An early start from Zürich this morning for the Van Gogh exhibition in Basel.
This Van Gogh exhibition promised to be an exciting exhibition - a chronological display of the landscapes of 70 Van Gogh paintings. This, the Kunstmuseum claims, is the first exhibition comprised exclusivly of Van Gogh landscapes from both public and private collections.
Since I made my first, rather poor, attempt to copy a Van Gogh self-portrait whilst at school art-classes I've had a somewhat soft spot for the Impressionists and post-Impressionists - Van Gogh in particular. But there's no excuse to miss this gem.
From the very start of the exhibition, we are taken on a chronollogical journey through Van Goghs life which charts his life, his painting and the dramtic change in styles from life Neuen, in the Duchy of Brabant, to Paris, Arles in Provence, Saint Peters Hospital in Saint Remy and, tragically, to Auvers.
We start at the beginning with the dark, earthy browns of Neuen. The Church Tower a recurrent motif through these and other painting of Neuen. Industrialisation had taken hold in Brabant by this time and there seems to an almost deliberate effort to keep any evidence of it at bay these firmly rural pictures.
From this set of early paintings, the one which does stand out is the Water Mill at Gennep (Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Collection) which lacks some of the realisticness of the other pictures and, instead, supplants it with the moodieness of an impending storm. This could easily have been the works of a Carravagisti if there were a greater emphasis on realism - it has all the mood and expression.
Paris, and the exposure to art at his brother Theos dealership, seems to to lighten the dark moodiness quite noticeably. The views of Montmatre and the visits to Parisian suburb of Asnières seem to have changed the colours prefered by the young Van Gogh to a cooler blue, more greens and reds. Most dramatically, the "14th of July Celebrations" (from a private collection) jar dramatically from his previous Brabant works. In my opinion, this influence and dealership was critical in allowing Vincent to develop as a painter and, without which, he would not have developed into the painter he became later.
If Paris had been a lightening process and an evolution, Arles would be a revolution. It's hard to believe that this is the same artists we saw at the beginning - dark, broody, earthy, structured - transformed into this. Brush strokes unstructured - almost anarchic. Luminous. Bright. Light. F***ing brilliant. This was no mere boy from a backwater - but an unacclaimed genius at work. I have no idea what mental process one goes through to achieve such a transformation - if I did I'd be teaching philosophy in Paris not running this blog.
Arles saw not only the luminous exuberance but acceptance of the industrialization which was encompassing the region. Industry now forms an integral part of the pictures where before, especially in Neuen, it had been studiously avoided. Bright corn fields at harvest contrasted with the heavy, polluting industry in the distant background. We had a hint of this during Asnières - but nothing like this. The archaic brushing, the light - Oh! I don't know! It's something that is more satisfying to the soul than the more ordered world of Monet / Manet or Pissaro. Almost like an outpouring of oppression. To my eye, the Summer Evening in Arles (Kunstmuseum Winterthur) and the Provence Farmhouse (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Ailsa Mellon Collection) are outstanding paintings of this period.
In Arles, Van Goghs encounter with Gaugin - whose work I never rated - left Van Gogh missing an ear and sick. Interned at the Saint Pauls hospital, Van Gogh painted when he could. Often confined within the walls of the hospital, Van Gogh would often paint in the gardens and occassionally outside where he would be accompanied. The wave like composition of the Olive Trees (which show the wall of the hospital in the background - 1889 Museum of Modern Art, New York City) gives us movement while the Cyprus trees (1891, Museum of Modern Art, New York) - religously significant to a religous man - give us stillness. One wonders if this was deliberate or the outpourings of an unwell extreme talent.
Perhaps most poigent is the last room - a portrait of Mademoiselle Gachot, daughter of Van Goghs Dr Gachot, is shown. He wrote to his brother Theo suggesting that the portrait would be best displayed next to the painting now known as "The Plains of Auvers." Sadly these paintings are now seperated - the former displayed here in Basel, the latter at the Belvedere in Vienna ,.
It would be of no surprise if this exhibition would be the most important art exhibition of 2009. It shows the growth, evolution and lifetime of a troubled man and artist. Perhaps with artistic irony, the full extent of his influence was not acknowledged in his own lifetime. Gaugin once saw Van Goghs paintings and proclaimed him to be quite mad - a statement he would later come to regret.
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Mark Sukhija is a travel and wine blogger, photographer, tourism researcher, hat-touting, white-shirt-wearing, New Zealand fantatic and eclipse chaser. Aside from at least annual visits to New Zealand, Mark has seen eclipses in South Australia (2002), Libya (2006), China (2009) and Queensland (2012). After twelve years in Switzerland, Mark moved back to London in 2012. You can follow Mark on Twitter or Facebook