There are some books out there which really and truly are good for all ages. Usually when I see a book marked as being for “children of all ages!” in a review, I mentally append, “Please don’t feel stupid for enjoying this as an adult.” Now, personally, I never feel stupid for enjoying these books as an adult; instead, I spend my time over-analyzing them on my blog. So, when I say that a book is for “all ages,” this is what I mean: I think that you can go as young as you like with this book. I think that once your kid is interested in looking at books and listening to words, you can give this book a try, and I think you’ll get something out of it at the same time. The Fox and the Star was one of these: I found it meaningful, and I think my daughter would have enjoyed it at even a younger age than she is now (two-and-a-half). Well, here’s another one for you: Vincent’s Colors, words and pictures by Vincent van Gogh. This comes to us from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chronicle Books, and it’s so pretty that it should be marketed as “baby’s first coffee table book!”
The basic concept is simple, but, Lord, it must have taken a lot of work to get just right. The book presents a series of van Gogh paintings, each accompanied by a brief description of the painting taken from van Gogh’s own letters to his brother, Theo. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Let me ruin this for you: I bought this in a rush of excitement from the Chronicle Books website (NB: that website is dangerous and beautiful, like a kind of modern day fairyland), but the reason I bought it was because I was somehow expecting some series of deep, abstruse, inspirational descriptions. I don’t know, something like: “Here I attempted to capture the shades within shades which permeate the redness of the cap– that whole new spectrum within RED, can you not see it?– and which matches the spectrum of the spirit…”
God, I’m sorry I inflicted that on you. Please forgive me. Moving on: I’m so very glad that van Gogh wrote better than that, and that Chronicle Books and the Met decided to pair his beautifully concise descriptions with his lush and vivid images, because they taught me something about how adults, children, and van Gogh himself see and describe art. To spoil the suspense, let’s just say that adults like me maybe try to see and say too much (quelle surprise!), whereas van Gogh, in these pared down descriptions, perfectly meets the child’s eyes and perceptions, and, through that, we can find a whole other world of art.
To be clear, for all that I’m teasing myself here, I don’t think that adults have dulled perceptions whereas children see the true hearts of things in art. That’s taking things to the other extreme. My view is a little simpler: we all see and enjoy what we see and enjoy. That said, it can give us a bit of a brain boost, a bit of extra fun, to see how someone else enjoys art– and maybe we’ll learn another way to enjoy things. I first learned this with my daughter by taking her to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with me. We didn’t get through the whole museum, of course, and what we saw and enjoyed tended to be about three feet of the ground, maximum, but what a new world! Stone lions and “pictures of babies” (any art depicting the baby Jesus, basically) were paramount, as well as all of the fountains. Looking around with her, and through her eyes, I noticed statues I’d passed by with barely a glance on my own. It was really a new way of seeing a museum I already loved.
I think the same thing holds true of reading this book. The paintings are mostly familiar, although you may meet some new van Gogh art (always a good thing!), but you may learn a few new things. This is hard to express in words, so let’s try an exercise. Three paintings by van Gogh, his description, and what struck me: First, a certain familiar painting of sunflowers:
with the words: “twelve flowers that are light on light.” (I was caught up with the signature on the vase. Yes, I’m weird.)
You’ll also get Zouave:
van Gogh’s description: “a reddish cap and orange bricks.” (I was fascinated by the small face emerging from big, embroidered coat.)
And, finally, View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground:
described as: “some very yellow buttercups.” (My eyes were struck by the trees and buildings in the background.)
I didn’t just do that because I wanted to look at a lot of van Gogh. I mean, I do, but I also have the book right here and the colour reproductions in this book are stellar, much better than the internet pictures I grabbed (a reason in itself to buy the book). I mostly chose these pictures for three reasons: a) to give a sense of the scope of the book, which includes a wide variety of paintings, some more familiar to us than others; b) van Gogh and I focused on very different things; c) I thought those descriptions gave a sense of the variety and level of descriptions included in the book. Some are a bit more abstruse (“light on light”) and some are very concrete (“a red cap”). Some are about the main subject of the painting (“twelve flowers”) and some are deliberately not about the object in the foreground (“very yellow buttercups”). Brief as the descriptions are, their breadth matches the breadth of van Gogh’s art: he touches on everything, and packs a lot into a small space. Compare “light on light” with my atrocious attempt at art description above, and tell me which you think captures more in a smaller space. (Hint: it’s not me. Granted, I perpetrated that atrocity deliberately– mea culpa– but, still.)
That’s great then, that’s what van Gogh sees, and how I understand what he sees. But what about children? Have I forgotten them? I can only speak to my Changeling’s reaction, I’m afraid, but it’s surprising how often what she picked up on aligned with the description. In order, and I admit that I am somewhat paraphrasing here: “I see flowers! They’re big.”; “Look at the red hat, do you see the red hat?”; “There’s so much yellow!” Her reaction is very like her reaction to any other full-page illustration in a picture book, of course, so we’re not exactly looking for art critique here. (Also, I acknowledge that the editing of the book has a lot to do with this as well; which is to say that the editing is great!) What’s interesting is that she picks up on and describes the first thing to catch her eye, and, in most cases, that’s pretty much the aspect that van Gogh’s describing. For Arles, for example, she pretty much didn’t notice the misty, dark irises in the foreground. The bright yellow strip of buttercups? Absolutely! She wasn’t so interested in the man, but his red cap? Sure thing! It’s the brightness, the “light on light” which she sought out.
Now, isn’t that worth noticing? I’m telling you: take your kid (or niece or nephew or grandchild or friend) and go to a museum. Look with them, and be patient. Listen. You may see something you’d never seen before.