INSEASON

A new ex­hi­bi­tion delves into Vin­cent van Gogh’s pro­found con­nec­tion to na­ture and its ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pres­sion on can­vas.

VOGUE Australia - - News - By So­phie Ted­man­son.

A new ex­hi­bi­tion delves into Vin­cent van Gogh’s pro­found con­nec­tion to na­ture and its ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pres­sion on can­vas.

In the con­ser­va­tion de­part­ment of the Kröller-Müller Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, two paint­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh lie on a bench: un­framed and ready for restora­tion.

A se­cu­rity guard hov­ers nearby and I try not to breathe as I lean in close to in­spect the mas­ter­piece Pine Trees at Sun­set (1889), my nose inches away from mil­lions of dol­lars and more than 140 years of art his­tory.

The colours – iri­des­cent greens, yel­lows, blue hues – are mag­nif­i­cent, jump­ing off the can­vas like the winter grass out­side the win­dow; Van Gogh’s fa­mous brush­strokes roughly yet per­fectly bring­ing depth to the leaves and tree trunks; the sun­set in the back­ground lit­er­ally glow­ing over the fig­ure walk­ing in the field un­der an um­brella; the ridges of paint rise off the can­vas like tiny moun­tain peaks. It is in stark con­trast to the smaller, darker Sheaves of Wheat (1885) sit­ting next to it, with its tall bale of wheat ris­ing from a field, heav­ily var­nished and painted in au­tum­nal olive, browns and mus­tard yel­lows.

So raw are these paint­ings that you can see the nails on the edge of the can­vas and the cen­tury-old var­nish weath­ered with age. They are, quite sim­ply, breath­tak­ing.

Pro­duced four years apart, they rep­re­sent the ex­tra­or­di­nary scope of the Dutch post-Im­pres­sion­ist, who re­mark­ably only painted for 10 years but pro­lif­i­cally pro­duced more than 860 paint­ings dur­ing that pe­riod. They also per­fectly en­cap­su­late Van Gogh’s life through his in­spi­ra­tions: the darker early works de­pict­ing peas­ant work­ing life in the Nether­lands, through to the vi­brant works of his last years, and that of the sea­sons, from sum­mer to spring in the south of France, where he was be­ing treated for his men­tal ill­ness.

Nearby, other works – Olive Grove with Two Olive Pick­ers (1889) and Tree Trunks in the Grass (1890) – rest on easels, ready to be packed up and couri­ered to Mel­bourne, where they will form part of the Van Gogh and the Sea­sons ex­hi­bi­tion for the Winter Mas­ter­pieces se­ries at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, which opens next month.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is the first of its kind that specif­i­cally fo­cuses on Van Gogh’s artis­tic

re­la­tion­ship with the sea­sons and will in­clude 60 works on loan from the Van Gogh Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam and Kröller-Müller, a pri­vate mu­seum and sculp­ture park.

The sea­sons had an al­most re­li­gious ef­fect on Van Gogh, who for a time was an evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor be­fore he turned to art and suc­cumbed to his men­tal ill­ness.

Ac­cord­ing to Ted Gott, head of in­ter­na­tional art at the NGV, Van Gogh’s fas­ci­na­tion with the sea­sons dates back to his early child­hood, when his fa­ther, a Protes­tant preacher, would take his fam­ily on walks and used na­ture to prove the ex­is­tence of God by point­ing out the won­ders that could be found in the gar­den.

“He grew up in this en­vi­ron­ment of great re­spect for na­ture, but also as­so­ci­at­ing the cy­cles of the sea­sons was rep­re­sent­ing the cy­cle of life. So spring rep­re­sents child­hood and ado­les­cence, sum­mer is ma­tu­rity to mid­dle age, au­tumn is your 60s and 70s, and winter is old age.”

Van Gogh also looked at the sea­sons with an artist’s pal­ette: winter was pre­dom­i­nantly black and white; au­tumn, gold, yel­low or pur­ple; spring was full of green and pink; and sum­mer was hot golds and deep blues.

In­ter­est­ingly, these brighter colours and his sig­na­ture de­ter­mined brush­strokes are found most in his last works from 1889 to 1890, when he was in the grips of his men­tal ill­ness at the same time that his artis­tic ge­nius was fully re­alised. A stand­out of the Sea­sons ex­hi­bi­tion is The Gar­den of Saint-Paul Hospi­tal (1889), a vi­brantly colour­ful vista that trans­ports you into the spring­time in France. It was painted while Van Gogh was be­ing treated, shortly be­fore he com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of 37 in 1890.

