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Van Gogh Twitter Controversy, Explained: Why a Viral Tweet Tried to Cancel the Post-Impressionist

Over the past few days, hundreds of thousands of Twitter users have gotten involved in a heated debate, and it has nothing to do with politics, celebrities, or K-Pop stans—the subjects that typically populate one’s Twitter feed. The subject of that discourse was something far less likely: a famed 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh called Café Terrace at Night and a reinterpretation of the French Post-Impressionist’s masterpiece by contemporary Chinese artist Haixia Liu. Here’s how a 132-year-old canvas touched off arguments over whether realism was the highest art form and a series of bizarre memes.

So, how did we get here? 

On August 7, a user who goes by the name Margarita tweeted images of the van Gogh and Liu works, which offer two stylistically different takes on the same scene. In the van Gogh, a streetside café in Arles and its patrons are painted in dazzling shades of orange-yellow and deep blue. In the Liu rendition, that same café is painted far more naturalistically, in a way that more closely mirrors our world. “Should expose how overrated Van Gogh is,” Margarita wrote.

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A detail of “The Wijk Mill”

But old (and uninformed) tweets never die, and so, this past weekend, many picked up Margarita’s tweet and made fun of it. One viral tweet that accrued more than 420,000 likes read, “The fetishization of realism kills art.” Others took a more pointed tack, with another viral tweet reading, “i understand why van gogh cut off his ear and shot himself in the middle of an open field like i get it now.”

What is realism, and why are people using it as an argument against van Gogh?

Definitions of realism are vast and varied, but van Gogh’s artistic output could, in a way, be considered a reaction to capital-R Realism, which was the dominant mode in 1870s France, shortly before van Gogh and the Impressionists who preceded him became active. (Some of van Gogh’s works bear out the influence of Realism—he depicted poor French citizens in unsparing detail in works such as The Potato Eaters, from 1885.) The late art historian Linda Nochlin, who wrote a 1971 book on Realism, described the movement as such: “Its aim was to give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world, based on meticulous observation of contemporary life.” There was an outwardly political dimension to this: artists such as Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and Honoré Daumier rejected the bourgeois subject matter that critics of the era favored and used their art to turn attention to the French working class and the oppression they faced on a daily basis. While not “styleless,” as Nochlin wrote, Realism was less dependent on visual resplendency than movements like Romanticism.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists then pushed the innovations of Realism one step further, painting everyday scenes in France, but in a way that was aesthetically opposed to Courbet and the like. Their paintings were unabashedly subjective, filled with coloristic effects that looked nothing like life and were instead interpretations of the play on light in a given scene.

What is the backstory behind Café Terrace at Night?

Van Gogh was fascinated by light and the way it shaped our understanding of color, and so, when he created this painting, which ranks among his most famous works, he was experimenting with how the nighttime interplayed with the illumination emitted from cafe’s lamps. “The night,” van Gogh once wrote, “is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” In this view of a streetside café in Arles, France, where the artist was based for 14 months during a period when he awaited Paul Gauguin’s arrival in the city, van Gogh sets up a brilliant contrast between a starry sky and a dining area, pitting the cool blues of the night against the warm yellows of the interiors. The perspective is foreshortened, so that the street recedes into the distance on a diagonal.

Can Café Terrace at Night be seen in person?

Yes—coronavirus-related travel restrictions permitting, of course. It’s currently owned by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, which houses around 90 of van Gogh’s paintings. The museum reopened in June and is now instituting social distancing rules. And, if you’re in Arles, you can even go to the café that van Gogh once painted. It’s now called Le Café Van Gogh, and though the name has changed, it still has the eatery’s signature yellow awnings, as depicted in the painting.

Who is Haixia Liu, and what does he have to do with van Gogh?

Not to be confused with a similarly named female weightlifter, Liu is a painter born in China’s Hubei province who’s known for his naturalistic images of cafés and alleys in European cities such as Venice and Paris. According to a biography on Fulcrum Gallery’s website, where his art is made available for sale, he started out as a graphic designer for a packaging company and transitioned into painting full-time. Now, his art is sold widely online. Cafe Van Gogh (2008), his version of the van Gogh masterpiece, is available in the form of prints priced at just under $20.

Is Liu’s painting really a reason to cancel Impressionism and Post-Impressionism?

No, it’s not worth canceling van Gogh and his cohort because they didn’t paint art that looks totally like life itself. In fact, for van Gogh, what he painted was reality, even if it didn’t appear that way. “It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality is more important than the feeling for pictures,” he once wrote.

Who had the best reaction to the controversy?

One user who tweeted a meme featuring a still from the TV series Real Husbands of Hollywood in which the actress Angell Conwell holds the now disgraced comedian Kevin Hart on her shoulder while warding off another woman. The meme makes it seem as though Conwell—a stand-in for “the art community”—is protecting van Gogh from a woman saying “reALiSm Is REaL ArT VaN GoGh Is OvERaTEd.”

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