Van Gogh Up Close
1 February 2012 – 6 May 2012
Philadelphia Museum of Art
(and at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 25 May–3 September 2012
Allow me to begin by telling you that Van Gogh Up Close, currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (until 6 May), is a show you should run to see before it closes. It has assembled many simply exquisite paintings by this extraordinary artist—many of them from museums you may not get to frequently (e.g., there are incredible works on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, from the Triton Foundation and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, also in the Netherlands, from the National Museum in Stockholm, or from the Staatliche Kunstammlungen in Dresden), and some from private collections which I, for one, have never seen before. (N.B.: be sure to purchase the necessary timed-entry tickets online before you go; this show is extremely popular, and you cannot be assured of getting tickets unless you buy them in advance.)
Organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and curated by Joseph J. Rishel and Jennifer A. Thompson, the show consists of 40-some paintings from Van Gogh’s prolific “French Period”—from when he left Antwerp for Paris in 1886 until he died in Auvers in 1890. The Museum’s online description of the exhibition (included in its entirety at the end of my review) notes:
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.
In the catalogue which she edited, Cornelia Homburg notes that the show
The focus on an aspect of nature, such as a multitude of plants and flowers at ground level, or a zoom on an object, be it a patch of grass or a pair of shoes, form a significant part of van Gogh’s painted oeuvre. Representations of landscapes that function through a deliberate contrast between what is near to the viewer and far in the distance also occur in his work with notable frequency
The premise behind the show is that Van Gogh’s “close-up-view”—reflected in his “zooming in” on the objects in his still lifes, or in his “zooming onto nature outside,” or his presenting a close focus on aspects of the foreground of a landscape in contrast to a recedingly distant background—was a defining aspect of his art. The editor admits that “close-up-view” is not a term ever used by Van Gogh himself; and I am afraid I am not convinced by most of the catalogue’s attempt to understand these works from this perspective. Rather I believe that these aspects of Van Gogh’s work just reflect an understandable extension of the well-documented movement from the Barbizon school, through Impressionism, to the Post-Impressionism of which he was a part—with considerable influence (as always is true within this progression) to the major influences of Cézanne, throughout. It is this progression that is responsible for the high horizons the catalogue makes much of; it is this progression which draws attention and emphasis to the surfaces of these paintings, and to the play of color and the texture of brushstrokes on those surfaces; and it is even what creates the incredibly intense focus on detail. Although the quality of the images in the catalogue is quite good, I am not so sure that the essays and the theory on which they are founded are all that worthwhile. (The catalogue also suffers from the fact that it makes no mention in the text itself about which of the many images it uses are not in the show itself.)
This is not at all to suggest that there is any lack of novelty, originality, or genius in the work of Van Gogh—or that the exhibition assembled in the name of this theory is anything short of fabulous. On the contrary, I am suggesting that you consider a special trip to Philadelphia to go see this incredible show. I just do not believe that the “close-up-view” focus of the intellectual elaboration of the show is particularly compelling or useful.
I do believe, as the preface to the catalogue states, that Van Gogh Up Close
…highlights how he how he conveyed his intense response to the natural world—whether this was a landscape, a still life, or a rendering of a single blade of grass—through a number of different, and often radical compositional strategies. Van Gogh’s detailed images of flowers, his dramatic renderings of landscapes with high horizons, and his intimate depictions of gardens still capture our imagination and seem remarkably fresh today.
For whatever reason, the Museum’s online description contains only one image of the works in this incredible exhibition. I have decided the most important thing I can do is to present a number of images that I was able to find elsewhere online of the works I particularly like in this exhibition. Consider it either an attempt to tantalize you into going to see them in person—which is what I hope it does, as it is so crucial to see these works in person, where you can experience the real intensity of their colors and the three-dimensionality of theit surfaces—or some consolation prize in case you are unable to get to see them in person. (The following contains more images and less commentary than I would usually include, as I believe these beautiful paintings speak for themselves.
Here, then, are images from Van Gogh Up Close:
An old favorite, the 1887, Fritillaries in Copper Vase, from the Musée D'orsay in Paris, is a particularly fabulous example of one of his floral still lifes from early in this period.
1887, Oil on canvas H. 73.5; W. 60.5 cm Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies, from the same year, is a striking example of Van Gogh’s wonderful use of intense pattern and brilliant color to rivet attention to the surface of the canvas
Oil on Canvas, Paris: Summer, 1887, 80 x 67 cm Triton Foundation, The Netherlands
Sunflowers in the Garden of Debray near the Moulin de Blute-Fin is an astounding painting: the brilliance of the yellows and tans of the road to the house on the left is contrasted to and balanced by the amazing splash of red and orange on right.
