Published: January 17, 2012
“I&m always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his sister, Wilhemina, in July 1889. An artist of exceptional intensity, not only in his use of color and exuberant application of paint, but also in his personal life, van Gogh was powerfully and passionately drawn to nature.
With an ardent desire to engage the viewer with the strength of the emotions he experienced before nature, van Gogh radically altered and at times even abandoned traditional pictorial strategies in order to create still lifes and landscapes the likes of which had never before been seen.
“Van Gogh Up Close,” a major exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada, presents a group of the artist’s most daring and innovative works that broke with the past and dramatically altered the course of modern painting. The exhibition will be seen in the United States only in Philadelphia, February 1⁍ay 6, after which it travels to Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada.
Made between 1886 and 1890 in Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers, the works in the exhibition concentrate on an important and previously overlooked aspect of van Gogh’s work: “closeups” that bring familiar subjects such as landscape elements, still lifes and flowers into the extreme foreground of the composition or focus on them in ways that are entirely unexpected and without precedent. These landscapes and still lifes have not previously been seen together or identified before as critical to one’s understanding of van Gogh’s artistic achievement.
The exhibition includes major loans from museums and private collections in Europe, North America and Japan and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.
“Up Close” will feature more than 70 works, including 45 paintings by van Gogh and more than 30 comparative works such as Japanese woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hayashi Roshü; European prints and drawings by Jean Corot, Camille Pissarro and Jacob Ruisdael; and photographs by Frederick Evans, August Kotzsch and others. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese and European prints and drawings by artists whose aesthetic devices served as sources of inspiration for him.
“‘Van Gogh Up Close’ explores an important facet of van Gogh’s work that underscores his importance as a path-finding modern artist,” says Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “In seeking to share the intensity of his emotional response to the world around him as directly as possible, van Gogh took the traditional methods making pictures and changed the rules.”
Working initially in the apartment he shared with his brother Theo in Montmartre, van Gogh painted a series of still lifes of flowers and fruit such as “Still Life with Pears,” 1888 (Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden) and “Sunflowers,” 1887 (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
In these works, objects are often seen from above, yet are placed very close to the picture plane in a tightly cropped space that provides no clues to their context or setting. Pieces of fruit appear to tip forward and threaten to roll out of the picture. Van Gogh’s landscapes such as “Undergrowth,” 1887 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht), stress the abundance of grasses and flowers by cropping out the horizon.
By the spring of 1888, troubled by intense personal anxieties, van Gogh sought refuge from city life and moved to Arles in the south of France. There he hoped to emulate Japanese artists, working in close communion with nature and studying “a single blade of grass” in order to better comprehend nature as a whole. Landscapes such as “Field with Flowers Near Arles,” 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), reflect a Japanese influence in their high horizon lines and bold colors. Here van Gogh began to adopt a more structured, deliberate treatment of his subjects.
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