Not sur­pris­ingly, given his iconic love of sun­flow­ers, au­tumn with its yel­low colour pal­ette, was Van Gogh’s favourite sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Sjraar van Heugten, a world-renowned ex­pert on the Dutch artist and former cu­ra­tor at the Van Gogh Mu­seum, who has cu­rated the Sea­sons ex­hi­bi­tion for the NGV.

“Au­tumn was very dear to him,” says Van Heugten. “It was the feel­ing of melan­choly, na­ture shed­ding the leaves, a whole cy­cle of the sea­sons, which he finds so im­pres­sive. And au­tumn is in a way re­lated to death but with a prom­ise of spring and new life.”

In one of Van Gogh’s many let­ters to his brother Theo, who fi­nan­cially sup­ported the artist, Vin­cent ur­gently asks for more funds, wor­ry­ing he would not get the cor­rect paint in time be­fore au­tumn turned to winter, be­fore the leaves dropped and he lost his colour­ful in­spi­ra­tion.

In Au­gust, 1882, Van Gogh wrote to Theo: “I’m look­ing for­ward to the au­tumn. By then I must make sure I stock up on paint and var­i­ous things again. I’m par­tic­u­larly fond of the ef­fects of yel­low leaves against which the green beech trunks stand out so beau­ti­fully, and the fig­ures no less.”

Van Gogh’s close re­la­tion­ship with his brother meant that when Theo had a son, named Vin­cent, the artist gave his name­sake nephew the paint­ing Al­mond Blossom (1890); its stun­ning white flow­ers on the blue back­ground rep­re­sen­ta­tive of new life.

Theo’s great-grand­chil­dren Vin­cent Willem van Gogh and his cousin Josien now sit on the board of the Van Gogh Foun­da­tion, which was founded to help pre­serve and dis­play the 200-plus Van Gogh works in­her­ited by Theo, who died only six months af­ter his brother.

Josien is chair of the Van Gogh Foun­da­tion, while Willem ad­vises the board, and has the added re­spon­si­bil­ity of car­ry­ing his fa­mous rel­a­tive’s name.

Sit­ting in the Van Gogh Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, the de­scen­dants of the world­fa­mous artist hap­pily rem­i­nisce about vis­it­ing their great- grand­fa­ther Theo’s house where Vin­cent’s Sun­flow­ers, Al­mond Blossom and other iconic paint­ings hung in the liv­ing room.

“It wasn’t some­thing ex­cep­tional,” re­calls Josien, point­ing to a pho­to­graph of the Van Gogh fam­ily lounge room. “The paint­ings were in the house and we grew up with them, the only thing was we were not al­lowed to play foot­ball in the liv­ing room!

“The paint­ings were al­ways there … when I vis­ited my grand­fa­ther he had a small un­heated room where he kept all the paint­ings; they were just lean­ing against the wall.”

Willem, the el­dest, re­calls: “We had three or four Van Gogh paint­ings in the liv­ing room. Some­times when no-one was at home the kitchen door wasn’t locked,” he says grin­ning, then adds: “Some­times we had plumbers around the house and they didn’t know … once we got robbed and they took ev­ery­thing but the paint­ings!”

Up­stairs at the mu­seum thou­sands of tourists flock into the var­i­ous gal­leries to pour over hun­dreds of Van Gogh works – paint­ings, draw­ings, let­ters, in­clud­ing one to Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ist painter John Peter Rus­sell, in which Van Gogh wrote: “If you ever come to Paris, take one of my can­vases from my brother’s place if you wish.”

In one gallery, a group 10-deep crowds around one of the Sun­flow­ers se­ries, while in the next an­nexe, an­other stands in front of Vase with Corn­flow­ers and Pop­pies (1887), a stun­ning still-life of red, white and blue flow­ers that will soon be on its way to Mel­bourne to be dis­played at the NGV. In a dark­ened gallery in the mid­dle of the Euro­pean winter, it looks just like a beau­ti­ful burst of spring. Van Gogh and the Sea­sons opens April 28 at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. Go to www.ngv.vic.gov.au.

Pine Trees and Dan­de­lions in the Gar­den of Saint-Paul Hospi­tal

Vin­cent van Gogh’s (1890).

Vase with Corn­flow­ers and Pop­pies (1887).

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