Oil on Canvas, Paris: Summer, 1887, Private collection, USA
Grasses and Butterflies is a captivating example of the rhythmic, swirling brush strokes and marvelous surface pattern of this master painter.
Arles, France: April, 1889, Private collection
In Long Grass w Butterflies, there is more overall texture than in the rows of longer bladed grasses of the previous painting, although the painting itself is somewhat less interesting. (The colors of this reproduction are grossly off, by the way.)
1889, National Gallery, London
Ears of Wheat, from 1990, creates an almost tapestry-like pattern on its repeated representation of this plant.
Oil on Canvas, 1890, 64.5 X 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
House at Auvers is a rather beautiful example of this high-horizoned landscape, full of surface pattern and detail in the foreground.
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise: June, 1890, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
A particularly unusual work form 1990 is Wheatfields at Auvers under Clouded Sky
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise: July, 1890, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
In the especially wonderful Field w Flowers Near Arles, a diagonal row of vivid irises—executed with price draftsman-like detail highlighting the powerful brush strokes—dominate the foreground, while, above the rich yellow of a field in mid-ground, there is a row of highly articulated trees, above which is a horizontal row of green with, again with highly draftsman-like articulation of houses and church.
Oil on Canvas, 1888 , 54 X 65 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Poppy Field is a excitingly gorgeous painting in which the red of the poppy filed is capped with a narrow horizontal band of green hills and trees, above which are the short, powerful brush strokes of the intensely articulated sky, done in almost purple shades of blue, highlighted with brilliant whites.
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise, France: June, 1890, 73 x 91.5 cm Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands
In View of Vessenots near Auvers, a virtual river of yellow and green fields flow diagonally through the composition, with waves if a village and hills and sky flowing above.
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise: May, 1890, 55 x 65 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
Edge of a Wheatfield with Poppies is simply a joy.
Oil on Canvas on Cardboard, Paris, France: Spring, 1887, Private collection (Edward C. Hamilton)
Trunks in a field on a Sunny Day is a very light, small piece, which is made to work by the tree trunk in the center of its composition.
Oil on Canvas, Paris: Summer, 1887, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam
Trees and Undergrowth was one of the several lovely sous-bois paintings in the show. In this one, the dense green of the forest is speckled with white and yellow highlights over the entirety of the composition, but powerfully cloven horizontally in the mid-ground by a thin band of brilliant yellow flowers.
Oil on Canvas, 1887, 46.5 X 55.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
There was a most unusual little floral painting, Pink Roses.
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise: June, 1890, 32 x 40.5 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark
In the eerily beautiful Butterflies and Poppies, draftsman-like vertical stems contrast with rich areas of brightly colored red poppies and two yellow butterflies
Oil on Canvas,, 1890, 34.5 X 25.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Blooming Acacia Branches is an incredibly satisfying little botanical detail that Van Gogh turned into a wonderful painting.
Oil on Canvas, Auvers-sur-Oise, France: June, 1890, 33 x 24 cm, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
The exquisite 1890 Almond Blossoms seems almost completely Japanese in its form as well as in its subject matter, except that the branches are unmistakably the work of Van Gogh—and the seemingly simple blue background is a subtle treasure trove of active Van Gogh brushstrokes. (One can examine some of the specific details of this extraordinary painting using an online visual tool provided by the Van Gogh Museum: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/zoom.jsp?page=3128&lang=en)
Oil on Canvas, 1890, 73.5 X 92 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Quinces is a truly riveting little painting. In it, the painterly, Cézanne-like fruit are done against what—in both color and texture—looks like the thick drapery one would find in the background of a Cézanne painting—but here executed in completely archetypal Van Gogh brush work.
Oil on Canvas, Paris: Winter, 1887 – 88, 46 x 59.5 cm, Gemaldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany
In Garden at the Saint-Paul Hospital, two lone, sinuous trunks define the foreground, while a colorful whorl of leaves and sky are executed in the brushstrokes behind
Saint-Rémy, France: October, 1889, Private collection, Geneva, Switzerland
From the Museum’s website (www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/743.html):
Van Gogh Up Close
February 1, 2012 - May 6, 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.
Joseph J. Rishel,
The Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting before 1900,
and Senior Curator of the John G. Johnson Collection and the Rodin Museum
Jennifer A. Thompson, The Gloria and Jack Drosdick Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900 and the Rodin Museum
Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor
Philadelphia Museum of
Art, February 1–May 6, 2012 (Dorrance Galleries)
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 25–September 3, 2012