Before he painted starry nights, cornfields, sunflowers and self-portraits, and before he spent time in asylums, cut off his own ear and eventually ended his life, Vincent van Gogh was a man of God. He lived frugally, worked as a missionary for some time, and failed to get into theology school. Later, he found something akin to religion in the beauty of nature. “The moving of the seasons reflected for him a higher force,” says Sjraar van Heugten, the curator of the National of Gallery of Victoria’s new exhibition, Van Gogh and the Seasons. “Not necessarily God. A more pantheistic force.”
Van Gogh is one of Western art’s most significant and recognisable names. How do you give him a fresh spin? Van Heugten, visiting from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has curated the NGV’s blockbuster show into four loose sections, reflecting the significance Van Gogh assigned to the turning of the seasons. He idolised rural labourers, believing their closeness to nature made them spiritually superior to city-dwellers. He wanted to be that close to nature – to the changes of the land.
But we hardly need a fresh angle to entice us to this show. This is the largest ever display of Van Gogh’s work in Australia, loaned from the museum in Amsterdam, The National Gallery in London, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and many others, including private collections. And it’s exclusive to Melbourne. It seems the logistics of pulling these works from all over the world makes touring the show impractical. Lucky us.
It’s not a greatest-hits package. There’s no Starry Night, no Bedroom in Arles, no Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers. But there’s plenty of lesser-known beauty.
There are 47 Van Goghs on show, accompanied by just as many pieces from other artists that inspired him. Van Gogh cut out illustrations from popular magazines for inclusion in his “bible”, many of which are on display here – rough, scissored edges included.
He also collected Japanese prints, drawn to their clear lines and energetic compositions. That interest is represented here by a selection of prints from the NGV archives. These pieces are an oddly lengthy introduction that risks diluting the focus. But then we get to the Van Goghs, seasonally arranged, and the curation makes perfect sense.
Van Gogh’s winter is lonely, blue and for purely practical reasons (painting outside in French winter is not fun) often depicted with pen or pencil on paper. Spring sees peasants planting potatoes under serene skies, a horse chestnut tree in vivid blossom and a riverbank sketchily rendered in pastel pink. In autumn, he tackles, in Van Heugten’s words, “darkness that is still colour” with browns and reds.
During my walkthrough it becomes clear the concluding summer section is what the crowds have gravitated to. By 1886, Van Gogh had started exploring colour fully, and in summer that aspect of his work was in full bloom. Wheatfield with Cypresses is painted vigorously – electric yellow under an energetic, swirling blue sky, His 1887 self-portrait, in which his face is flecked with blues, reds and pinks, sees flesh surge with colour.
The show’s biggest success is that it blows museum-y cobwebs from paintings that feel very much alive, returning a sense of humanity to the work and to the artist.
Van Heugten dispels some myths about the artist. He wasn’t the poverty-stricken, misunderstood genius he’s often depicted as. He sold a little work here and there, and had built a reputation by the end of his short career, not least among fellow artists. He could be, by some accounts, a bit of a pain – he lived with his younger brother and art dealer, Theo, for a time, and reportedly drove him mad. “He was a complex man,” says Van Heugten. “He could go on a bit.”
Van Gogh was eloquent about his work, and quotes from the artist around the gallery contextualise the pieces beautifully. About his 1887 autumn painting Patch of grass he wrote: “Not a single flower was drawn … they’re just little licks of colour, red yellow, orange, green, blue, violet, but the impression of all those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.”
“The murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it,” he writes about another work. “It’s too beautiful for me to dare to paint it.” This didn’t stop him – he painted olive orchards about 30 times.
It’s an extremely educational and informative exhibition. But for all the insight offered in the accompanying labels, it’s the cards placed a little lower on the wall, intended for younger eyes, which you should use to guide you through the exhibition. They express an infectious enthusiasm and sense of wonder that better reflects Van Gogh’s own words.
In them, Van Gogh is referred to as “grumpy” and buildings “look like they’re made from toy building blocks”.
“This is a picture of Vincent’s home,” one card reads. “It looks a bit creepy. You can tell it’s cold because Vincent hasn’t used many colours.”
It’s all part of seeing these seemingly familiar paintings with fresh eyes.
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