This month’s Van Gogh blockbuster at the NGV will be the biggest display of the Dutch artist’s paintings seen in Australia, writes Rosemary Neill
Removed from its hefty wooden frame and protective museum glass, Vincent van Gogh’s Pine Trees at Sunset looks disconcertingly vulnerable. With its impudent yellow sky and blue-streaked tree bark, this landscape was created in 1889 when the Dutch post-impressionist was in a mental health asylum. Today, it lies on a high, laboratory-style bench under a microscope so big and imposing, it might have been imported from a Doctor Who set.
The painting is being spruced up in the conservation room at The Netherlands’ KrollerMuller Museum, which boasts the world’s second-biggest collection of works by Van Gogh. This room has the feel, simultaneously, of a seminary given over to intense, silent study and an elaborate dentist’s surgery — the microscope stretches from the floor to the ceiling and has an arm the width of a young eucalypt. A few metres away is an X-ray machine so powerful it can see beyond the surface of a painting to give a clear view of what lies beneath.
I ask what Pine Trees at Sunset, featuring a stand of storm-damaged trees that Van Gogh deemed “proud and immutable’’, is worth. “Millions, always millions,’’ replies Liz Kreijn, assistant director of collection and presentation at Kroller-Muller. None of this is lost on the unflappable conservator Mireille Engel as she wields a tiny surgical knife on the painting’s yellowing varnish.
Engel’s task is so painstaking, she will spend 160 hours removing the varnish just from the blue elements of this 91cm x 72cm canvas. “Everything is done under the microscope little by little,’’ she explains. (In the past, paintings — even masterpieces — were commonly coated with varnish to give them a glossy, saturated look, but now many of the world’s leading galleries are removing this synthetic coating and aiming for a more authentic, matt appearance.)
Engel urges me to look at Pine Trees through the high-powered microscope. Under the unwavering gaze of a security guard, I peer through the lens and a previously unseen vista is revealed. For the first time, I see the mesmerising topography created by Van Gogh’s impasto technique, in which he applied paint so thickly, it looked almost three-dimensional. Under the lens, roughened ridges and mountainous peaks of oil paint give way to silky, sinuous channels and valleys, a rainbow of colours evident in a single brushstroke. Kreijn says the first time she saw a Van Gogh through this microscope, “it gave me the feeling of flying over the Alps. He uses this really thick paint. It’s something you will never forget.’’
Pine Trees is one of 48 Van Gogh paintings and drawings being transported to Melbourne for the National Gallery of Victoria’s Van Gogh and the Seasons blockbuster — the biggest display of the artist’s work seen in this country. Curated by one of the world’s top Van Gogh experts, Sjraar van Heugten, the exhibition comprises works drawn from institutions including Kroller-Muller, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Musee d’Orsay and London’s National Gallery. This groundbreaking show also includes artworks from Van Gogh’s personal collection — for all the chaos of his life, the Dutch painter kept meticulously ordered files of drawings and prints by other artists who inspired him.
The exhibition opens at the NGV on April 28. Most of the featured paintings and drawings have not been seen in Australia before, and Van Heugten says it is the most conceptually ambitious Van Gogh show mounted here. It will group the works according to the seasons, reflecting how nature and the rhythms of rural life — the unceasing cycle of life, death and rebirth — were integral to Van Gogh’s brief but brilliant painting career.
The largely self-taught painter, who committed suicide at 37, “took comfort from nature’’, reflects the curator (who, like most Dutch experts, pronounces Van Gogh with a guttural Van ‘‘G-aw-q’’). “Van Gogh was very wary of modern times and felt there was much more beauty in simple rural life than what he called the so-called civilised world,’’ says Van Heugten. “A big city like Paris, in the end, drove him out of his mind.’’
