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Joy

Catalogue entry

From:
Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888 (NG3863), oil on canvas, 92.1 × 73 cm, The National Gallery, London, bought with the Courtauld Fund, 1924

Every stalk, petal, and seed is different. The palette of yellows with touches of blue may be restrained and simple, but this painting’s story is anything but mundane. When Vincent van Gogh travelled to Arles in the south of France, he anticipated a utopia filled with abundant subjects for painting and enjoyment for the senses. He also hoped he might be able to form a new community of artists – Paul Gauguin among them – and make a fresh start in a place that grounded him in the things he loved most.1 He saw hope and new life springing up in the wheat and corn. He saw divine radiance in the sun. He saw the sacred rhythms of the earth in sowers scattering seeds onto ploughed soil, with nourishment to make tender green shoots grow into food for all.

Van Gogh was a Christian, and his imagery of seeds and cycles of life made strong connections with Jesus’ parable of the sower and with the sunflower’s traditional symbolism.2 The sunflower was often perceived as an image of Christ and Christ’s followers because the plant’s large blooms are heliotropic, turning to follow the sun throughout the day. In the Aesthetic Movement, a phenomenon in late nineteenth‐century British art including painters such as Albert Moore and Frederic Leighton, the sunflower was a symbol of pure beauty.3 Van Gogh’s still life, one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery and one of the most beloved of all works of art in the world, is the result of Van Gogh’s joy in being an artist and in finding a home among the simple cycles of nature.

Unlike the wheat and corn that surrounded him, sunflowers were grown not only agriculturally for their oil, but also for pleasure and beauty. They were very rare and unlikely subjects for still life painting, however. When Van Gogh famously declared in a letter, ‘the Sunflower is mine’, he was claiming not only a beloved relationship with these colourful and monumental plants, but also an innovation he was making within the history of art more widely.4 Like the earthenware pot in which van Gogh placed these flowers (used more commonly for provisions than as vases), museums are sturdy places that welcome beauty and contain creativity. The pictures within the National Gallery, like the sunflowers, are all different from one another, and all can be a source for joy and for deep interconnection with all forms of life.

A National Gallery colleague recently remarked that for him this painting is not joyful at all. With its focus on seed heads and its depiction of the end of the flowers’ lives rather than bright blossoms, for him there is something melancholic in this painting. It certainly belongs to the ‘vanitas’ still life tradition, in which taking pleasure in beauty and remembering the reality of death and mortality come together simultaneously. Joy can be fleeting. Flowers fade, things decay and life is always a dance between positive and negative experiences of all kinds (see Isaiah 40:6–8). A group of people who recently visited the National Gallery to see the painting (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is a pilgrimage destination for millions of art lovers) experienced a great deal of joy. They were excited to be in the presence of Van Gogh’s thickly painted celebration of beauty in all of nature’s diversity. They marvelled at the way he captured this experience of new life, growth and, ultimately, decay too. For this group, the painting lived up to their expectations, and made connections with their own life’s journey.

Joy is very different from happiness. Historian Tiffany Watt Smith describes joy as ‘giddy unpredictability’, known by its ‘refusal to sit quietly within the bounds of the ordinary and understood’.5 Joy can be a form of resistance, too. In addition to being lively and buoyant, joy can be defiant in the face of suffering. A young poet recently described joy in an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, which was part of a project titled ‘Joy is a Protest’. These are her words:
It slips into the places we least expect it
It squeezes itself into cracks and small places
Paints blushes like roses on the faces of strangers
Pours light into shadows
And hollow spaces
The sound of joy beats to the rhythm of your pulse
It is in your blood
It has written its name on your DNA
Joy is your birth right6

There is a similar quality of hope and justice described by the Black theologian Cole Arthur Riley. She writes, ‘Joy, which once felt as frivolous as love to me, has become a central virtue in my spirituality. I am convinced that if we are to survive the wait of justice and liberation, we must become people capable of delight. And people who have been delighted in … And I think it takes just as much strength to believe someone’s joy about you as it does to muster it all on your own.’7

Arthur Riley’s claim about believing in ourselves as much as others believe in us may be part of the melancholy that some see in Van Gogh’s painting, too. The painting challenges us to see beauty in the midst of uncertainty and change. Van Gogh compared the series of sunflower paintings he produced in the summer of 1888 to ‘stained glass windows’ and to ‘a symphony in blue and yellow’.8 He offered them as a sacred gift. He used them to decorate the room where his brother Theo and his friend Gauguin would come to stay. Moreover, this painting was a manifestation of a foundational belief held by van Gogh, that ‘the joy of others may embitter jealous hearts, but it fortifies submissive hearts; it is the ray of sunshine that opens up those two lovely flowers called “confidence” and “hope”.’9

