• SE­BAS­TIAN SMEE

Se­bas­tian Smee on Van Gogh and the Sea­sons

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE -

You see van Goghs, if you are lucky, here and there. A gauche and gnarled-fin­gered por­trait. A spooked, acidic ren­der­ing of a cafe at night. A fra­grant ex­plo­sion of flow­ers. You see them in mu­se­ums, or re­pro­duced in books, as posters, on your phone, on TV. Some are bet­ter, some are worse. But it’s a leisurely af­fair, this busi­ness of ap­pre­ci­at­ing Vin­cent van Gogh. A paint­ing here, a paint­ing there, this year, next year – there’s no hurry. Van Gogh is van Gogh. He’s well loved to a fault. He’s not go­ing any­where.

How dif­fer­ent it was for him! Haunted by a sense that time was run­ning out, and that he might not live past 40, he painted all 860 of his paint­ings in ten years. That’s about the same time it took The Bea­tles to record their 230-odd songs, from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘The End’. But un­like Len­non and McCart­ney, who were both prodi­giously gifted from birth, van Gogh had to be­gin from scratch – and to do so at the age of 27.

He had been on the cusp of be­com­ing a preacher when, in 1880, he de­cided in­stead to learn to draw. He wasn’t any good: his early at­tempts are woe­fully leaden and awk­ward. (Pic­ture McCart­ney, in his mid 20s, try­ing to sing along to a bor­rowed gui­tar and be­ing un­able to find the right pitch.) And al­though van Gogh even­tu­ally trans­formed him­self into one of the most orig­i­nal and scin­til­lat­ing drafts­men in his­tory, it was years be­fore things be­gan to im­prove.

He painted the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of his best­known paint­ings in the fi­nal two years of his life. So, in fact,

the no­tion that he had a decade to play with is mis­lead­ing: it re­ally came down to that pe­riod. Had van Gogh not moved to the south of France in 1888, there’s no rea­son to think that we would en­counter his works in mu­se­ums at all.

Thirty-six of van Gogh’s paint­ings, along with 13 draw­ings and wa­ter­colours, are at the heart of Van Gogh and the Sea­sons at Mel­bourne’s Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria (NGV; un­til 9 July). Or­gan­ised by Sjraar van Heugten, a for­mer head of col­lec­tions at the Van Gogh Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, it is made up pri­mar­ily of loans from that in­sti­tu­tion and the Kröller-Müller Mu­seum, also in the Nether­lands. But the ex­hi­bi­tion also in­cludes loans from (among other lo­ca­tions) New York, Lon­don, Mex­ico City, Ot­tawa, Bu­dapest, Honolulu and Paris.

It may con­sti­tute “the largest col­lec­tion of van Gogh artworks to ever travel to Aus­tralia”, but it is more of a taster than a full meal, and it is not quite in the same league, qual­i­ta­tively, as the sim­i­larly themed Van Gogh and Na­ture, held in 2015 at the Clark Art In­sti­tute in western Massachusetts (and to which van Heugten also con­trib­uted his ex­per­tise). This show is plumped up by Ja­panese prints from the NGV’s Asian col­lec­tion, and a hand­ful of prints by Euro­pean and Amer­i­can artists that van Gogh had col­lected him­self.

Fewer than half of the paint­ings in the show were made in the south of France. Even these are not uni­formly won­der­ful: as you would ex­pect from an artist work­ing at such a fran­tic clip, his pro­duc­tion was un­even.

Still, al­most ev­ery­thing about van Gogh is in­ter­est­ing, and there are enough good, and re­ally good, things to make the show worth vis­it­ing. Pine Trees at Sun­set is among the best of them. Van Gogh painted it in the south­ern French town of Saint-Rémy, where he was hos­pi­talised, in the au­tumn of 1889, six months be­fore he died. He painted the trees as he saw them. But what’s also clear is that he iden­ti­fied with them – their rav­aged and bro­ken branches, their twist­ing trunks, their re­lent­less sun-seek­ing, their abil­ity to en­dure the worst. You can dis­cuss this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in terms of “pa­thetic fal­lacy” if you must (the term was orig­i­nally English art critic John Ruskin’s), but it seems to me the mat­ter goes deeper.

Van Gogh’s feel­ing for the life in trees is ev­i­dent much ear­lier, in a mar­vel­lous draw­ing he made in the Dutch town of Nue­nen late in the win­ter of 1885. It’s clear from this piece (one of six draw­ings he made of the gar­den around his fa­ther’s par­son­age) that it was through study­ing trees that he re­ally learned to draw. The bare branches of the trees jut up and fork out in an­gu­lar, en­er­getic spurts that be­came a hall­mark of his later, ut­terly inim­itable style.

