After twenty-two years Vincent Van Gogh comes back in Italy. A large number of the Dutch painter’s works is now exposed in Rome at the Victorian Museum until February 20th 2011. (the exhibition has been prolonged thanks to the great crowd of visitors).
Around seventy masterpieces among paintings, watercolours, drawings and colour printings are present together with about forty works from other contemporary artists who influenced Van Gog’s genius: Millet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Signac, Daubigny, Breitner, Mauve, van Rappard, Guillaumin, Luce, Maurand, Lavieille.
Moreover, some Van Gogh’s letters to his relatives and friends are also exhibited, being an important contribution for a deeper comprehension of art and spirit of the man and the painter.
Museums like Louvre in Paris, Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal, Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, MoMa of New York, have donated some paintings from their permanent exhibitions to give a contribute, as well as many others among museums, private collections and foundations from Los Angeles, Chicago, Izumi, Utrecht, The Hague, La Chaux-de-fonds, Florence, Jerusalem, Ottawa, Sidney, Zurich, Geneva, Groningen, Leeds, Hamburg, Moscow.
This prestigious exhibition discloses a dichotomy that puts apparently in contradiction two sides of the world which were part of Van Gogh’s inspiration: the countryside and the city.
Only a deeper knowledge of Van Gogh’s life, culture and sensibility will reveal their complementaries: Vincent Van Gogh loved both, the country and the city, and used them in an original symbiosis.
Although his school career never was satisfactory, Van Gogh was a man of a great culture who spoke French and English as well as other stranger languages. His mother was an art lover and his father, a protestant preacher, deeply inclined his view of life. Before becoming a painter he had studied to work as an art merchant like his uncle and his brother Theo.
Moved precociously from Zundert, the little village where he was born in 1853, he was only sixteen years old when he started working in London as merchant art. His life had been that of a cosmopolitan, in perennial movement between the loved country and the attractive city. He lived in many other European cities like The Hague, Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp even though he always came back to nature and country life during his whole existence. He wrote from London:
“I have a rich life here, ‘having nothing, yet possessing all things’. Sometimes I start to believe that I’m gradually beginning to turn into a true cosmopolitan, meaning not a Dutchman, Englishman or Frenchman, but simply a man” (1874, letter 018).
When he was twenty-five years old, in 1877, he thought to follow his religious vocation, as his father, and become a preacher among indigents. Unfortunately he never succeeded in it, but for a short interlude. Despite this he was always fascinated by the simple and rude life of peasants and paupers. That’s why he always painted them wherever he lived.
Returned his parents’ house he dedicated himself to draw and portrait. Van Gogh never named the portraits he painted, but titled them in a general manner including all the painted faces into the whole genre of peasants.
He depicted the country from an idealized point of view and peasants and fields were his favourite subjects. At the beginning of his artistic career he fulfilled them in pencil giving a dark tint to symbolize the color of the earth. Van Gogh firstly followed Barbizon’s painters and their landscape realism. Corot, Rousseau, and overall Millet were his much loved artists.
When he arrived in Paris, in 1886, he met the great artists of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism trend. He found in this big metropolis exactly what he needed:
“Paris is Paris, there is but one Paris and however hard living may be here and if it became worse and harder even – the French air clears up the brain and does one good – a world of good.” (1886, letter 569)
Living in Paris was very productive and interesting for such a personality. He collected Japanese woodblock prints which profoundly influenced him and attempted a new artistic point of view, most of all, he found the relationships which deeply influenced him. That’s the reason why the exhibition presents also works of some of the most important artists of that time who were a guide for the Dutch painter. Meeting these modern personalities changed his manner of painting: the dark tone is abandoned in favour of bright and clear colours. In Paris he had to leave the peasant ideal portrait and attempt to a modern portrait. In spite of this his purpose was always to render a painting as universal as possible and as well as everlasting. He did this by reinterpreting the portrait in a classical manner.
Van Gogh never forgot his feel affection for country life and in 1889 he wrote to a friend, referring on architecture, that:
“for me the most wonderful thing that I know in terms of architecture is the cottage with a mossy thatched roof, with its blackened hearth.” (1889, Letter 809).
He loved this primitive side of the country considering it as the essence of life. He missed it so much that the cottage would be often presents in a large numbers of works, an aspect that suggests his need to remember his country and an approach to give some comfort to his soul.
