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Around the galleries

Finding more to say about van Gogh

— July 2012

Article read level: Art lover

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Vincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890, Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92 cm. Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Larry Silver gets up close to Vincent van Gogh’s work as it shows in two North American venues

Surely Vincent van Gogh remains one of the most fascinating and adored of all artists.  With the great Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and myriad exhibitions (another one, ‘Becoming van Gogh’, organized by the Denver Art Museum, will open in October of this year),  what more remains to be shown or said about the immortal Vincent?

The exhibition ‘Van Gogh Up Close’, comprising some 40 works focuses – closely – on van Gogh’s intense interest in nature, especially through the works of his final years in southern France from 1887 until his death by suicide in Auvers in 1890.  Both his vivid colours and his lively brushwork were deployed with an almost excessive fervour towards the representation of substance and texture in the world he saw.

The exhibition, organized by Cornelia Homburg, former chief curator of the Saint Louis Art Museum, is organized thematically into units: Flowers, Blades of Grass, High Horizons (the only segment that seemed to defy the guiding concept of 'up close'), Tree Trunks and Under-growth, and Radical Still-Lifes.

Not since Albrecht Dürer used a meticulous watercolour for a close-up of a Great Clump of Turf (1503; Vienna, Albertina) had any artist invested so much attention to the incidentals of the natural world. Compare Vincent's own Iris of 1889 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada), whose vividly fashioned strokes of pigment from the tube add tangible substance to the plant represented.  An essay in this catalogue by Joseph Rishel, senior curator of the Philadelphia Museum, makes this connection explicit. He points out, against the grain of most Van Gogh scholarship, how much the later Dutch painter drew from his Golden Age Dutch predecessors: Rembrandt, Ruisdael, van Goyen, Seghers, and the German Dürer.

Experiencing these works in person in the exhibition reveals a seeming paradox of shifting focus.  Van Gogh was able to impart his intensity through a formal bravura process that suggests an outpouring of energy.  The closest viewing nearly disintegrates any coherence of the colour and brushwork on the canvas.  Yet a few steps back suffice to reconstitute – almost miraculously – the identity and physical substance of an Almond Blossom (1890; Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum; the final image on view), or Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886; Ottawa). 

For this reviewer, such a powerful combination of abstract forms of paint application, almost like butter cream icing at times, with vivid naturalism constitutes the enduring delight in the direct experience of van Gogh images.  And this exhibition revels in such experiences as its very purpose.  At times Vincent seems to have fashioned his plants in relief, while at other times his grammar of paint application, as in his ink drawings, varies according to each substance or patch of a field or forest.

In his pictures, van Gogh assimilated the discoveries of earlier artists in Paris, such as the Impressionist paintings of Pissarro and Monet, as well as the pointillist works of Seurat and Signac (see his Outskirts of Paris: Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade (1887; private coll.).  In using their lighter colours and varied brushwork, he became more sculptural about carving objects in pigment in his own work.

Also in Paris, he discovered Japanese woodblock prints, to which Philadelphia devoted a separate section, complemented by close-up nature details in photographs by French and German mid-century masters. He admired these for their decorative use of colour and flattened compositions, and he embraced those Japanese artists, particularly Hiroshige, who worked in natural settings.  One notable print by Hiroshige, Sudden Shower at Atake: The Great Bridge (1857) not only was copied literally by van Gogh in a painting of 1887 (not included), but also led to his own experiments with the superimposition of rain showers atop open fields in Philadelphia's own Rain (1889).

Particularly striking in the exhibition are the unconventional still-lifes of van Gogh, gathering either flowers or fruit but often animating them with his detached brushwork, which threatens to dominate the imagery, especially when used as a framing ground, as in the swirling, tilted cluster of Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples (Chicago Art Institute, 1887).  Also distinctive, the artist’s close-up views of grasses, wheat sheaves, and tree trunks, shoved to the foreground, take on a life of their own, where the brushwork instils movement and colour towards a vibrancy of contrasting values that suggest both sensory and emotive responses by the painter to his environment.  Readers of the catalogue might be disappointed in the smallish roster of works actually installed, since many of the most arresting images are reproduced vividly in colour from such collections as the Van Gogh Museum (clearly the most outstanding collection, both in the exhibition items and in general), but they do not appear in the Philadelphia or Ottawa installations.  In compensation, a half-dozen novelties from private collections provide fresh experiences.

