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The largest exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh ever to come to Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria’s Van Gogh and the Seasons, explores the cycle of nature that governed the artist’s spiritual and artistic life. But while most people are familiar with Van Gogh’s tumultuous personal life and his struggles with mental health – not to mention the incident with the ear – how important was the changing of the seasons for the artist?
Van Gogh was the son of a Protestant Minister of a Dutch reformed church and it was through his father that the future artist began to link spirituality with the natural world. “He was taken on nature rambles by his father and was taught to see the proof of the existence of God in the wonders of nature,” explains Dr Ted Gott, the NGV’s Senior Curator of International Art. “His father preached in his weekly sermon about how the four seasons reflect the cycle of life – spring: childhood, summer: adulthood, autumn: your sixties and seventies, and winter: old age. And also how the parables of reaping and sowing souls parallels sowing the feed to grow the grain and then harvesting the wheat in the summer.”
The would-be artist grew up, therefore, with a strong sense of the power of the natural world. “Even as a young boy Van Gogh was fascinated by nature and it is strongly present in his works of art,” explains the exhibition’s curator Sjraar Van Heugten, an independent art historian and former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum. “He felt a higher force in nature, which found its most profound expression in the great, never ending cycle of the seasons.”
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch 1853–90, Orchard bordered by cypresses April 1888 Arles, oil on canvas, 64.9 x 81.2 cm, F 513, JH 1398, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 108.685) © Kröller-Müller Museum
“The seasons also dominate humanity,” he continues, “and for Van Gogh this was most of all visible in the life of the peasants: the planting and sowing, the maturing, the harvest of the crop and the bare fields in winter. He admired these motifs in the work of other painters, such as Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton, and he gave nature, the seasons and the life of the peasants a central role in his work. The growth cycle of the wheat represented eternity to him.”
The fascination with the seasons was actually independent of his career as a painter. “Even before he became an artist, in his correspondence, there are constant references to how excited he is that autumn is coming, or that spring is here,” says Gott.
Van Gogh only became an artist at the age of 27. Prior to that he had worked from his teenage years in an art dealership, selling reproductive prints after old master and contemporary paintings. “He worked at that for about five years. Then he became a school teacher in England and then he studied divinity and became a preacher working in the coal mining district of Belgium, trying to emulate his father and become a religious pastor,” Gott explains. “All of this went on prior to him deciding finally at age 27 that his calling might be to serve God through painting nature. There’s a fascinating connection between his religious fervour and his appreciation of nature.”
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch 1853–90, Tree trunks in the grass late April 1890 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 91.5 cm, F 676, JH 1970, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 100.189) © Kröller-Müller Museum
Van Gogh’s career as an artist spans the last ten years of his life, until his terrible death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest in July 1980. His brother Theo reported his final words: “The sadness will last forever.”
“In the last four or five years of his life he drops away from Christian interpretations of nature,” Gott explains. “He becomes dispirited with formal religion, but he still sees in nature the hand of something divine. He just develops a more pantheistic view of nature, rather than a strict Protestant religious view of it.”
In addition to the Divine, the change of seasons had very practical ramifications for a painter. This was particularly true throughout the last three years of Van Gogh’s life, according to Gott, when he was supported by his brother who worked in an art dealership in Paris. “Theo buys him paint and canvas and Van Gogh gets very excited with the arrival of Spring,” says Gott. “The letters get really urgent, saying: ‘I’ve got to have the colours immediately, because these flowers are only in blossom for the next four days.’ And then he gets excited when autumn is coming and writes to his brother saying, ‘these are the autumn colours that I need and I need extra supplies because I’m now painting in a much more thick and gestural manner.’ It’s quite fascinating to look at his attitudes towards nature in his letters.”
“When summer comes he writes about the glory of the sun heating up the wheat field,” says Gott, “and he says that if people don’t like the hot sun, there must be something wrong with them. Fabulous stuff. He’s very viscerally involved in the changing of the seasons. For me, I think that’s quite a poignant thing about this exhibition because it is devoted to the regularity of the seasons that he experienced, and we don’t have that anymore. He could absolutely rely upon spring blossoms coming out towards the end of February and early March, and now it seems like the seasons don’t know what they’re doing.”
Van Gogh’s letters are a rich source of insight into the artist’s life. “He writes about the intentions of his paintings and drawings but also expresses his thoughts about life, nature and art, giving us a deeper insight in his thinking,” says Van Heugten. “He mentions his love for nature and the seasons many times.”
Vincent van Gogh, A wheatfield, with cypresses early September 1889 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 72.1 x 90.9 cm, F 615, JH 1755, National Gallery, London, Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1923 (NG3861) © The National Gallery, London, Photo: The National Gallery, London
“His letters show how he carefully prepared his artistic campaigns: for a series of flowering orchards, the harvest of the wheat and for autumn landscapes by asking his brother Theo to send him extra painting material from Paris. ‘I’m in a fury of work as the trees are in blossom and I wanted to do a Provence orchard of tremendous gaiety’, he wrote in Spring 1888, producing 14 paintings and two drawings while the trees blossomed. ‘We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields’, he wrote in mid-June to his Australian friend John Russell. And in the autumn of 1889 he urged Theo to send him more paint: ‘For there are fine autumnal effects to do.’”
So how important are the works that focus on the seasons? “They they were arguably his most important subject, because of his upbringing, because of his religious outlook, because of his worship of nature – at first in Christian terms, but then just in pantheistic, slightly more pagan terms,” explains Gott.
“The whole cycle of life revolves around the turning of the seasons, because it’s involved with the growing of food that feeds people, it’s the whole cycle of the animal world, the insect world. He’s acutely conscious of the fact that nature controls all life on this planet, and the courses of nature are his primary subject.”
