“On the other hand, the olive trees are very characteristic, and I’m struggling to capture that. It’s silver, sometimes more blue, sometimes greenish, bronzed, whitening on ground that is yellow, pink, purplish or orangish to dull red ochre. But very difficult, very difficult. But that suits me and attracts me to work fully in gold or silver. And one day perhaps I’ll do a personal impression of it, the way the sunflowers are for yellows.”.
These are the last few sentences from what turned out to be a longish letter that Van Gogh had written to his younger brother Theo with opening lines, “I am dropping you another line to explain”. One wasn’t expecting the letter to be detailed when the writer had already hinted brevity at its start yet the letter numbered 806 turned out descriptive. Shall we hold it to the olive trees? For their story is neither easy nor brief!
Written in Sep. 28, 1889 this was the second letter in which Van mentioned painting olive trees. The previous one was written a week earlier.
He was 36 years old when Van Gogh admitted himself at the Saint Paul asylum of Saint-Rémy, France in May that year. Getting admitted in the asylum was an informed choice for the artist as his mental health was vulnerable. Martin Bailey, a subject expert on Van Gogh notes, reasons this hospitalisation to falling mental health which reflected in Van Gogh harming himself by chopping off his ear. Bailey explains this tormenting action in his revelatory work “Starry Night, Van Gogh at the Asylum” a consequence to the fall out of an artistic collaboration with fellow artist Paul Gaugin.
Yet fascinatingly, this was also the highest phase of the artist’s creativity, a burst of his spectacular imagination. His stay in Saint — Rémy was comforting on most days as the institute was surrounded by nature; wheat fields, cypress trees and olive groves.
During these months olive trees captivated the centrality of Van Gogh’s artistic thoughts. He wrote to Theo “The murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it”. In this ‘old’ and ‘gnarly’ (an adjective Van Gogh used for olive groves) the painter found his strength, an unexpected comfort and subtle spirituality. One of the curatorial note from all 15 that he painted titled ‘The Olive Orchard (1889) now with Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art read “In the olive trees, in the expressive power of their ancient and gnarled form, Van Gogh found a manifestation of the spiritual force he believed resided in all of nature”. He confessed his connect with the trees, mentioning how difficult it is to paint the groves with their ever changing colours through the day alongside his confessed perseverance to paint them time and again. Indeed olive trees is laced with spirituality, its story lies in the divine allotment and traditions of reverence. But one will return to it later.
At the height of this organic bond with the olives groves Van manifested his timeless, masterly ‘The Starry Night’ which he described as a nocturnal compliment to the blue, green painting “Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape’ that had a ‘ectoplasmic’ cloud. On worse days Van had tried to harm himself by swallowing his paints or paraffin and yet on days he when could paint it was that white cloud in the blue sky and the green olive trees at the foothills of the Alps that kept him going.
Impressionism in art
Olive groves enticed others artists too like Monet, Dali, Matisse, Degas and others. But other than Van Gogh it was Monet who was drawn to them.
‘It’s glorious, just perfect and more beautiful by the day’ writes Claude Monet the founding artist of Impressionism in art referring to the pink light of northern Italy where he spent the first quarter of 1884. This would result in a luminous album of five paintings of Olive groves titled ‘Bois d’oliviers au jardin Moreno’.
Monet’s chiaroscurist self comes alive through an interplay of light and shadow appearing as if an abstraction with silhouettes in the foreground deftly interwoven by the form of the gnarly olives trees and the appealing pink light.
While for Monet the pink light of Northern Italy and the foliage of the olive tree was most fascinating, for Van Gogh they were deeply existential as if his life and death depended on witnessing the olive trees in sunshine. Dali on the other hand interpreted olive tree and its sprig beyond literal art matters.
In his “The Persistence of Memory” a surrealist masterpiece that has intrigued generations of art circles ever since created in 1931, the painter had included a dead branch of an olive tree, a reminder to his Catalonian identity. In nutshell for the European painter’s olive tree were a later theme but stroke a chord of intensity. On the other side of Mediterranean Olive was equivalent to ‘Life’ (not the Van Goghish way though) and beyond.