Thought Paris had been the most influent place in his artistic life Vincent wrote that:
“The first time I saw It (Paris) I felt above all the miseries that one cannot wave away, any more than the smell of sickness in the hospital, however clean it may be kept. And that stayed with me later, but later I gained an understanding of how it’s a hotbed of ideas, and how the people try to get everything out of life that could possibly be in it. Other cities shrink by comparison, and it seems as big as the sea. But one always leaves a whole piece of life behind there. And this is certain, nothing is fresh there. That’s why, when one comes from there, one finds a mass of things elsewhere excellent” (1888, letter 626).
In spite of this the city always had a great fashion on his mind as a place where it was possible to find the new artistic trends and hope for a brilliant career. But the city was also the place where the progress started to show his face. It must be marked that Van Gogh lived in a century during which the industry revolution was changing the landscape. Consequently he couldn’t ignore this feature and he showed it in his works. The industrial element became central in his landscapes: trains, bridges, railways are inserted into the country portrayal in a evident contra-position. The new component couldn’t be aborted but after such a dispute with the nature, viewed as perpetual and undeniable, is the latter which comes out triumphant, that’s how it was, at least, in Van Gogh’s mind. His purpose was to display the supremacy of country values face up to the current future.
When he moved to Arles, South France, in 1888, he tried to combine the Dutch experience with the great Paris influence succeeding in finding his personal original touch according to his mood and becoming very productive.
His paintings didn’t were a realistic rendition of nature and landscape. He chose to represent only what he thought as symbolical of country and city life. He continued to mix a variety of aspects from the country and the city combining them in the same painting. The ancient and the new come together in Vincent’s works. In this natural landscape some industrial elements as smoking chimneys become a part of the whole. Even thought Provençal country became the heart of his paintings, the urban centre and industrial component were always present. Fields and railways bridges are together in accordance.
Gardens and public parks were often depicted in a great number of paintings as well as orchards, flower bed, bushes. In the same way the church close to gardens and fields is also a frequent presence which remember how much religion was significant in Van Gogh’s life. Public gardens in Paris were considered the scene of modern life in the Impressionism’s vision of art and the players were preferably couples in love walking through them. This theme had been one of Van Gogh most favourite subjects when he was already living in Paris. The garden and the nature were an ideal place to dream about a love affair and when Vincent was recovered at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Hospital he painted the garden inside it and wrote to his brother Theo how this place could inspire love:
“eternal nests of greenery for lovers” (1889, letter 776).
Unfortunately when his disease was getting worse the same place became a garden of pain:
“You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’”. (1889, letter 822).
Olive tree groves are one of the main theme where the subject of the two lovers returns. This seems to had been an obsessive set in Van Gogh’s reality. He painted it so many times in so different ways that it is obliged to remind at least the constant presence of olive trees in the country and in Mediterranean landscape but it can’t be denied the important religious link which maybe persuaded Van Gogh to depict his personal Garden of Gethsemane.
The country scenery is a steady factor in Van Gogh’s art. It assumes an immutable character in opposition with mutability and inconstancy of the city and the irrepressible spreading of the industrial era. The nature becomes a place where to take refuge from a present in a irreversible change which always exerted an influence on Van Gogh but which never replaced his love for the country, a world where to find some comfort and tenderness.
As well knew, in Arles he started to have serious mental health problems and was recovered in a hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. After a short stay in Paris with his brother Theo, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a village near the French capital where he tried to find a little peace.
He was living in Auvers yet when he attempted to suicide shooting himself in the chest nearby a field he had just painted. He died two days after and was buried in Auvers.
Vincent Van Gogh spent his life ardently, he travelled many countries but never found a place where to give a rest to his restless spirit, that place he always tried to represent into his works. That’s only one of the many reasons why he is now counted among the most famous artists that ever existed.
A last letter to his brother Theo, never sent, was found on him on July 27th 1890, the day of his death. His last words were:
“Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it – very well – but you’re not one of the dealers in men; as far as I know and can judge I think you really act with humanity, but what can you do” (letter 902, 23 july 1980)
Sources and Photos:
“Vincent Van Gogh. Campagna senza tempo-Città moderna”, Exhibition catalogue.