Sarah MacDougall

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II, 2004, oil on board, 51 × 51 cm, London, Ben Uri Collection. Acquired for the Ben Uri Collection in 2006 through the support and generosity of the Art Fund, MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Daniel and Pauline Auerbach, Frank Auerbach and Marlborough Fine Art London

Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II is a vibrant cityscape that radiates joy. The predominantly yellow and blue palette, energetically applied, captures the essence of a sunny summer morning in a busy part of London resonating with a deeply felt sense of place and belonging.

The painting is one of a series by the artist Frank Auerbach that is firmly grounded in his own neighbourhood, Mornington Crescent, in Camden Town, the area of North London where he has lived and worked for almost 70 years. Originally laid out with stuccoed terraced houses, the Crescent was later redeveloped and largely replaced after extensive bomb damage during the Second World War. Auerbach occupies a studio vacated in 1954 by his close friend and art school contemporary Leon Kossoff, and before him, Gustav Metzger, a fellow German‐Jewish child refugee from Nazism; all three attended David Bomberg’s revolutionary evening classes at the Borough Polytechnic in South London after the war. The art historian Robert Hughes described Auerbach’s attachment to London in general, and Camden in particular, as an ‘emigrant’s anxiety’.10 Deeply rooted in this locality, the artist hates leaving his studio, ‘sensing that if he lost it he would be “like a snail without a shell”.11 ‘This part of London is my world,’ he acknowledges.12

The painting’s square format – one often favoured by the artist – suggests a snapshot of the city taken by a Polaroid camera (which he is known to use to record poses of his models). In the same way that he uses a ‘family’ of close friends and relations as sitters, he deliberately chooses this familiar location, restricting his landscape motifs to foreground the area around his Camden studio, focusing on familiar architectural structures. These idiosyncratic features include three distinctive tower blocks clad in primary colours, and notably, the landmark obelisk form of the chimney of the former Carreras cigarette factory (on the left‐hand side of the painting), one of a series of thrusting verticals set on a slight diagonal that punctuate the skyline. These forms can also be identified clearly in the accompanying pen and crayon Study for Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II (2004, Ben Uri Collection); in the painting they are juxtaposed and overlaid with the zigzags and horizontal forms of the buildings’ walls and rooftops, anchoring the painting. These shapes are echoed in the form of the aeroplane suspended above the city and the street scene below, transforming the choking London traffic into a ‘bustling network of brightly colored horizontals’ via a vigorous surge of apparently freshly squeezed pigment.13

Auerbach employs the distinctive heavy impasto that characterises his painting, the lively palette dominated by chrome yellow and cerulean blue, offset by jewel‐like reds, blues and greens. Paint is predominantly applied with a large brush in broad brushstrokes, while a hanging skein of paint on the right appears to have been flicked from the tip of a knife. A series of gestural dots and oblongs define details such as windows and the branches of a tall evergreen tree in the distance. The rawness of urban life is suggested by the raw quality of the paint. This contrasts with the earthy tones of Auerbach’s earliest scenes of London’s post‐war bombsites, indicative of a quality that Robert Hughes once described as the artist’s ‘ability to transform without romanticizing’.14 For Auerbach ‘London is this raw thing … This extraordinary, marvellously unpainted city where whenever somebody tries to get something going, they stop halfway through, and next to it something incongruous occurs … this higgledy‐piggledy mess.’15

Each painting is the outcome of a long process of thought, engagement with his subject, craft and evolution. Early on, Auerbach simply painted over his previous day’s work, building a structure comprising multiple layers of paint upon canvas or board, which took on a deeply tactile, sculptural quality. Later, he began to rub down the paintings between applications, preserving the spirit of the earlier work as he progressed. Structure, form and motif overlap, brought together by the artist’s own subjective experience, which he views as an integral part of creation. Like Bomberg’s cathedral studies in Toledo, and Claude Monet’s in Rouen, Auerbach has painted the same scene numerous times, from different angles, in different seasons and different lights, and yet nothing is planned. In each series of paintings, the architecture no longer functions merely as a subject, but as ‘a motif and a pretext for the spectacular depiction of instantaneity’,16 equating to a precept that his former teacher Bomberg termed the ‘spirit in the mass’.17 Auerbach, however, never paints outside en plein air but instead makes numerous – sometimes up to a couple of hundred – drawings of the same subject, gathering information which he works up afterwards into paintings in his studio. Although they are separate works in their own right, the drawings are also an integral part of his process.

