In the National Gallery of Canada, gazing at Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, some still in their original, massive carved wood frames, gave the sensation of being in nineteenth century Paris, at the famous gallery Goupil & Co, managed by Theo Van Gogh. Vincent had depended on his financially secure younger brother for subsistence money and painting supplies from the age of 27 when he dedicated himself to his art till the age of 37 when he died from a gun shot wound in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise. His death is still mysterious as proposed in the recent controversial biography Van Gogh: A Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the gun shot perhaps not self-inflicted but triggered by a local teenage bully. That the still young and productive artist died penniless and suffering is not contested.
The Exhibition Van Gogh: Up Close, Van Gogh. De près, which took place from 25 May to 3 September 2012, was organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and supported by sponsors and by the Department of Canadian Heritage. My friend and I, both long time fans of Van Gogh’s art, felt the excited buzz in the air as we joined throngs of people of all ages lined-up with reserved tickets. Provided with a Visitor’s Guide available in English or in French (I took one of each), we entered the Exhibition and followed the floor plan through ten rooms with more than forty Van Gogh works, some well-known, others from private collections, and rarely seen. The theme Van Gogh: Up Close focused the visitor on the paintings and sketches of nature chosen from the final period of four years that Van Gogh was inFrance (1886-1890)
“View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” painted in the South of France in 1888 became one of my favourite landscapes. Van Gogh’s brilliant technique of “push and pull” as described in the Guide, pulled the gaze towards the ochre coloured village buildings in the background then pushed towards the foreground where diagonal rows of blue lavender plants seem to burst with their spicy scent.
Struggling with severe illness and episodes of madness, eventually diagnosed as epileptic seizures, Van Gogh at that time was in and out of local hospitals and asylums seeking the inner equilibrium to continue painting. One method he practiced was to concentrate for hours as a Japanese monk would do, on “a blade of grass” and paint the flowers, ferns, trees around him. Like the Impressionists he’d met in Paris, Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese art and to our delight, prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige were displayed in room 4. “Zooming in” was a technique Van Gogh used in his creation of such compositions as Tree Trunks in the Grass and Dandelions. Other remarkable paintings depict groves of olive trees that showed Van Gogh’s attachment to biblical images since he was a lay preacher before he dedicated himself to being an artist.
Another painting that stood out for me was the close-up of a pair of well-worn work boots with the laces undone. It recalled how much hiking Van Gogh did in the fields and forests to find the spot where he could pitch his equipment and paint under morning to night skies. Several paintings reminded how this artist loved wild flowers, among them a still life “Roses and Sunflowers,” and the ethereal “Bowl with Zinnia and other Flowers.” One of his most familiar was included, the “Iris,” a simple and lovely study along with the lush landscape “View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground.”
In the last room, there was the beautiful serene oil painting “Almond Blossom” conceived to celebrate the birth of Theo and Johanna Van Gogh’s son whom they named Vincent in honour of his uncle. Van Gogh humbly wrote in a letter dated 20 February 1890, to his mother: “I would have liked it much better if he (Theo) had called his boy after Pa, of whom I have been thinking so much of these days, than after me….” The gnarled almond branches dotted with the pink-white blossoms seem to be sewn onto the toile of the turquoise blue sky giving a pleasure to the eye but also to the spirit.
Leaving the Exhibition rooms through a makeshift book store and gift boutique busy with people who wanted souvenirs, my friend and I only had the desire to go back and gaze at the amazing paintings of Van Gogh who had sacrificed so much for his art, at a time when so few recognized his genius.
Thanks must be given to the National Gallery of Canada for this superb Exhibition. A book of the Exhibition is available entitled Van Gogh: Up Close (English soft cover $39.95) or (English hard cover $65.00); and Van Gogh. De près (French soft cover $39.95) at the Gallery website along with more information at www.gallery.ca