Up Close with Van Gogh

Sunflowers. 1887. Oil on canvas, 17 x 24 in. (43.2 x 61 cm). Rogers Fund, 1949

As if there weren’t enough compelling reasons to see a blockbuster exhibit of Van Gogh, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has come up with a new point of view.  Van Gogh: Up Close does just that, focuses on his paintings that zoom in on the flora surrounding him.

And if that’s not enough, the letters V-A-N-G-O-G-H fit perfectly between the columns of the museum’s iconic portico, where they welcome visitors to this intimate show of one of the most beloved painters of all time.

Here we see landscapes that take us right into the foreground of twisty vines

Road Menders at Saint-Remy, 1889. Vincent Willem van Gogh, 1853 - 1890. Oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 inches

and undulating fields. His inner turmoil is reflected in rippling lines of his canvas, irregular slopes of rooftops. You want to come again and again to see the thick brush strokes in varying shades of green defining checkerboard fields under swirling skies with puffs of airy clouds or lines that squiggle into trees. Oh, those swirling skies!

Van Gogh: Up Close shows not only the influence of Japanese printmakers but how the artist believed in the restorative power of nature. Curators from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, along with the team at PMA, have developed new scholarship to show what an intense nature lover Van Gogh was.

Field with Flowers near Arles, 1888. Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch, 1853 - 1890. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 25 9/16 inches . Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

“Full frontal flowers in vases is not our thesis,” says PMA Senior Curator Joseph Rishel. “Looking down between his toes, tightening his gaze, is.”

For Van Gogh, born in 1857 in an agricultural area in Southern Netherlands, nature was a source of comfort and inspiration. He rendered plant life up close, abandoning traditional rules of perspective, scale and space.

Van Gogh loved the sunflowers in the cultivated fields around Arles and examined them as minutely as a botanist. He zoomed in, as a photographer might, for a highly original view of a simple object.

Back in Nuenen, Netherlands, he was painting dark peasant studies – think “The Potato Eaters” – but when he arrived in Paris in February 1886, color was in vogue. Unfamiliar with Impressionism, “his dark brooking palette is outdated,” says Anabelle Kienle, assistant curator, National Gallery of Canada. Van Gogh: Up Close focuses on the last four years of the artist’s life, 1986 to 1990.

In order to transition to this new style he focused on single subjects that freed him to experiment, painting still lifes and sunflowers. Gaugin was so enamored of the sunflowers, he traded a painting for one.

“The still life was like a laboratory for him, but he felt they were good enough to sell,” says Ms. Kienle. His orange fritillaries sway in a vase with stippled brushwork while deep blues dance in the background. Van Gogh’s art dealer brother Theo, who bought his art supplies, wrote that painting flowers was making Vincent more cheerful.

Influenced by neo-Impressionists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, Van Gogh “was consuming their ideas and it gets into his DNA,” says Mr. Rishel. “He is beginning the conventions of Modernism that goes through to Jackson Pollock.”

Van Gogh found his way to the country outside of Paris, seeking peace and inspiration in the crisp sunlight and warm colors “as beautiful as Japan,” he is reported to have said. He felt in better health in warm wheat fields. “I revel in it like a cicada.” With “Outskirts of Paris: Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade,” he depicts rows of crops alongside a house. Look closely and a woman appears in those rows, as if she were a cabbage.

A house on a hill with a pink roof, a pink fence and details in red, yellow and turquoise could only be painted by someone experiencing profound joy – such were the swings of Van Gogh’s moods. Focused on a blazing yellow wheat field with poppies under an illuminated blue sky; long sweeping brushstrokes that suggest individual blades of grass; hovering white butterflies – was this the tormented artist who end his life at age 37?

“Sad, happy, tragic, comic – he experienced the whole repertoire,” says Mr. Rishel.

His mental breakdown led him to the Hospital of Saint Paul-de-Mausole just outside Saint-Remy, where he became infatuated with irises blooming, exploding, radiating life, hope and energy. He believed Japanese artists lived in close communion with nature and emulated the study of a single blade of grass, which become a metaphor for living simply and observing the surrounding world with thoughtful attention.

“He would regain his composure by going out to look at grass,” says Mr. Rishel. “It was a kind of meditation for the stresses of the asylum.”

While looking down, Van Gogh observed dandelions as well as the microgreens that make up their own miniature forest. Roses and wheat become patterns in nature. In Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers, the horizon line of his landscapes moved to the top of his canvas so he could focus on all those shapes coming up from the ground. “No other artists of the time did these downward gazes,” says Ms. Kienle.

Since the mid 19th century, artists painted undergrowth, but Van Gogh went underfoot, showing neglected gardens with tall weeds and ivy covered trees. In this undergrowth he created radiant light in dappled strokes. You can see the forest and the trees in these works that seem to recede into infinite space.

While in the asylum, Van Gogh read Dickens and Shakespeare and studied the old masters. He would run out of art supplies and sometimes paint on cardboard. In other instances he seems to have run out of pigment. He believed that doing his artwork was the best remedy.

“One slice of his mind knew he was putting himself way out there,” says Mr. Rishel. “He was egoistic and sure of himself as a radical artist.

Van Gogh collected Japanese prints, which could be purchased inexpensively, and pinned them up to decorate his walls. The PMA has a selection of prints from its selection that are just like the ones Van Gogh would have had, in a separate section of this show. Photography was also a tool for artists to help recall transient aspects of nature. Van Gogh did not believe in using photographs, but photographs of the time are shown alongside his work.

This is not a portrait show, and there are few humans in these paintings. When they do appear, they are part of the landscape, as if Van Gogh wanted them absorbed into the woods.

In “Road Meanders at Saint-Remy,” the thoroughfare is lined with hulking plane trees, their massive arms holding up leaves to the sky. In the foreground, workers beneath the trees repair pavement amid piles of sand and stone. Peeking through the trunks are green shuttered buildings, gas lamps and ladies walking.

“Undergrowth with Two Figures” is a very large wide painting of a couple walking in the forest. At first the man is clearly visible, but a woman beside him gradually appears, and as she appears it’s not entirely certain whether she’s facing forward or back. They seem to be growing out of the grasses and trees, but are they growing together or apart?

This was made at the end of Van Gogh’s life, after he left the asylum to go north to Auver. He immersed himself in his work but couldn’t escape the anxieties that haunted him. He went to the forest to paint and returned with gun shots to his stomach, dying a day later with Theo at his side.

One of his most famous paintings, “Almond Blossom” – clearly influenced by Japanese printmaking – was painted as a birthday present for his nephew. One of his final paintings, it is decorative and abstract, and in its joyous celebration of abundance in nature, foreshadows the development of 20th century art.

With the pain that tormented him, Van Gogh saw and re-created a world so beautiful, we stand in line to be transfixed, and float pleasurably into the world he created.

Van Gogh: Up Close is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26 St., Philadelphia, through May 6. Tickets cost $25 adult, $23 seniors, students 13-18 $20, children 5-12 $12. 215-235-7469; http://www.philamuseum.org

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