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Painting and Astronomy, 19th and 20th century

December 29 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Depictions of the sky night are rare in Western paintings. An almost accurately correct representation of the night sky is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone on display at the Orsay museum just across the river Seine from the Louvre museum. Painting outdoor in the dark is a challenge that he overcame by putting candles in his straw hat. Van Gogh was very excited about stars and painted the Great Bear over the harbour of Arles. He did another starry night (Metropolitan Museum New York).

Among the late works of Georges Braque, there is the magnificent “Composition aux Etoiles” (Georges Braque Exhibit, Grand Palais, Paris). Unforunately there is no picture of this painting on the web since it is in private hands. But my favourite night sky painting is “Dragonfly with Red Wings in Pursuit of a Snake Gliding in a Spiral Towards a Comet” (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid) by surrealist Joan Miró . I saw it a few years ago and had a poster of the painting hanging in my office for years. The link with actual research is an instrument on board the European comet probe Rosetta that is called MIRO (Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter). Joan Miró used in his compositions symbols that are sometimes called “miroglyphs”. One of them symbolizes the stars and are seen in many of his works.

Despite the size of the town, Grenoble (where I live) is actually known for his modern and contemporary art scene. One is the Magazin Centre National d’Art Contemporain. The other is the 20th century art collections and its ambitious exhibitions (Alberto Gioacometti in 2013 and actually Sigmar Polke) at the museum of Grenoble. In the permanent collection, I always go to admire the “Large Band”. It hangs in the same room than one of the black paintings by Pierre Soulages. Pierre Soulages’ paintings represent the dark empty sky whereas Miró fills his Universe with phantasmagoric symbols.


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