Van Gogh’s marvelous Café Terrace at Night, painted on site en plein air and en plein nuit just off the Place du Forum in Arles in September 1888, a favorite on college dorm walls everywhere, affords one of those haunting convergences that lead us to wonder, is it him or is it us? I am referring to the way the circular outdoor café tables receding into the distance (flat sworls of white, seemingly hovering in midair) reflect and mirror the stars swirling in the galactic depths of the sky above and likewise receding toward the horizon. Assuming it is Van Gogh himself intending the rhyme, precisely what sort of rhyme is he intending? Is his an attempt to make the vast universe seem cozier (like a galactic outdoor café) or rather the café more galactically lonesome, the guests scattered like far-flung nebulae?
At any rate, the effect is reminiscent of one produced by a vignette of David Hockney’s created roughly one hundred years later, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, as it happens, at a time when Hockney used to have a beach house overlooking the occasionally quite wild surf off Malibu Beach: a dainty porcelain tea set in the foreground against the backdrop of the roiling sea. Where, one is given to wonder, is the true drama?