In the final painting all these elements come together: the vibrant palette radiates heat, light and colour, the energetic paint handling, textured surface and jostling, overlapping forms together evoke an immediacy that is life‐affirming. The passing plane and stopped traffic suggest both movement and stasis, an opposition held in tension by the palpable sense of an arrested moment as the city shimmers in the early morning heat. As the art critic William Feaver has observed, the date ‘2004’, scratched into the paintwork with the end of the brush, suggests the urgency and transience of both life and art, capturing joy in the fleeting essence of just this moment.18

Jasmin Topalusic and Ruanna Brook with members of New Art Studio

In this text, refugees and asylum seekers in London reflect together on migration, hope and art in relation to the theme of ‘Joy’ and Frank Auerbach’s painting Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II. This text emerged from a group discussion at New Art Studio in spring 2022.

In the New Art Studio, the word ‘JOY’ is written on paper in purple crayon. The word has circles inside each letter and the paper is stuck on the wall. There is no explanation of who invited this thing, why it is there and what it wants. It is not mentioned for a couple of weeks, until someone points it out and says, ‘Why does Joy look like an octopus?’

Hearing this rather good observation, everyone seems to agree, with slight smiles and a little confusion. The Joy that had not apparently been noticed finally receives some attention after it has been sensed and unspoken of for weeks – the Joy that like an octopus has been reaching for the studio members with its tentacles to grasp and feed from their minds and hearts. Just like the art materials scattered all around the studio – like food to nourish yourself – in the search for the expression of ideas, of thoughts and feelings.

The tentacles of Joy bring us all together in conversation, to share at one big table. It feels like a feast. Every Monday, we come together to share the table and the art materials on it, to paint and to talk. And so, the discussion of Joy starts to unfold.

These words here are those of the studio members, sewn together by us to form a kind of stream of consciousness exploration of the meaning of Joy, in response to the paintings by Auerbach and Van Gogh, and in relation to members’ own experiences.

‘Joy is when we celebrate each other’s festivals together, feeling safe.’

‘When we are painting and drawing together.’

‘When watching other artists, working with charcoal, making something beautiful from objects that have no use any more – old paper plates, cups, bits of old card, scraps of magazines.’

‘There are moments when thinking about Joy feels like a waste of time!’

‘Joy is hard work.’

‘To wake up every morning, to eat, to wash, to sleep, to dream.’

‘Joy is practice, choice, patience – it’s hard work.’

‘Joy is a state of consciousness, it is an inner thing.’

‘Joy also sounds like a price or a contribution of some other kind.’

‘Joy is confusion, frustration and anger at the same time.’

‘You can buy and sell Joy.’

‘In the Auerbach painting, there are lots of colours and it looks like the work of a child.’

‘It feels like a deliberate choice of colours to look happy, contained and childlike.’

‘It has romantic and dreamlike qualities; it is in a new relationship!’

‘The world seems so bright and nice and there is a lot of hope within it.’

‘It has a summer feel, not a very fine expression in terms of technique but somehow wanting to be like a child again.’

‘The vibrancy of the colours is like an open door or window.’

‘It feels innocent and like, I don’t know, Las Vegas!’

‘There is so much entertainment, so much light and traffic.’

‘It feels so physical and thick.’

‘There is also war within the painting with buildings crashing down. The colours are so determined and boldly used. It’s interesting and confusing at the same time.’

‘Look at the children – it is children that are teaching the artist about life, about ideas, everything. Art is very important to children. They can tell straight away if the art you have made is true or a lie. They have truly open minds.’

‘Being a child with an open mind is a joyful practice that some adults have forgotten about, but the artist has not.’

‘The artist is in touch with this lifelong, joyful practice of discovery.’

‘But if there is no time or space for art or artists, then there is no point in living. Life feels dead, lost and pointless – such a waste of existence. Not being able to express ideas – it’s like a prison inside your own head. The expression of ideas gives life freedom outside your own mind. Ideas locked inside without expression are the death of creativity and life.’