“Van Gogh is better known for his self portraits,” Gott admits. “I think this exhibition will surprise people precisely because it’s looking at a completely different aspect of his art. The landscapes are just extraordinary and there’s a wonderful range of them that spans his entire development as an artist. It’s a very short period but we see a man going from 27 to 37, maturing very quickly and then exploding in the last three years of his life into incandescent creativity. It’s a great, great story.”
So in many ways, these works, perhaps more than the self-portraits, are a window into the artist’s soul. “They give a deeper insight into what moved him,” he says. “Van Gogh’s work is not just about beauty, but it has a profound meaning, and it is meant to give people a moment of consolation and peace of mind. He often perceived modern life as troublesome and testing, and he found solace in nature, art and literature. With much of his own art he wanted to provide the same feelings to those who looked at it, and the greatness of nature and the seasons were very fitting subjects for that goal.”
Van Heugten has been thinking about this subject for many years. “I was struck over and over again by the depth of perception of Van Gogh’s thoughts about nature and the seasons,” he says. “How he saw them reflected not only in nature itself, but also in the art of beloved masters such as the painters of the Barbizon School and Japanese artists, and how he translated his feelings and thoughts into his own paintings and drawings. Over the years I have come to realise how strongly Van Gogh remained true to ideas he had when he first started out as an artist. His work changed from old fashioned to the most amazingly modern of his time in a career of merely ten years, but his fascination for favourite subjects never left him.”
Van Gogh also had a keen interest in literature. “Literature helped shape his way of thinking about life, nature and humanity. Books such as l’Oiseau (The Bird) by Jules Michelet and Voyage Autour de mon Jardin (Voyage Around My Garden) by Alphonse Karr inspired him and helped form his view of nature, which found expression in his works,” explains Van Heugten.
Vincent van Gogh, The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, May 1889 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 72.0 cm, F 734, JH 1698, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 101.508) © Kröller-Müller Museum
“He was a voracious reader and highly keen intellect,” says Gott. “He is fluent in Dutch of course, but he’s also completely fluent in French and English – and he writes his letters in all three languages. He’s read the complete works of Charles Dickens, he’s read the complete works of Shakespeare, he’s read almost all contemporary French literature that relates to nature and pastoral things. And in the 1860s, 1870s, there’s a whole school of French literature extolling the beauty of the countryside, or how to appreciate just your own garden.”
“He’s quoting from poems – Keats and Shelley – in his correspondence, that relate to the seasons,” says Gott. “And he’s similarly sending around in his letters French poems about autumn or winter that he finds particularly beautiful. So they’re absolutely, inextricably connected to his artistic practice. He’s one of the most well-read artists working in the entire 19th century.”
The NGV’s exhibition features works that span the full decade of Van Gogh’s artistic practice. So what are the highlights? “There are many works in the exhibition that I greatly admire,” says Van Heugten. “But I was overjoyed when the National Gallery in London agreed to lend A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, which is a true masterpiece. But to name a work that is maybe not so well known by the public, The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy from the Kröller-Müller Museum. Van Gogh painted it soon after his arrival in the asylum in May 1889. It is a stunning image of spring in a place where he found an abundance of subjects: the old garden of the asylum.”
“The early works are a big surprise and they won’t be as well known,” he continues. “There’s a wonderful Garden in the Snow done in January 1885 – he’s living with his parents in a small village called Nuenen, in the Netherlands – and there’s also a spectacular Sheaves of Wheat done in the same year. It’s in his autumnal mode, but is just a majestic painting.”
“Van Gogh was much more than the master of expressive colour and a strong and lively brush stroke which made him one of the most modern artists of his time,” Van Heugten explains. “His work is based on profound thoughts about nature and humanity, and he hoped to give moments of beauty, solemn feelings and consolation to those who saw it.”
“He’s put his very soul in the works and I think that’s why everyone relates to Van Gogh’s work,” Gott says. “We feel his passion, we also feel his fragility as an individual. It’s all there on the canvas. I think it’s that spiritual aspect to his existence as an artist that takes us to a special place when looking at his paintings.”
Vincent Van Gogh's La Nuit Etoilée or The Starry Night
Van Gogh has inspired a myriad of musical works. French composer Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, Espace, Mouvement is subtitled, La Nuit Etoilée – The Starry Night – and channels the “almost cosmic whirling effect” of Van Gogh’s painting, while a movement of his Correspondances sets a letter from the artist to his brother Theo. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote an opera, Vincent, based on events from the artist’s life, later reusing material in his Sixth Symphony, Vincentiana. Closer to home, Australian composer Malcolm Williamson wrote a piece called The Bridge that Van Gogh Painted, for solo piano, while Robert Davidson set a short quotation by the artist, “great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together,” in his choral work A Series of Small Things.
Vincent in Brixton at Red Stitch Actors' Theatre
Van Gogh has also been the inspiration for a number of stage works. British playwright Nicholas Wright’s 2003 Vincent in Brixton is a fictional take on the artist’s time as a trainee art dealer in London in 1873, in which he falls in love with an English widow. Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors' Theatre (pictured) performed it in 2005. Dutch artist and theatre maker Frank Groothof – known in the Netherlands for his role in Sesame Street – wrote Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Paintings, in which he played both the artist and his brother, against video projections of the artist’s work and music by his contemporaries. And speaking of stars, Leonard Nimoy – Mr Spock in the Star Trek franchise – wrote and starred in a one-man show called Vincent in 1981, in which he played the artist’s brother.
Van Gogh and the Seasons is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne from April 28 – July 9