On The Other Side of Mediterranean
Archaeological evidences from the Chalcolithic period tell us that olive was one of earliest cultivated crop in the Levant, particularly Southern Levant and was a native to entire Mediterranean Basin. They also indicate that by Early Bronze age trading in olive oil and table olives were widespread throughout present day Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
Trading those days happened via waterways, with shipwrecks a common occurrence. Ugaritic tablets found in these wreckages reveal the international nature of olive trading as early as second millennium BCE. Greco Roman texts like “De Agri Cultura” by Cato the Elder differently called as Cato the Wise and Marcus Varro’s “De Rustica” mention cultivation of three crops; the grains, the grapes and the olives.
“Starting from EB II, olive oil became one of the few luxury goods traded by Levantine cities, especially with Egypt,” mentions expert Sharon Sabatini (Institute of Oriental Studies Sapienza University of Rome). Though affluent Egyptians imported olive from most of the Levant but it was primarily Elba in the greater Aleppo (between 2500-2200 BC) that supplied most of the venerated crop.
It is mind boggling to imagine the story of olive’s antiquity this ties together the cultural history of modern day Middle East from farming to harvesting to crushing and extracting olive oil. This meant Arabs tended and handled olives day in day out followed by the Greeks and Romans.
I would be emphatic that in this cultural history with ancient dates tagged to them it’s the modern Arab lands whose relationship with olives hold the strongest! Can you imagine how complex and delicate would be extracting olive oil with grindstones be and then trading it long distance in patterned jugs and jars across the lands of Syria, Palestine to Egypt.
Olive tree remains special across mythologies and religions especially the Greek. Interestingly the Greeks are also the highest per capita consumer of olive oil, while Spain produces 44% of world’s olive.
That said in eastern world, olive over centuries are associated to Abrahamic faiths, the holy Quran mentions olive more than once, enumerating its importance in the region and so does Christian holy Bible. The text emphasises on olive as God’s gift to humanity; to the people of Southern Levant.
It isn’t unnatural that olive in history and lived life became the identity of Eastern Mediterranean. Till today it is one of the key food ingredients of Middle Eastern cuisine. Arab life is unthinkable without olive trees — ask any Palestinian or Syrian or Lebanese if they can do without olive oil, the answer would be a cryptic no. To that olive transcended to symbol of political of resistance for Palestinians but that’s another story.
It is Ours and not Theirs
Today most of the western world does not know the Levant’s prehistoric connect with olive. Along with usual culprits; 18th and 19th century colonial, expansions and early capitalist interests, it would not be too far fetched to add the western artistic styles both impressionism as in Monet’s olive trees and surrealist painting like Dali’s giving slight benefit of doubt as factors leading to shaping this discourse that olive trees, and olive oil belong to Europe. The literal argument is situated in the botanical name of ‘Olea europaea’ or even in the fact that there are so many cultivars of olive.
However, it is mostly the visual representation, early advertisements of olive oil produced in Italy, France marketed to the United States that became the game-changer of how olive be came to be perceived as integral to the West; a misnomer like oranges and others. A quick example of such an advertisement would be Mottet’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil (established in 1782 in France) flyer or MB Virgin Olive Oil’s (a produce of Italy) coloured lithograph that touted itself as the finest virgin olive oil in the world.
How representation became instrumental in forming public opinions about olive is an epic story that deserves a separate discussion; for now shall we soak ourselves in the beauty of the soulful art of Van Gogh’s olive groves, the longings they express and in the praise of rain-fed, hand-picked olives and delicately pressed in Syria, Lebanon and occupied Palestine.
By the way one of the best olive oils of the world is still from levant (Palestine) and is called ‘Zaytoun’ the Arabic word for olive. Isn’t Olive Eastern!
Nilosree is a noted author, filmmaker