Placed side by side on the wall were two nearly identical landscapes from the autumn of 1889 when Van Gogh was living at an asylum near the village of Saint-Remy-de-Province. During the chaperoned outings he was allowed to take, he painted the version that now belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Titled “The Large Plane Trees,” it depicts a row of massive trees with grey trunks and yellowing leaves. In front of the trees, rocks are piled against the roots, large paving stones are lined up along the road, and workers are placing them in the exposed dirt. In the background, two women dressed in black are walking past a house with a green door and shutters. A streetlamp, also green, anchors the left-hand corner.
The other painting, “The Road Menders,” which is in the permanent collection of the Phillips, has the same overall composition, but the colors are lighter, clearer, and more evenly applied. Fine lines have been added to bring out the three-dimensionality of the piled rocks, which turn out to be rectangular rather than round. They are not rocks dug up at random but old paving stones being replaced. Van Gogh painted the Cleveland version on a thin cotton material and used fast, loose brushstrokes; for the Phillips version, he prepared a canvas and applied the oils more deliberately. These details and his letters to Theo reveal that Van Gogh painted “The Large Plane Trees” during the day on his chaperoned excursions and re-worked his impressions on “The Road Menders” when he returned to his studio at night.
There are no signs that the artist relied on the common practices of the time such using tracing paper or dividing the original into grids for accurate copying. Still, the two compositions, almost the same size, look identical—until we examine the left-hand corner where the two women are approaching the streetlamp situated between the lower window and the door of the house. In the outdoor version, one side of the lamppost blurs with the window shutter. In the re-worked version, the streetlamp stands clear, halfway between the door and the lower window. Van Gogh made this slight adjustment not by moving the lamp but by making the door and the window smaller. Also, in the original, the upper window is above the lamp and its shutters are closed. In the revised composition, the main part of the lamp is next to the upper window, whose shutters are open. We can now see the six window panes though they are painted black: it’s daytime after all, the light is brighter outdoors, so we are unable to look in.
I might not have noticed these modifications if the wall text hadn’t pointed them out. Once I knew, though, they became the most important part of the second painting: an unlit streetlamp standing by itself; the shutters opened for us not to see through the window. The yellow light falling on the trees felt more urgent with this small paradox playing out in the background. Van Gogh’s rearrangement of the details reminded me of the changes writers make in composing personal essays and memoirs. When we turn the three former classmates in the periphery of our story into one girl who sat several rows behind us in a math class or compress the events of ten days into a week, we are trying to shrink the window and the door to emphasize the lamppost. When we imbue our narrative with an insight that only came to us months, perhaps years later, we, too, are throwing open the shutters from the window next to the unlit lamp and calling attention to the orange blooms of light that are not yet there but will be, soon enough.
The major elements of the landscape, however, are not negotiable for change. The lamppost, for example, must remain where it “really” was. Van Gogh was also meticulous with the style of the architecture, the squat shapes of the trees (they remind me of aging wrestlers), the angle of the road, the slow gait of the women in their dark garments, the limber movements of the road menders in their workmen’s clothes. The reworked version includes one correction—what looked like round rocks in the outdoor composition were actually broken paving stones. Details observed in the field are subjective impressions after all. The re-composed version is more “true,” and perhaps even more “accurate.”
Van Gogh often felt overwhelmed by emotion in the face of nature. “Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people’s curiosity, one works as one can, one fills one’s canvas regardless,” he wrote to his brother. “When one returns to his study again after a time, and orders one’s brushstrokes in the direction of the objects—certainly it’s more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles.” He called the outdoor paintings “studies from nature” (étude d'après nature). He found satisfaction, or serenity, in retreating to his studio and transforming them into deliberate compositions.
I saw “The Large Plane Trees” several times in Cleveland, a city I visited often in the 1990s. I now live two Metro stops away from the Phillips Collection, home of “The Road Menders.” Both paintings and others, too, in “Repetitions” have been in numerous exhibits around the country and abroad. In a dozen cities I lived in or visited over the years, I’ve stood in front of “The Road Menders,” “The Large Plane Trees,” the bedroom in Arles, and the portraits of the postman’s baby with his old man’s face and pinkie ring. A few of these paintings or their further “repetitions” might have been in the Impressionist shows I saw in Kyoto as a child. My mother, who often wore dresses with Monet colors, taught me how to linger in front of each painting to contemplate the feathered or flat brushstrokes, the angle of the light, the blue, green, and yellow lines that make up what we perceive as grey bark, before stepping away to take in the overall composition. Fifty years later, I can stand in the exact same space—eight or nine inches from the canvas—she and I once occupied.
