beyond the window, and those torn spaces be reflected in the red of poppies in a distant field. He let painting take place in himself naturally, like a slow cadenced breath, because that is how remembering always is. He lets the rhythm of breathing become the rhythm of painting. He painted breathing, and sometimes with his eyes closed. I never asked him, and I never will, but I think he did. Paint with his eyes closed. To see better.