June 2017

Arts & Letters

Sensory cycles

By Sebastian Smee

Snow-covered Field with a Harrow (After Millet), January 1890, Saint-Rémy. Oil on canvas, 72.1 x 92 centimetres. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. © Vincent van Gogh Foundation

‘Van Gogh and the Seasons’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

You see van Goghs, if you are lucky, here and there. A gauche and gnarled-fingered portrait. A spooked, acidic rendering of a cafe at night. A fragrant explosion of flowers. You see them in museums, or reproduced in books, as posters, on your phone, on TV. Some are better, some are worse. But it’s a leisurely affair, this business of appreciating Vincent van Gogh. A painting here, a painting there, this year, next year – there’s no hurry. Van Gogh is van Gogh. He’s well loved to a fault. He’s not going anywhere.

How different it was for him! Haunted by a sense that time was running out, and that he might not live past 40, he painted all 860 of his paintings in ten years. That’s about the same time it took The Beatles to record their 230-odd songs, from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘The End’. But unlike Lennon and McCartney, who were both prodigiously gifted from birth, van Gogh had to begin from scratch – and to do so at the age of 27.

He had been on the cusp of becoming a preacher when, in 1880, he decided instead to learn to draw. He wasn’t any good: his early attempts are woefully leaden and awkward. (Picture McCartney, in his mid 20s, trying to sing along to a borrowed guitar and being unable to find the right pitch.) And although van Gogh eventually transformed himself into one of the most original and scintillating draftsmen in history, it was years before things began to improve.

He painted the overwhelming majority of his best-known paintings in the final two years of his life. So, in fact, the notion that he had a decade to play with is misleading: it really came down to that period. Had van Gogh not moved to the south of France in 1888, there’s no reason to think that we would encounter his works in museums at all.

Thirty-six of van Gogh’s paintings, along with 13 drawings and watercolours, are at the heart of Van Gogh and the Seasons at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV; until 9 July). Organised by Sjraar van Heugten, a former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it is made up primarily of loans from that institution and the Kröller-Müller Museum, also in the Netherlands. But the exhibition also includes loans from (among other locations) New York, London, Mexico City, Ottawa, Budapest, Honolulu and Paris.

It may constitute “the largest collection of van Gogh artworks to ever travel to Australia”, but it is more of a taster than a full meal, and it is not quite in the same league, qualitatively, as the similarly themed Van Gogh and Nature, held in 2015 at the Clark Art Institute in western Massachusetts (and to which van Heugten also contributed his expertise). This show is plumped up by Japanese prints from the NGV’s Asian collection, and a handful of prints by European and American artists that van Gogh had collected himself.

Fewer than half of the paintings in the show were made in the south of France. Even these are not uniformly wonderful: as you would expect from an artist working at such a frantic clip, his production was uneven.

Still, almost everything about van Gogh is interesting, and there are enough good, and really good, things to make the show worth visiting. Pine Trees at Sunset is among the best of them. Van Gogh painted it in the southern French town of Saint-Rémy, where he was hospitalised, in the autumn of 1889, six months before he died. He painted the trees as he saw them. But what’s also clear is that he identified with them – their ravaged and broken branches, their twisting trunks, their relentless sun-seeking, their ability to endure the worst. You can discuss this identification in terms of “pathetic fallacy” if you must (the term was originally English art critic John Ruskin’s), but it seems to me the matter goes deeper.

Van Gogh’s feeling for the life in trees is evident much earlier, in a marvellous drawing he made in the Dutch town of Nuenen late in the winter of 1885. It’s clear from this piece (one of six drawings he made of the garden around his father’s parsonage) that it was through studying trees that he really learned to draw. The bare branches of the trees jut up and fork out in angular, energetic spurts that became a hallmark of his later, utterly inimitable style.

But of course he also learned through looking at the work of artists he admired. None was more important in this sense than his older contemporary Jean-François Millet. The French painter’s poetic feeling for peasant labour and rural life did not just chime with van Gogh’s own world view, it helped form it. Millet’s painting The Sower inspired one of van Gogh’s most famous works, an image of a peasant sowing seeds that was consciously charged with the symbolism of nature’s life cycle, and fired by van Gogh’s own belief in the regenerative role artists could play in the world. (He made no fewer than 13 versions of that picture.)

The Dutchman had been making copies after Millet for ten years – his entire life as an artist – when he painted Snow-covered Field with a Harrow (After Millet). It was an almost direct transcription of a print he owned of an etching by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney, itself made after an 1862 painting by Millet.

Van Gogh’s painting came just a month after December’s Pine Trees at Sunset. But the difference between December and January is great in the northern hemisphere: by January, winter has set in and the snow has arrived. What’s extraordinary about Snow-covered Field with a Harrow is its palette: a minty turquoise permeating not just the fields but also the sky, and brilliantly conjuring morning frost and bitter, bitter cold. No artist before van Gogh would have tried such a thing.

The four seasons do not have quite the same hold over the imagination in Australia as they have in Europe, Japan or North America. Each season is less distinct here: the variations in temperature aren’t as dramatic, winter in particular is far less punishing, and most of Australia’s native trees are not deciduous, which, visually at least, may make the biggest difference of all. In Europe, North America and northern Asia the four seasons are not only more visible but also hardwired into life, and have found their way into the very structures of poetry, music and art.

