Suppose you ask me what is the content of Van Gogh’s famous painting of the yellow chair. What exactly does it mean? you ask: what am I supposed to understand, about this chair, or about the world, from looking at this picture?
I might reply: it’s a chair, that’s all.
But in that case, what’s so special about the picture? Wouldn’t a photograph of a chair do just as well? Why travel all these miles to see a picture of a chair?
I am likely to argue that this painting is saying something special about this particular chair, and also about the world as seen through the image of this chair. I might try to put my thoughts and feelings into words.
‘It is an invitation to see the life that spreads from people into all their products, the way in which life radiates from the meanest things, so that nothing is at rest, all is becoming.’
But couldn’t he have written that message on the bottom of the canvas? Why does he need a chair to communicate a thought like that?
I am likely to respond that my words are only a gesture; that the real meaning of the painting is bound up with, inseparable from, the image—that it resides in the very shapes and colors of the chair, is inseparable from Van Gogh’s distinctive style, and cannot be translated completely into another idiom.