Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Thursday

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Image: from “The Disasters of War” by Francisco Goya, series of prints, 1810 -1820. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

From “The Second Coming” by William B Yeats

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No, that wasn’t written yesterday, but in 1921 when Ireland was in the throes of a vicious Civil War.

Yeats stayed a neutral observer through all the upheavals of Irish history during his lifetime, and some of his best poetry reflects this.

One of my great loves is poetry, and I hope to start a weekly post on favourite poets, combined with art images.

I am always struck by the French proverb “Plus ça change, plus chest la même chose”, the translation being  “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

With the world sometimes seeming to be entering a new Dark Age, with senseless atrocities everywhere snuffing out innocent lives, one can easily be tempted to despair.

It’s worth remembering though, that there have been dark times before, and that always through the dark times love has continued to exist, and eventually to prevail.

Another poet that was a great observer of the political landscape that enabled the disasters of the  Spanish Civil War and then World War II to occur, was W H Auden. He lived in Germany for a few years in the early 1930s and saw a catastrophe unfolding. The following poem was written on the eve of the Second World War.

 

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Image: “We Are Making a New World”, by Paul Nash, 1918. (Imperial War Museum, London)

“I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;”

from “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden

The poem catalogues the disasters of the past, and prophesises dark times ahead, but it ends with a very simple message:

“We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just”

Exchange their messages.

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Seamus Heaney, another great Irish poet was right on the money when he commented:

“I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Any feedback would be appreciated. Would you like to see more poetry posts? Any favourite poets?