I became a writer because I love to see the same thing multiple times, puzzle over what that thing and my reaction to it means, and rearrange my thoughts through revisions and reprisals. A whole day spent going over the words and the sentences and trying to get them right is a real treat. Some stories—like my mother taking me to museums when I was only in second grade— keep coming back for different reasons. The pleasure of rearrangement, of moving from spontaneity to stylization, is what I write for. But now, a month after the 2016 presidential election, it’s impossible to recall a pair of nearly identical paintings without thinking of them as two parallel realities. The afternoon I walked up the hill to the elementary school in my neighborhood and cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, the light in the trees was an explosion of yellow and orange as in Van Gogh’s paintings. I wish I could go back to redo the composition, to correct for a different outcome.
I should have done more than just walk up that hill and vote. Although I live in DC and teach in Northern Virginia, I have not been politically active. Now, in the aftermath of the election, it’s not enough to attend a few marches, write occasional checks, talk to friends who are equally devastated, and withdraw into the privacy of my apartment. An ex-boyfriend texted me the day after the election to say, “I hope you will write on the matters at hand. Your voice will move a lot of people. Mental and emotional paralysis is not a good place for people to be. That just leads to apathy and we can’t afford that now. You know how to say things that give people strength and hope and positivity in the face of adversity.” My immediate reaction, I’m sorry to report, was to bristle and recoil. I was tempted to say, “Leave me alone,” much more vehemently than when he continued to profess his love after mine for him had faded. At least, the previous occasions had caused some guilt. This time, I simply felt misunderstood and chastised. I was amazed by how little he knew me after our fifteen-year relationship that ended only recently. Once again I was trapped by his misguided efforts to assume the best about me.
I have never written an editorial, political commentary, or essay of advocacy. I am a writer who goes back to a pair of 19th Century paintings I looked at three years ago to ponder what an essayist or a memoirist does. I like to make the window a little smaller or larger, or move it a few inches up or down, and try to understand why one arrangement is more pleasing than the other. I don’t know how I feel or what I really think about anything until several years and multiple revisions later. An event from today might finally be incorporated in my writing in 2026, only to be reconsidered in 2036 if I live that long.
How can I write an essay to influence people’s opinions, much less their action? Why should I even try? The election has caused the greatest upheaval in recent memory. I can no longer shy away from political protests, community meetings, or grass-roots efforts to influence the outcome of the next election, with the same lame excuses I’ve been using such as I don’t like crowds, I hate talking to people I don’t know, I’ll get lost going door-to-door in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Some of the time I’d hoped to set aside for writing might have to go to volunteer work to protect those (people and also the natural world) whose welfare is now gravely threatened. But these changes I envision do not impact my life as a writer directly, except in the logistics of time management.
My writing will always be disengaged from everything except itself: the words on the page, reading and other research to re-examine the thoughts behind those words, more words on the page. To remain receptive to the twists and the turns that any piece of writing takes, I need quietude that is so akin to passivity that it might as well be the same thing. My living self and my writing self are more like opposites or counterparts than close copies or “repetitions.” As I let the political turmoil touch my life directly for the first time, the involvement will no doubt filter through to my writing. Of course my writing will change, as it always does and must. But the life-to-writing translation, at least for me, is a slow process, ill-suited for political commentary, advocacy, or reflections of current affairs.
I can only hope that art as sanctuary has value, too. Here is an email from the Phillips Collection, sent three days after the election: “We remind members that this is YOUR space, and invite you to reflect in our galleries. Members are invited to bring up to 5 guests free of charge all weekend. Explore, digest, converse or maybe just enjoy a moment of meditation.”
Every time we stand in front of a painting we’ve studied over the years, we encounter not only our past selves or the people who taught us how to look at art but also the artist. We inhabit the same space where the artist originally stood, working and reworking his or her vision. Perhaps the quiet space that writers retreat into can also be shared, though indirectly, with those who later “explore, digest, converse [with,] or maybe just enjoy” what we arrange and rearrange in its protection. My ex-boyfriend was right. No one can afford to be disengaged or apathetic anymore. Still, guarding this small sanctuary—while another part of me goes more resolutely into the world—is the only way I know to create hope or strength.
Kyoko Mori is the author of three novels and three nonfiction books, the most recent of which is YARN: REMEMBERING THE WAY HOME. She lives in Washington DC and teaches at George Mason University and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Lesley University.