Up Close and Personal: New exhibition and book offers a fresh look at van Gogh

Rain (1889, Vincent Willem van Gogh, oil on canvas)

Rain (1889, Vincent Willem van Gogh, oil on canvas)

Van Gogh: Up Close is a brand new exhibition and accompanying catalogue that offers a completely new way of looking at the art of Vincent van Gogh. Today we take a look at this exciting new project, which explores van Gogh’s approach to nature through his innovative use of the close-up view in the last years of his life.

Last month we focused on a number of exciting exhibitions (and their accompanying books) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion and Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, currently still running.

This month sees the opening of another trailblazing new exhibition at the museum, which sheds fascinating new light on Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter whose work, famous for its beauty, honesty and bold colour, has had a lasting influence on 20th-century art. Van Gogh: Up Close (February 1–May 6, and then at the National Gallery of Canada from May 25–September 3) focuses on the last tumultuous years of the artist’s life, a period of feverish artistic experimentation that began when van Gogh left Antwerp for Paris in 1886 and continued until his death in Auvers in 1890.

About the exhibition

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
–Vincent van Gogh

Radically altering and often outright abandoning traditional painting techniques, van Gogh created still lifes and landscapes unlike anything that had ever been seen before. He experimented with depth of field and focus, used shifting perspectives, brought familiar objects ‘up close’ into the foreground and produced some of the most original works of his career; works that dramatically altered the course of modern painting. Through some 40 masterpieces borrowed from collections around the world, Van Gogh: Up Close is the first exhibition to explore the reasons and means by which this impassioned artist made such unusual changes to his painting style in the final years of his life.

When he arrived in Paris, van Gogh worked in the Montmartre apartment he shared with his brother Theo. He created a series of still lifes and paintings of flowers and fruit, focusing especially on aspects of scale, angle and color. In many of these works, objects may be seen from above, or are placed in a tightly cropped space providing no clues to their context or setting. Pieces of fruit appear to tip forward and threaten to roll out of the picture. Meanwhile, the close up views of grasses, wheat sheaves and tree trunks, which dominate the foreground of a number of the landscapes of this period, hint at more than just a detailed study of subject–they suggest a deep concern with representing the sensory and emotional experience of being outdoors.

Almond Blossom (detail), 1890, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Almond Blossom (detail), 1890, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

When van Gogh discovered the work of other artists in Paris, such as the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, and the pointillist works of Seurat and others, he was inspired to use lighter colours and to play with different kinds of brushwork in his own work. At about this time, he also began to acquire Japanese woodblock prints. He admired these for their decorative use of color and flattened compositions, and he embraced the ideas of Japanese artists who worked in close communion with nature, studying ‘the smallest blade of grass’ to better comprehend nature as a whole. Indeed, when he moved to Arles in 1888, van Gogh wrote that being in the south of France was the closest thing to going to Japan.

View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

The landscapes that he painted around Arles show Japanese influence in their deep views of the countryside and high horizon lines, while the landscapes he went on to create in Saint-Rémy and Auvers in 1889 and 1890 are tightly packed, more structured works. Dominated by a screen of trees or falling raindrops, these paintings suggest the immediacy and closeness of van Gogh’s surroundings. A year before he died, he wrote in a letter to his sister, “I… am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.”

In his final works, van Gogh closed in on his subjects in even more dramatic ways, reducing the depth of field and maximizing the expressive impact of his brushwork and color. An intimately focused view of a clump of iris, a tangle of almond branches, and the vibrant patterning of an Emperor moth are just a few of the images in an audacious series of still lifes which mark the culmination of the exhibition.

(above: a video preview of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada)

About the exhibition catalogue

Van Gogh: Up Close

Van Gogh: Up Close

Van Gogh: Up Close is the sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue that, like the exhibition, offers a completely new way of looking at van Gogh’s work. In this beautiful book  by art historian Cornelia Homburg (formerly chief curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum), one hundred key paintings dating from his arrival in Paris in 1886 to the end of his career, show how Van Gogh experimented with unusual visual angles and the decorative use of colour, cropping and the flattening of his compositions. In some paintings he zoomed in on a tuft of grass or a single budding iris, while depicting shifting views of a field or garden in others.

Van Gogh: Up Close not only reveals how these paintings became the most radical and innovative in the artist’s body of work but also demonstrates that, far from being a spontaneous or undisciplined artist, Van Gogh was well aware of the history of art and was highly conscious of his efforts to break new ground with his work.

Page spreads from the beautiful new book 'Van Gogh: Up Close'

Page spreads from the beautiful new book 'Van Gogh: Up Close'

Van Gogh: Up Close is available now from Yale University Press.

Exhibition dates:
Philadelphia Museum of Art: February 1–May 6, 2012 (Dorrance Galleries)
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa: May 25–September 3, 2012

Coming soon on this blog…
The award-winning art critic Richard Cork will be writing about van Gogh’s turbulent time in an asylum towards the end of his life, and the miraculous paintings he produced there.

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