Among frescoes and mosaics surviving from Pompeii and Rome are personifications of spring as a young woman holding flowers, and summer holding a sickle and sheafs of corn. There are grapes and vine leaves for autumn, and warm and heavy clothes for winter. The tradition was revived during the Renaissance when seasons were paired with pagan divinities: Venus or Flora for spring; Ceres for summer; Bacchus for autumn; and Boreas or Vulcan for winter. Subsequent artists, from Nicolas Poussin through to Cy Twombly, have made cycles of paintings based on the seasons.

Van Gogh, who felt nature so deeply, was tempted to do the same. In 1882 he drew a series of sheets meant to be part of a seasons cycle, in miniature. He loved Keats, and transcribed the Romantic poet’s description of autumn as the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in a letter to a friend. (Oh, van Gogh’s letters: yearning, euphoric, moaning, self-castigating – one of the glories of literature!) And yet he was never much good at schemes: his very bones seemed to kick out against the idea of pursuing a program. He dreamed and devised, yes, but his follow-through was all improvisation, all intuition.

His favourite season was autumn, and so it’s fitting that it’s with this season that the show begins. Several of these works were made in The Hague and Nuenen; they’re suitably dusky and melancholic. There is also one painting from the southern French town of Arles – an October depiction of workers in a green vineyard – that van Gogh was planning to use to decorate the walls of the Yellow House in anticipation of Paul Gauguin’s arrival. And there are three pulsating pictures from Saint-Rémy, where he repaired to an asylum after his spectacular breakdown.

Van Gogh’s strongest works can be shaggy and awkward, but as a rule they’re robustly composed, with emphatic outlines and colour contrasts. The Green Vineyard is not great in this sense – there’s not enough differentiation. (I would fault the four or five semi-Impressionist paintings from his time in Paris here in the same way.) But it demonstrates his art’s unique compound of three elements. There is his fidelity to nature (he explained to a friend that he had “to go to work in the vineyard, near Montmajour. It’s all purplish yellow green under the blue sky”). The second is his awareness of precedents (the painting was inspired both by the big skies and impregnable calm of the Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael and the thick, agitated canvases of van Gogh’s French contemporary Adolphe Monticelli). And then there are his religious associations (autumn is a time for grape-harvesting, so it is associated not only with Bacchus and Silenus but also with the sacred blood of Christ).

Van Gogh cared deeply about all three elements. But nothing was more important to him than fidelity to nature, to an observed and sensuous reality. His ferocity on this subject was one of the causes of his spectacular break-up (the infamous ear-cutting episode in Arles) with Gauguin, whose admixture of symbolism, abstraction and religiosity began to irk the Dutchman: it suggested to him a dilution of force, a spinning away from the gravitational pull of the here and now.

In the Japanese tradition, depictions of the seasons are infused with spiritual significance. They emphasise, in particular, life’s transience. Van Gogh was still under the spell of Japanese prints when he painted The Stone Bench in the Asylum at Saint-Rémy six months into his stay there.

With its boldly cropped composition, and muscular tree trunk diagonally traversing the field of khaki-coloured dashes, the painting recalls Hiroshige’s Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido. The cropping is no arbitrary device, for it focuses our attention – like the marvelling, mid-distance stare of a patient freshly restored to sanity – on what is most ripe for reflection: the stone bench situated between two sturdy tree trunks, and the rolling ground covered in leaves.

That November painting was made six months after its near relative, Tree Trunks in the Grass, which is another depiction of the grounds at Saint-Rémy, this time covered in spring flowers. Van Gogh felt keenly – perhaps more so than any artist before him – the frenzy of spring. Like the later work, this one has no horizon line, and is conspicuous for its close-in focus on two chunky pine tree trunks. Instead of dry, decaying leaves, however, we now see wet, dewy grass, stiff flower stems, a whole world of buzzing fragrance.

With the possible exception of Farmhouse in Provence – a small summer jewel that van Gogh painted in carefully paired complementaries soon after arriving in Arles – Tree Trunks in the Grass is the freshest work in the show. Its lopsidedness and boldly compressed space lend it a kind of lurching, beat-skipping immediacy. The contrast between the soft profusion of flowers and the hard segments of bark around the pine trees – rendered in separate slabs of violet, blue, white and ochre, outlined in black – provides as satisfying a combination as ice-cream and crunchy wafer.

It feels poignant, then, to learn that van Gogh painted it around the time when he was in what the catalogue calls “a state of deep crisis, no longer answering letters and unable to communicate with the world”. (Unable to communicate with the world? You look at the work and want to laugh. Has a painting ever communicated more urgently? But we know what they mean.)

Spring can have that effect, can’t it? Accustomed to singing its praises, we disregard, at least in public, how destabilising it can be – with its wayward amorous urgings, its sudden gusts of euphoria, its breath-shortening, stomach-churning anxieties, its histrionic surging and plunging – and what comfort, by contrast, we may derive from summer’s mind-emptying indolence, autumn’s melancholy, or winter’s inwardness, its sensory shutdown. Spring certainly destabilised van Gogh.

The show concludes, a little oddly, with an 1887 self-portrait, one of 20 van Gogh worked on in Paris that year alone. The picture, one of two van Gogh self-portraits owned by the Musée d’Orsay, was a late addition, secured only after last-minute haggling. But it is a fine thing, and although ostensibly it has nothing to do with the show’s theme of the seasons, it does offer viewers the chance to bid an intense and intimate farewell to the man responsible for all they have just seen, and to recall, once again, a poet he loved, John Keats: “Four Seasons fill the measure of the year / There are four seasons in the mind of man.”

Van Gogh died, aged 37, in high summer.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.


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