Vincent Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace At Night (1888)
By Shirley Zhu
It is a cool midsummer’s night A soothing breeze drifts through the open square and carries the lively chatter from late-night wanderers upwards, past the open shutters of sleepy houses where the noises are but mere murmuring, towards the twinkling sky. Sandwiched between the narrow blue buildings whole rich hues deepen under the midnight sky sits the bustling cafe. Awash with bright, happy tones, the cafe is a beacon. Golden light seeps from the gaping doors and windows, highlighting its lemon-coloured walls. Enveloping the surroundings with a soft glow, the cafe is warm and inviting, like a mother’s hug. Its burnt-orange patio buzzes with life and indistinct music, filled with people lounging in spoindly chairs, teetering dangerously on two legs as they throw their heads back in raucous laughter. Seated at white, elliptical tables, little moons balanced on a clockwork of copper rods, they savour the wines of the world – tart, velvety, bitter – and fill their bellies with a warmth that heats them from the inside out. A single hanging lantern casts angular shadows across the cheekbones of their drinking faces and illuminates the cobblestone terrace, accenting glints of mixed stone in the rough surface: a kaleidoscope of blues, yellows, and browns. Drooping downwards as if reaching for the passing years. For its age, the needles are surprisingly supple. They sway serenely in the wind, their sharp scent cutting through the heaviness of the cafe’s butter croissants. As the late hours creep into early ones, the day winds down, finally becoming sleepy. People, content and satiated, disappear into the alley, departing into the shadows. Though the indigo buildings lining the path are obscure and black, the night sky is luminous. The stars, glowing orbs, are swirls of light guiding the way for the travellers. The white jewels hang in the sky, shimmering and blinking, radiating iridescent beams; the conclusion of a day in a little French town.
Anonymous’s A Pair of Pigs (c. 1850)
By Leo Holton
The pasture is empty. An ashen mist blankets the ground, bleaching the field, the farmhouse, and the forest beyond, swallowing up the first feeble hints of fall, In the distance, a church spire struggles to pierce through the encroaching clouds. The grass, the foliage, and the sky itself lie wet and limp and weary, waiting for the daylight to fade as darkness descends; the animals gave up on waiting hours ago, plodding to shelters out of sight, and the damp seeps after them, damp that stops for no fence or wall or hide, damp that slithers through cracks and crawls under fur, damp that leaves the skin clammy and peppered with goosebumps, damp that rolls into the open barn, unrelenting, unstoppable, until it stops. A pair of pigs. Standing stock still. Skin stretched taut over immense, meaty frames, they gleam like polished pearls, oblivious to the pervasive chill. They preside over a mire of mud and straw, of feces and filth, with an air of unconcerned authoritu. They are living paradoxes, so heavy that their tiny legs should have already given out, yet so smooth and buoyant that it would hardly be surprising to see them rise from the ground and drift into the grey beyond. They are patient gluttons; as one lowes his snout to sniff at a pile of scraps, the other waits, his smiling eyes nestled among warm folds of fat. Erected behind these regal mounds of flesh, the ramshackle walls of the barn are meagre and inadequate. The rough-hewn boards are pieced together in a crooked, slintery grin, amused by the thought that, were a gale to strike the farm, they would collapse in an instant. For now, however, two pig, the brightest lights in a heavy, cold, muted world, hold the elements at bay.
Diego Rivera’s Murals of Industry: North Wall (1933)
Punch in, file through, heave, ho, lunch. These are the pearl-grey, copper-green gates that open up onto the worker’s day and the teeming jungle of steel and souls that is his chosen grove. Six men strain in staggered unison as they haul a cart of transmission blanks to the assembly line, pockmarked and gleaming like the brows of their ferrymen. Before them, behind them, above them, beyond them, a thousand men fill the heavy air with shouts and clatters and body odour as they yank and tinker at the embryonic engines, the muscles in their backs and forearms taut as the metal cables around them. At home in the monotony, the workers’ faces betray only a hardened single-mindedness and faith in their own toil, and yet each heave, stamp, and lift brims with the zeal of one who has done so only twice, and not ten thousand times. Further back, two rows of milky spindles, sentries of the assembly line as imposing as any foreman, flank a corridor of reaching arms and silvery belts that dangle plate-sized gears like pinned-up laundry. Hissing, whirring, they snake off with their cargo, wafting clouds of tinny oil fumes as they melt into the untraceable horizon of blue-flannelled shoulders. As this river of of raw industry churns below, a tiny, towering figure stands framed against the blast furnace, a speck of charcoal before a wall of fire, stirring molten iron with an arched back that might have been punting the barge of a sun god. Buckled like thick ribbons, two winding steel beams fan out beneath him and ride the incarnadine glow into separate thickets of machinery. Other equally sinuous lintels bob and weave throughout the building, losing and finding themselves, and together with the suspended conveyor belts, it seems as though a web of laces has been pulled loose and left the building overflowing, unleashed, as if by sheer will the men might slip its steely bonds and step out into the daylight.
Joseph Wright’s Vesuvius in Eruption, with a view over the Islands in the Bay of Naples (c. 1776-80)
A night scene captures the sublime display of Vesuvius’s wrath as he erupts. The calmness is devastated by his calamitous awakening; his reanimation gushes massive clouds of billowing, black smoke that cover the tranquil, midnight blue sky, partially blotting out the moon, exposing a gibbous whose soft, blonde glow illuminates only a distant bay of placid water, but fails to touch the immediate scenery under the oppression of the infernal pyre. That molten pyre is is shot out as a towering magma column of both searing heat and searing light that transforms the mountain, bounded to the right by a temperate bay of moonlit water and bounded to the left by a valley of undulate, umber-brown earth, into a hellscape. All life here is scorched: bayside, the vegetation at his base, though not presently engulfed, us menaced by the magma that flows readily down his distant, shadowed face in an unabatable, red-purple stream; valley-side, the once lush brush is parched by the heat of the eruption and bends, as if in prostration, to the power of his awakening roar; from all sides, dying shrieks and squalls from animals unseen, trying to save themselves from inescapable doom, echo faintly under the eruption’s earsplitting blast. Vesuvius fires skyward glowing lava particles that rain down from amidst the pitch-blackness of the volcanic smoke, which is so rich in brimstone scent that the smoke clouds float away languidly, creating in front of the pacific sky a starry, underworldy nightscape, befitting og the hell over which reigns he, He, who produces heat so intense as to evaporate sweat, whi scars this land evermore, who makes all upon it suffer, wears that suffering as a scarlet, wildfire coat that grows longer by the second. Slowly, yet ceaselessly, following closely the serpentine path that leads down from his summit, the lava coat reaches a group of four men stood in its path. One is still and one is fallen. The two remaining men burden themselves by carrying the fallen one away from the impending lake of fire and towards some haven, but none exists. The danger is everywhere, the fire is insurmountable. It is hopeless: they stand before the Devil.