A CROOKED PAINTING of an olive grove hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, crooked in the following sense: the horizon of the painted landscape isn’t square with the edges of the canvas.The composition recalls the way a photographer might rotate his camera a few degrees just before pressing the button, freezing the off-kilter landscape into an eternally twisted image. When you stand before the painting of the olive grove, the landscape appears aslant. You plug into the space of the painting from above at an odd angle. Like you’re hovering through the olive grove. Or is it a mountainside olive grove you’re seeing and the landscape is actually aslant? Hard to say. Either way a kind of vertigo is conveyed. Where are you? You don’t quite know.
Your first impulse is to suspect the canvas of having been bumped cock-eyed by a clumsy somebody, but when you glance toward the frame you see that its edges are perfectly parallel with the horizontal of the floor and you realize it’s a trick. It’s as though van Gogh, with a twist — how did he do that? — has spring-loaded the composition, freezing it in paint.
The painting wants to unspring. The composition wants to unwind and return to an easy horizontal. Yet it can’t. Frozen in motionless motion, it’s charged with a kind of magic. The eye wheels and glides with delight over its surface. The longer you look, the more it beguiles, losing none of its mystery as it unfurls its perpetual fragrance. A hundred years and counting and the vertigo still delivers.