Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh would have liked the campus of the Clark Art Institute. It is not difficult to imagine him carrying his easel and palette to the top of Stone Hill, a 350-foot rise from which the colonial town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, with its white church spires and clapboard houses set against the undulating green Berkshire hills, is revealed in full. After all, Van Gogh made a similar climb in Paris, when he walked to the top of Montmartre (42 feet) to paint what would become Windmills and Allotments (1887), one of fifty paintings and drawings in the Clark’s recent landmark show, “Van Gogh and Nature” (June 14–September 13, 2015). Indeed, were he to explore the Clark today, Van Gogh might take a break to sip absinthe (not on the café’s menu), or perhaps something tamer, in one of the Adirondack chairs situated on the new granite terraces that circumscribe a geometrically precise pebble-filled pond. He would eagerly sketch the delicate foliage of the white willows that grow there, planted just so. Although he could not depict the echoing dialogue of frogs ribbeting throughout the property, he would surely paint these creatures from memory, so familiar was he with flora and fauna.
Richard Kendall, the Clark’s Curator at Large and co-curator of the exhibition, noted when it opened: “Van Gogh was obsessed by trees. He was a nature nerd. You can always tell the kinds of trees in his paintings. Van Gogh didn’t differentiate between wild nature and tamed nature. He was as taken with wild lilies as he was with a cultivated cornfield. Nature was a central concept for him.” Even Van Gogh’s sister, Elisabeth, in a memoir she published about her brother, wrote of him as a boy growing up in southern Holland: “He knew all the places where rare flowers grew, all the names of the beetles, [which he preserved in] white covered cardboard boxes, placing small scraps of paper above each creature with their names, in Latin!”
The Clark’s recently retired director, Michael Conforti, was well aware of the link between an exhibition of Van Gogh’s nature paintings and his museum’s newly manicured campus, the reinvention of which he guided over many years. At its launch, Conforti said: “We believe ‘Van Gogh and Nature’ will resonate strongly with visitors, particularly within the Clark’s transformed campus landscape, which is so deeply connected with the beauty of our natural setting, and will invite visitors to contemplate Van Gogh’s experiences while enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. Scholars, students and the public are encouraged to observe, study and enjoy the artworks with intimacy, detached from the distractions and stimuli of an urban environment.”
Another indication that Conforti has been a force of nature himself is that the Clark was this exhibition’s sole venue. Iconic Van Gogh works depicting nature, the kind many museums are reluctant to part with even for a season, were secured from more than twenty decidedly urban institutions, including Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Paris’s Museé d’Orsay, London’s National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art.
The idea of mounting any Van Gogh show was daunting, and not just because of the sheer challenge of securing so many valuable works. Rather, there were the bigger questions posed by Conforti and others: Why another assemblage of such iconic paintings? What more can anyone learn about Van Gogh? Is there a way to see his paintings that has not yet been exploited?
It turns out, there is. One of Conforti’s many talents (he headed the Clark for more than twenty years) was his determination to create only exhibitions offering something new for visitors. “We don’t do masterpiece shows,” he insisted, “we do thoughtful shows. And this show of Van Gogh is a revelation.” He thanked the three co-curators—Kendall, Chris Stolwijk, director of the RKD/Netherlands Institute for Art History, and Sjraar van Heugten, former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum and now an independent curator—for “pushing us to do this show, for sweeping my skepticisms aside.” Conforti writes in the catalogue’s introduction: “Together these paintings and drawings present an extraordinary view of an artist obsessed with nature at its grandest as well as its most intimate, who once explained that ‘making studies from nature, wrestling with reality’ were the basis of his art.”1 Indeed, visitors saw a range of efforts in this arena, from the grandly scaled Mountains at Saint-Remy (1889) to the quieter chalk-on-paper Studies of a Dead Sparrow (1889–90). Yet no matter his subject or scale, Van Gogh’s art is never modest; it is always passionate, even charged.
