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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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