But of course he also learned through look­ing at the work of artists he ad­mired. None was more im­por­tant in this sense than his older con­tem­po­rary Jean-François Mil­let. The French painter’s po­etic feel­ing for peas­ant labour and rural life did not just chime with van Gogh’s own world view, it helped form it. Mil­let’s paint­ing The Sower in­spired one of van Gogh’s most fa­mous works, an im­age of a peas­ant sow­ing seeds that was con­sciously charged with the sym­bol­ism of na­ture’s life cy­cle, and fired by van Gogh’s own be­lief in the re­gen­er­a­tive role artists could play in the world. (He made no fewer than 13 ver­sions of that pic­ture.)

The Dutch­man had been mak­ing copies af­ter Mil­let for ten years – his en­tire life as an artist – when he painted Snow­cov­ered Field with a Har­row (Af­ter Mil­let). It was an al­most di­rect tran­scrip­tion of a print he owned of an etch­ing by Alfred-Alexan­dre De­launey, it­self made af­ter an 1862 paint­ing by Mil­let.

Van Gogh’s paint­ing came just a month af­ter De­cem­ber’s Pine Trees at Sun­set. But the dif­fer­ence be­tween De­cem­ber and Jan­uary is great in the north­ern hemi­sphere: by Jan­uary, win­ter has set in and the snow has ar­rived. What’s ex­tra­or­di­nary about Snow-cov­ered Field with a Har­row is its pal­ette: a minty turquoise per­me­at­ing not just the fields but also the sky, and bril­liantly con­jur­ing morn­ing frost and bit­ter, bit­ter cold. No artist be­fore van Gogh would have tried such a thing.

The four sea­sons do not have quite the same hold over the imag­i­na­tion in Aus­tralia as they have in Europe, Ja­pan or North Amer­ica. Each sea­son is less dis­tinct here: the vari­a­tions in tem­per­a­ture aren’t as dra­matic, win­ter in par­tic­u­lar is far less pun­ish­ing, and most of Aus­tralia’s na­tive trees are not de­cid­u­ous, which, vis­ually at least, may make the big­gest dif­fer­ence of all. In Europe, North Amer­ica and north­ern Asia the four sea­sons are not only more vis­i­ble but also hard­wired into life, and have found their way into the very struc­tures of po­etry, mu­sic and art.

Among fres­coes and mo­saics sur­viv­ing from Pom­peii and Rome are per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of spring as a young wo­man hold­ing flow­ers, and sum­mer hold­ing a sickle and sheafs of corn. There are grapes and vine leaves for au­tumn, and warm and heavy clothes for win­ter. The tra­di­tion was re­vived dur­ing the Re­nais­sance when sea­sons were paired with pa­gan di­vini­ties: Venus or Flora for spring; Ceres for sum­mer; Bac­chus for au­tumn; and Boreas or Vul­can for win­ter. Sub­se­quent artists, from Ni­co­las Poussin through to Cy Twombly, have made cy­cles of paint­ings based on the sea­sons.

Van Gogh, who felt na­ture so deeply, was tempted to do the same. In 1882 he drew a se­ries of sheets meant to be part of a sea­sons cy­cle, in minia­ture. He loved Keats, and tran­scribed the Ro­man­tic poet’s de­scrip­tion of au­tumn as the “Sea­son of mists and mel­low fruit­ful­ness” in a let­ter to a friend. (Oh, van Gogh’s let­ters: yearn­ing, eu­phoric,

moan­ing, self-cas­ti­gat­ing – one of the glo­ries of lit­er­a­ture!) And yet he was never much good at schemes: his very bones seemed to kick out against the idea of pur­su­ing a pro­gram. He dreamed and de­vised, yes, but his fol­low-through was all improvisation, all in­tu­ition.

His favourite sea­son was au­tumn, and so it’s fit­ting that it’s with this sea­son that the show be­gins. Sev­eral of these works were made in The Hague and Nue­nen; they’re suit­ably dusky and melan­cholic. There is also one paint­ing from the south­ern French town of Ar­les – an Oc­to­ber de­pic­tion of work­ers in a green vine­yard – that van Gogh was plan­ning to use to dec­o­rate the walls of the Yel­low House in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Paul Gau­guin’s ar­rival. And there are three pul­sat­ing pic­tures from Saint-Rémy, where he re­paired to an asy­lum af­ter his spec­tac­u­lar breakdown.

Van Gogh’s strong­est works can be shaggy and awk­ward, but as a rule they’re ro­bustly com­posed, with em­phatic outlines and colour con­trasts. The Green Vine­yard is not great in this sense – there’s not enough dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. (I would fault the four or five semi-Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings from his time in Paris here in the same way.) But it demon­strates his art’s unique com­pound of three el­e­ments. There is his fi­delity to na­ture (he ex­plained to a friend that he had “to go to work in the vine­yard, near Mont­ma­jour. It’s all pur­plish yel­low green un­der the blue sky”). The sec­ond is his aware­ness of prece­dents (the paint­ing was in­spired both by the big skies and im­preg­nable calm of the Dutch land­scape painter Ja­cob van Ruis­dael and the thick, ag­i­tated can­vases of van Gogh’s French con­tem­po­rary Adolphe Mon­ti­celli). And then there are his re­li­gious as­so­ci­a­tions (au­tumn is a time for grape-har­vest­ing, so it is associated not only with Bac­chus and Silenus but also with the sacred blood of Christ).