The understated art expert, who speaks flawless English, has spent decades grappling with the life and legacy of the complex and sometimes confounding Dutch genius. He worked at the Van Gogh Museum — the world’s biggest repository of Van Gogh works — from 1988 to 2010 and rose to be head of collections there. In putting together the NGV show, he has called in favours from private collectors and worked valuable contacts at bigger art museums. (He counts among his friends the Van Gogh descendants Sylvia Cramer, Josien Van Gogh and her daughter Janne, who will fly to Melbourne for the show’s opening.)
NGV director Tony Ellwood regards it as a coup that the National Gallery of London has loaned A Wheatfield, with Cypresses to his gal- lery. “We didn’t think we’d secure [it],’’ he told the media last year. In this image, lavender-tinted clouds dance above a field of wheat — the clouds and the deep-bronze crop give the impression they are moving. Ellwood considers this work “one of the most famous paintings in the world’’.
Van Heugten reveals the exhibition has been 15 years in the making and that he had many knock-backs — some overseas galleries were so sensitive about their treasured Van Goghs, they baulked at putting them on two planes for the journey to Australia.
Nevertheless, the galleries that hold the world’s biggest collections of Van Gogh works Pine Trees at Sunset The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Remy Wheatfield June 1888 (the Van Gogh and Kroller-Muller museums respectively) have been generous — the latter is lending 13 paintings to the NGV, while the Van Gogh Museum is contributing 16 paintings, drawings and watercolours and 19 prints from the painter’s personal collection.
“It is a big loan for us,’’ confirms Marije Vellekoop, head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum, where she is Van Heugten’s successor. “We are very strict. We say a lot of ‘no’.’’ She adds, however, that the museum considers it important “that as many people as possible see the work of Van Gogh so they can really appreciate it’’. We are talking in the museum’s bright, busy cafe, where even the Heineken beer sports yellow sunflower labels.
The NGV exhibition, a partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia (a behind-the-scenes blockbusters broker), includes historical Japanese works from the Victorian gallery’s collection. The serenity and stylisation inherent in such woodblock prints deeply influenced Van Gogh’s mature works. According to Van Heugten, late in his career the painter was searching for a similar serenity through his dream of establishing an artists’ colony in southern France, when everything went awry.
In 1888 Van Gogh waited impatiently for fellow painter Paul Gauguin to join him at the yellow house at Arles. Van Gogh had revelled in the light and warmth of this southern French town and reached “the height of his powers’’ there, says Van Heugten. Arles-related works in the NGV show include the light-infused Orchard Bordered by Cypresses and View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Alas, once Gauguin arrived, the two painters quarrelled constantly. On December 23, following a furious row in which Van Gogh allegedly threatened Gauguin with a razor, the Dutch painter sliced off his own left ear. He wrapped the ear in newspaper and presented it to a prostitute at a nearby brothel, who promptly fainted. “It’s really heartbreaking; the break-up with Gauguin, it’s a really sad thing,’’ says Van Heugten, who last year curated a high-profile exhibition about the pair at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
After this incident, Van Gogh checked into an asylum near Arles, where he found respite and created many accomplished paintings including A Wheatfield, with Cypresses and the coolly serene The Garden of the Asylum at SaintRemy. Both will be shown in Melbourne.
By 1890, he was living in a village near Paris and painting furiously. But he was still deeply unstable. On July 27, he set out for a wheatfield with his painting gear, and shot himself in the chest. He died from his wounds, just as he was coming to prominence in the European art world.
The painter’s posthumous celebrity has nourished and entrenched myths that clearly frustrate Van Heugten. One of the biggest myths, he says, is that Van Gogh was a crazy genius. “He was not crazy,’’ the curator argues firmly. “He had something — maybe epilepsy, maybe a psychosis — that really put him off balance for weeks, but then he would be completely lucid again.’’
One recent theory about the ear incident is that Gauguin sliced it off with a sword he carried for protection at night. But Van Heugten purses his lips and shakes his head. “I have
(1889), above; the artist, below
(1889), left; Liz Kreijn of the Kroller-Muller Museum with and