The landscapes that Vincent painted around Arles show Japanese influence in their deep views of the countryside and high horizon lines, while the landscapes he went on to create in Saint-Rémy and Auvers in 1889 and 1890 are tightly packed, more structured works. Dominated by a screen of trees or falling raindrops, these paintings suggest the immediacy and closeness of van Gogh’s surroundings. A year before he died, he wrote in a letter to his sister, ‘I…am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself’. 

The attentive viewer will also note a dramatic shift of attention in 1890, when in the spring van Gogh shifted to Auvers, under the treatment of Dr Paul Gachet.  The works painted in that final year usually offer less patient attention to detail and system, preferring bolder strokes and more simplified patterns, which could be described either as 'sloppier' or else as a new shorthand in relation to the works of the previous years.  Another trend of some later pictures is more of an all-over pattern, evident in his Dandelions (1889; Winterthur, Kunstmuseum) and especially Ears of Wheat (1890; Van Gogh Museum).

The most powerful visual memory from this exhibition emerges from van Gogh’s own final works, seen in the closest of close-ups.  At the outset of the exhibition New York's ageing cut Sunflower (1887; Metropolitan Museum) offers sumptuously tangible gold and brown clumps of pigment on a two-tone blue ground to fashion a lastingly powerful image.  Van Gogh’s intense focus, reducing depth while intensifying his brushwork and colour, repeatedly renders a truly visceral jolt to the retina: of a clump of iris, of a tangle of almond branches, and of the vibrant patterning of an Emperor moth. These are the very images of still lifes that culminate this remarkable Philadelphia exhibition.  While the distracting frames on small works compromise some of the viewing experiences (as does the clumping of crowds before the featured audioguide selections), this well-chosen selection lives up to its title, as it instructs as well as delights the myriad fans – and even the specialist scholars – of this Dutch bohemian painter.

Both still lifes and landscapes alike comprise the substance of the works on display as well as those in the catalogue, Van Gogh Up Close. The catalogue is conceived as a stand-alone volume, featuring major essays by museum curators.  Homburg’s overview essay introduces the book, complemented by van Gogh’s own commentaries from his letters, selected and analysed by Anabelle Kienle, curator at the National Gallery of Canada. 

Jennifer Thompson from the Philadelphia Museum provides a roster of 19th-century French painters who served as precedents and models for van Gogh. This concentration on chronological proximity is then complemented by the Dutch heritage in Rishel’s essay.  Distinguished art historian Richard Shiff (University of Texas) contributes a discussion, 'Matière très Matière’, about van Gogh’s use of painting as substance and his position among his contemporaries, both Naturalists and Symbolists. 

Ulrich Pohlmann considers the dialogue between van Gogh and the nature studies in those early photographs, including how the artist used them to pursue the qualities of ‘simplicity, truth, and naturalness’.  But Pohlmann also concedes that in fact photography, with its lack of colour and its limited transcription of nature, could hold no more inspiration for the painter than the more vivid Japanese woodcuts. 

A final section of the book begins the inspection of van Gogh’s actual objects of study in his paintings, and the curators contribute individual sections that correspond to the images on view: Kienle on Still Life, Thompson on Undergrowth, Noelle Paulson on Blades of Grass and High Horizons, and finally Homburg on Tree Trunks.  Anything that had ever been seen before was reinspected by van Gogh, who experimented daringly with depth of field and focus.

Van Gogh Up Close  edited by Cornelia Homburg, is distributed by Yale University Press. 306 pp., 200 colour illus, £40.00. ISBN 978-0-300-18129-6


Professor Larry Silver
University of Pennsylvania

Media credit: Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

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