While staying at the mental asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in 1889, Van Gogh painted his masterpiece ‘The Starry Night’ after being inspired by a famous astronomical drawing. More than a century after his death, this iconic painting is cemented in the history books as one of the most celebrated works of all time. What wasn’t recognized until a few years ago is that it is much more than just a visual triumph, and that it would open a pathway to the understanding of a compelling concept of life: turbulence.
Turbulent flow is defined as a type of liquid or gas in which the fluid undergoes irregular fluctuations, and it can be found in the flow of wind or rivers. It is considered to be one of the most complicated natural concepts that has ever haunted mankind. Werner Heisenberg, a renowned German theoretical physicist, even stated that when he would meet God he would ask him two questions: why relativity and why turbulence? And, jokingly, he added that God probably had an answer for the first question. Nonetheless, during his intense period of suffering, Van Gogh managed to perceive and concretely represent this intellectually evasive concept.
In 2004, a group of scientists observed a cloud of gas through the Hubble Space Telescope and one of them mentioned that it reminded him of Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’. Although it started off as a simple observatory statement, the resemblance quickly fuelled people’s interest. Experts ranging from Mexico to England measured how brightness varies between any two pixels and overwhelmingly concluded that his iconic work meticulously portrayed a depiction of flow.
This revolutionary discovery is closely linked to the artistic movement Van Gogh was a part of. In fact, Impressionists tended to represent light in different ways compared to their predecessors. With the use of quickly executed brushstrokes, they managed to capture light’s motion and something astonishingly real about how light moves. Therefore, Van Gogh’s visualization of light had a pattern that closely follows the deep mathematical structure of turbulent fluid.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this discovery is that paintings from Van Gogh’s calmer periods in life don’t show this correspondence: it is only during his psychotic moments that he exhibited this genius. Although correlation is not causation, it is somehow fascinating to consider that in his hardest moments in life, Van Gogh managed to unite his mind’s eye with the most puzzling mysteries of the essence of life: movement and light.