Van Gogh cared deeply about all three el­e­ments. But noth­ing was more im­por­tant to him than fi­delity to na­ture, to an ob­served and sen­su­ous re­al­ity. His fe­roc­ity on this sub­ject was one of the causes of his spec­tac­u­lar break-up (the in­fa­mous ear-cut­ting episode in Ar­les) with Gau­guin, whose ad­mix­ture of sym­bol­ism, ab­strac­tion and re­li­gios­ity be­gan to irk the Dutch­man: it sug­gested to him a di­lu­tion of force, a spin­ning away from the grav­i­ta­tional pull of the here and now.

In the Ja­panese tra­di­tion, de­pic­tions of the sea­sons are in­fused with spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance. They em­pha­sise, in par­tic­u­lar, life’s tran­sience. Van Gogh was still un­der the spell of Ja­panese prints when he painted The Stone Bench in the Asy­lum at Saint-Rémy six months into his stay there.

With its boldly cropped composition, and mus­cu­lar tree trunk di­ag­o­nally travers­ing the field of khaki-coloured dashes, the paint­ing re­calls Hiroshige’s Res­i­dence with Plum Trees at Kameido. The crop­ping is no ar­bi­trary de­vice, for it fo­cuses our at­ten­tion – like the mar­vel­ling, mid-dis­tance stare of a pa­tient freshly re­stored to san­ity – on what is most ripe for re­flec­tion: the stone bench sit­u­ated be­tween two sturdy tree trunks, and the rolling ground cov­ered in leaves.

That Novem­ber paint­ing was made six months af­ter its near rel­a­tive, Tree Trunks in the Grass, which is another de­pic­tion of the grounds at Saint-Rémy, this time cov­ered in spring flow­ers. Van Gogh felt keenly – per­haps more so than any artist be­fore him – the frenzy of spring. Like the later work, this one has no hori­zon line, and is con­spic­u­ous for its close-in fo­cus on two chunky pine tree trunks. In­stead of dry, de­cay­ing leaves, how­ever, we now see wet, dewy grass, stiff flower stems, a whole world of buzzing fra­grance.

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Farm­house in Provence – a small sum­mer jewel that van Gogh painted in care­fully paired com­ple­men­taries soon af­ter ar­riv­ing in Ar­les – Tree Trunks in the Grass is the fresh­est work in the show. Its lop­sid­ed­ness and boldly com­pressed space lend it a kind of lurch­ing, beat-skip­ping im­me­di­acy. The con­trast be­tween the soft pro­fu­sion of flow­ers and the hard seg­ments of bark around the pine trees – ren­dered in sep­a­rate slabs of vi­o­let, blue, white and ochre, out­lined in black – pro­vides as sat­is­fy­ing a com­bi­na­tion as ice-cream and crunchy wafer.

It feels poignant, then, to learn that van Gogh painted it around the time when he was in what the cat­a­logue calls “a state of deep cri­sis, no longer an­swer­ing let­ters and un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with the world”. (Un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with the world? You look at the work and want to laugh. Has a paint­ing ever com­mu­ni­cated more ur­gently? But we know what they mean.)

Spring can have that ef­fect, can’t it? Ac­cus­tomed to singing its praises, we dis­re­gard, at least in pub­lic, how desta­bil­is­ing it can be – with its wayward amorous urg­ings, its sud­den gusts of eu­pho­ria, its breath-short­en­ing, stom­achchurn­ing anx­i­eties, its histri­onic surg­ing and plung­ing – and what com­fort, by con­trast, we may de­rive from sum­mer’s mind-emp­ty­ing in­do­lence, au­tumn’s melan­choly, or win­ter’s in­ward­ness, its sen­sory shut­down. Spring cer­tainly desta­bilised van Gogh.

The show con­cludes, a lit­tle oddly, with an 1887 self­por­trait, one of 20 van Gogh worked on in Paris that year alone. The pic­ture, one of two van Gogh self-por­traits owned by the Musée d’Or­say, was a late ad­di­tion, se­cured only af­ter last-minute hag­gling. But it is a fine thing, and al­though os­ten­si­bly it has noth­ing to do with the show’s theme of the sea­sons, it does of­fer view­ers the chance to bid an in­tense and in­ti­mate farewell to the man re­spon­si­ble for all they have just seen, and to re­call, once again, a poet he loved, John Keats: “Four Sea­sons fill the mea­sure of the year / There are four sea­sons in the mind of man.”

Van Gogh died, aged 37, in high sum­mer.

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