NGV: Van Gogh and the Seasons

Van Gogh and the Seasons is this year’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition curated by independent art historian Sjraar van Heugten. It is currently the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks to travel to Australia with nearly 50 drawings and paintings lent from international museums such as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo making their way to the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition explores Van Gogh’s artwork with a seasonal theme in line with his profound connection to the cyclical nature of the seasons. Viewers are invited to experience an intimate understanding of the artist’s inner world and the influences of the seasons in his art. Van Gogh and the Seasons is a tour through the European Summer, Winter, Autumn and Spring led by Vincent van Gogh himself.

The exhibition is evidently curated with a lot of careful thought. Van Gogh’s art is sectioned according to each of the four seasons with some surprising additions. It does not begin by showcasing Van Gogh’s own artwork but rather his own personal collection of 19th century Japanese prints. Van Gogh, much like other western artists of his time, became infatuated with art from east Asia and drew inspiration from them, helping to shape his own style. He was fond of the use of strong, vibrant colours and the use of space in Japanese prints. He was also intrigued by the nature-inspired themes and the way they were stylised to create art that was both beautiful yet inventive. The influence of east-Asian art was so great that Heugten felt it necessary to showcase an array of Japanese prints so that it was easy to conceptualise Van Gogh’s change from black and white to colour during his career.

The first artworks of Van Gogh are a series of black and white drawings – with the first few years of his art career focused on mastering drawing techniques. While they do show the promise of his artistic genius, his drawing skills were not necessarily exceptional. The drawings were primarily sketches of the rural countryside where Van Gogh spent a lot of his time. He had yet to utilise strong colours in his art that would later form his signature style. The drawings, however, depict Van Gogh’s early love for the seasons and they would often depict landscapes and people engaging in different seasonal appropriate activities.

Van Gogh’s favourite season is Autumn as this is where he found nature to be at its most poetic. Gorgeous tones of oranges, browns and greens dominate this section of the exhibition with paintings of seasonal landscapes and the autumn harvest. ‘Autumn Landscape at Dusk’ (1885) is an enigmatic painting of trees in shades of greens, yellow and orange and a sombre olive-green sky with streaks of bright yellow and rusty orange. A shadowy figure stands alone, considerably small set against the tall trees and the growing expanse of the sky. Many of his paintings inspired by Autumn project an atmosphere of loneliness and melancholy but with an odd sense of serenity as though nature makes peace with its inevitable decay. ‘The Vase of Honesty’ (1884) is a still life of a vase of silvery seed pods, silvery lunarian and oak and bay leaves. This painting marks his early exploration of colour with the use of sombre greys, dark oranges and deep browns. He also integrated biblical references in the piece with the thirty leaves of silvery lunarian, known as ‘the coins of Judas’ in the Netherlands, to represent the thirty silver coins used in exchange for Judas’s betrayal of Christ. Brighter use of colours can be seen in ‘The green vineyard’ (1888) with vivid blues and greens as Van Gogh depicts the Autumn grape harvest.

With the end of Autumn, comes a ruthless and harsh winter. The second installment of Van Gogh and the Seasons shows Van Gogh’s art inspired by the dormancy of nature in winter. He painted gardens blanketed in snow and of men and women engaging in hard labour in snowy conditions. A particularly remarkable piece is ‘Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet)’ (1890), an oil painting with soft icy blues, whites and greens. Unlike the autumn paintings, Van Gogh’s wintery landscapes can often be void of any human figures and embody an unnerving quietness. The abandonment of a harrow and plough on a mostly barren landscape on a very chilly winter morning seems devoid of life. The absence of people and greenery creates a very solemn atmosphere that is a natural progression from his autumn-inspired works that contained some greenery but in rather muted colours and with a melancholic air. Van Gogh was prone to bouts of depression through winter which can be seen in these series of paintings. He was often forced to paint indoors due to the unfavourable weather which caused him much unhappiness. This section of the exhibition has considerably less artwork on display in comparison to the others as Van Gogh painted infrequently during the winter.

Spring breathes life into Van Gogh’s work and they suddenly become busier with colour with a bigger presence of human and animal figures. Moving through into the Spring section there is a lighter feel. ‘Potato Planting’ (1884) is a depiction of two farmers ploughing and germinating the soil for potatoes. Lighter blues, browns and greens are used as the landscape is seen to slowly return to life but, there is somewhat an absence of greenery. This is because Spring tends to represent ‘birth’ and the beginning of the nature cycle.

Summer is gorgeous, vigorous with the strong usage of bright yellows – a colour that Van Gogh loved and is widely present in his paintings. One of his most infamous summer-themed paintings is ‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ (1889). Here Van Gogh abundantly uses swirling paint strokes that gives the impression there is a wind flowing through the clouds, the grass and the cypresses. His brushstrokes are widely praised for giving an illusion of motion. These series of artworks feature vast wheat fields and vivid flowers and are the epitome of beauty and joy. Here the exhibition approaches full circle and closes with a self-portrait of Van Gogh entitled ‘Self-portrait’ (1887) accompanied by his statement ‘Painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter’. The self-portrait hangs on a wall that is situated away from the other rooms as viewers are finally able to gaze upon the man behind the genius. Being able to finally meet Van Gogh in person through his self-portrait provides a sense of closure, which is a perfect way to end the exhibition.

Van Gogh and the Seasons is exceptionally well-curated with every painting, drawing and print placed with a purpose that reflects how the seasons influenced Vincent van Gogh’s career and his personal life. Sjraar van Heugten visibly understands Van Gogh very well and did him justice by focusing on his passion rather than the myths that often overshadow his artistry. The exhibition also includes a well-made short film that gives a bit of an insight of the artist’s personality and his close relationship and love for his brother, Theo van Gogh. This year’s winter masterpieces are truly fantastic and memorable from beginning to end leaving viewers feeling more acquainted with the enigma that is Van Gogh.

‘Van Gogh and the Seasons’ is currently held at the ground level of the NGV International and will run from 28th of April until the 9th of July.

Score: 10/10

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