‘Thoughts need art to feel free and life without art is like a prison. Joy in prison is a longing for life, and the joy in life can be everything.’

Notes

2. NRSV 1989, Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23. (Back to text.)

5. Watt Smith 2016, p. 161. (Back to text.)

6. Laura (no surname given), ‘Joy’, in Rawminds 2021, unpaginated. (Back to text.)

8. Van Gogh, no. 665; Van Gogh, no. 666. (Back to text.)

9. Van Gogh, no. 93. (Back to text.)

10. Hughes 1990, p. 83. (Back to text.)

11. Lampert 1981, p. 179. (Back to text.)

12. Lampert 2001, p. 15. (Back to text.)

14. Hughes 1990, p. 214. (Back to text.)

15. Bumpus 1986, p. 27. (Back to text.)

16. Buchowska 2015, p. 152. (Back to text.)

17. Forge 1958, p. 4. (Back to text.)

18. Feaver 2006, p. 7. (Back to text.)

List of references cited

  • Arthur Riley 2022
    Arthur Riley, Cole, This Here Flesh, London 2022
  • Buchowska 2015
    Buchowska, Dominika ‘A Sense of Form’: The Art of David Bomberg, Warsaw 2015
  • Bumpus 1986
    Bumpus, Judith, ‘Interview: Frank Auerbach’, Art and Artists, June 1986, no. 237, p. 27
  • Feaver 2006
    Feaver, William, Frank Auerbach: Recent Works (exh. cat. Marlborough Gallery, London), New York 2006
  • Forge 1958
    Forge, Andrew, ‘Introduction’, David Bomberg 1890–1957: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings (exh. cat. Arts Council, London), London 1958
  • Hughes 1990
    Hughes, Robert, Frank Auerbach, London 1990
  • Kimmelman 2006
    Kimmelman, Michael, ‘Recent Works by Frank Auerbach in an Exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery’, The New York Times, 4 April 2006, p. E1
  • Lampert 1981
    Lampert, Catherine, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 1981
  • Lampert 2001
    Lampert, Catherine, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings, 1954–2001 (exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London), London 2001
  • NRSV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
  • Prettejohn 2007
    Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, London 2007
  • Rawminds 2021
    Rawminds Collective, Joy Is a Protest, London 2021, https://wellcomecollection.cdn.prismic.io/wellcomecollection/916ecf88‐5542‐4784‐9c81‐390f303849d9_JoyIsAProtest.pdf, accessed 3 July 2022
  • Van Gogh
    Van Gogh, Vincent, The Letters, Amsterdam https://vangoghletters.org, accessed 3 July 2022
  • van Tilborgh 2008
    van Tilborgh, Louis, Van Gogh and the Sunflowers, New York 2008
  • Watt Smith 2016
    Watt Smith, Tiffany, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust, London 2016

About this catalogue

This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.

The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.

The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.

Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.

About the authors

Ayla Lepine

Revd Dr Ayla Lepine was Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery (2021–2) and is now Associate Rector at St James’s Piccadilly in London. Following her PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she held fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale, and was Lecturer and Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex. Her publications include co‐edited books on monastic architecture and modern visual culture, as well as articles on art and theology in Architectural History, the Sculpture Journal and British Art Studies. She is a trustee of the UK charity Art and Christianity, a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and a member of the Visual Arts Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Sarah MacDougall

Sarah MacDougall is Director of Ben Uri Gallery & Museum and heads the Ben Uri Research Unit for the Study of the Jewish and Immigrant Contribution to the Visual Arts in Britain since 1900 and the Ben Uri Collection. She has presented and published widely on these topics and curated numerous exhibitions including Forced Journeys (2009) and Out of Chaos: Ben Uri – 100 Years in London (2015, London, Somerset House). She is a committee member of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies at the University of London, and co‐edited Yearbook 19 on the Applied Arts in British Exile from 1933.

New Art Studio

New Art Studio is a therapeutic art studio for refugees and asylum seekers in London, inspired and powered by the freedom of the imagination. Founded in 2014, by art psychotherapists Tania Kaczynski and Jon Martyn, the Studio is a unique space offering a holistic approach to recovery and personal integration through art therapy within a community. Our members have survived imprisonment, torture, loss of family, country and identity, and now face a restricted life in the United Kingdom. Following the trauma of forced migration, through art making and developing meaningful relationships, often over a number of years, we support our members in the group to rebuild their lives.

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