Monday, March 19, 2012
Van Gogh Up Close
Rain, 1889 Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch
Oil on canvas
28 7/8 x 36 3/8 inches (73.3 x 92.4 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 1–May 6, 2012 (Dorrance Galleries)
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 25–September 3, 2012
Vincent van Gogh was an artist of exceptional intensity, not only in his use of color and exuberant application of paint, but also in his personal life. Drawn powerfully to nature, his works--particularly those created in the years just before he took his own life--engage the viewer with the strength of his emotions. This exhibition focuses on these tumultuous years, a period of feverish artistic experimentation that began when van Gogh left Antwerp for Paris in 1886 and continued until his death in Auvers in 1890.
Radically altering and often outright abandoning traditional painting techniques, van Gogh created still lifes and landscapes unlike anything that had ever been seen before. He experimented with depth of field and focus. He used shifting perspectives and brought familiar objects “up close” into the foreground. And he produced some of the most original works of his career; works that dramatically altered the course of modern painting. Through some 40 masterpieces borrowed from collections around the world, Van Gogh Up Close is the first exhibition to explore the reasons and means by which this impassioned artist made such unusual changes to his painting style in the final years of his life.
When he arrived in Paris, van Gogh initially worked in the Montmartre apartment he shared with his brother Theo. He created a series of still lifes and paintings of flowers and fruit, focusing especially on aspects of scale, angle, and color. In many of these works, objects may be seen from above, or are placed in a tightly cropped space providing no clues to their context or setting. Pieces of fruit appear to tip forward and threaten to roll out of the picture. Meanwhile, the close up views of grasses, wheat sheaves, and tree trunks, which dominate the foreground of a number of the landscapes of this period, hint at more than just a detailed study of subject--they suggest a deep concern with representing the sensory and emotional experience of being outdoors.
When van Gogh discovered the work of other artists in Paris, such as the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, and the pointillist works of Seurat and others, he was inspired to use lighter colors and to play with different kinds of brushwork in his own work. At about this time, he also began to acquire Japanese woodblock prints. He admired these for their decorative use of color and flattened compositions, and he embraced the ideas of Japanese artists who worked in close communion with nature, studying “the smallest blade of grass” to better comprehend nature as a whole. Indeed, when he moved to Arles in 1888, van Gogh wrote that being in the south of France was the closest thing to going to Japan.
The landscapes that he 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."
In his final works, van Gogh closed in on his subjects in even more dramatic ways, reducing the depth of field and maximizing the expressive impact of his brushwork and color. An intimately focused view of a clump of iris, a tangle of almond branches, and the vibrant patterning of an Emperor moth are just a few of the images in an audacious series of still lifes which mark the culmination of the exhibition.