The co-curators emphasized that there had never been an exhibition devoted to Van Gogh’s depictions of nature, a surprising fact that had won Conforti’s attention. Kendall related how his research revealed that Van Gogh used the word “nature” in a third of the more than nine hundred letters he wrote, most to his brother Theo; in one, he wrote this word twenty-one times (the kind of discovery made easy these days thanks to the word search function).
“When Van Gogh looked at nature, he was often reminded of art,” said Stolwijk, who helped select works demonstrating the influence that other artworks and artists had on the painter, including nineteenth-century Japanese prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, canvases by Claude Monet and Jean-François Millet and first editions of nature books that Van Gogh had read. (Van Gogh mentioned in his letters that he had read some five hundred books.) “Van Gogh saw Provence through the Japanese art he had seen,” Stolwijk added. Kendall emphasized this in the catalogue, writing: “The range of references in his letters to other eras and cultures was prodigious, from the ancient and classical worlds to his more recent fascination with Japan and its distinctive wood-block prints that he had first encountered in Antwerp and then collected in Paris. It has long been recognized that some of these prints directly inspired certain of Van Gogh’s paintings….” Van Gogh himself wrote to Theo: “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”
The Clark’s show was arranged chronologically. At its conclusion, visitors saw one of the very last paintings Van Gogh made, just months before taking his own life. Here again, the curators drove home the idea that Van Gogh was profoundly influenced by others’ art. The final painting, Rain-Auvers (1890), reveals four broad bands of landscape—hinting at, flirting with, abstraction—interspersed with a townscape, while the whole of the canvas is dominated by diagonal streaks of gray rain, lines rendered so precisely that Kendall surmises Van Gogh might have used a straight edge. On a wall adjacent to this scene, the curators placed a Hiroshige woodcut print, Sudden Shower on the Great Bridge, near Atake (1857), in which a similar streaking occurs, a work verified as having been seen—and admired—by Van Gogh. The chief difference between the two works is that the woodblock features human figures shielding themselves from the downpour, while Van Gogh’s painting lacks figures entirely.
“Unlike his earlier representations of the town, this picture tells us almost nothing about the quaint houses of Auvers and its grand town hall and ancient church, while the human population that he had painted so often and so vividly in recent months is nowhere to be seen,” writes Kendall. What is presented instead is “…an unprecedented emphasis on the brute facts of landscape and the viewer’s visceral relationship to it.”2
“Van Gogh was always, essentially, a realist,” Stolwijk said, referring to Rain-Auvers, a work unfamiliar to most people because it is now in the National Gallery of Wales (Cardiff). “The basis for his paintings is always reality.” That Van Gogh did something else with reality, created an inimitable style, color scheme, brushwork, subject matter and perspective, is ancillary to this central fact. Rain-Auvers is a distillation of nature—a canvas in which Van Gogh rendered sky, earth, rain. Kendall writes of this work: “Van Gogh…created a composition that is both simple and almost beyond description.”3
There were many stated reasons why this show was mounted, the most compelling being, of course, that no such grouping had previously been assembled, odd as that may seem. But given what appeared in the show—the many trees on display (The Olive Trees, 1889; Orchard in Blossom, Bordered by Cypresses, 1888), grain fields (Wheat Field behind Saint-Paul with Reaper, 1889), insects (Giant Peacock Moth, 1889), plantings (Vineyards at Auvers, 1890), topographical features (The Ravine, 1889) and gardens (Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888)— any visitor might well slap his forehead and ask, “Why haven’t I noticed this before, his fixation with nature?”
But another curatorial objective was to dispel some of the wearyingly familiar—and often untrue—myths about the painter’s mental state and psychological turmoil. “The worst thing that happened to Van Gogh’s reputation is that awful movie Lust for Life,” said Kendall, referring to the 1956 melodrama starring Kirk Douglas as the artist, seen as a delusional madman carting his canvas into wheat fields with screeching crows wheeling overhead, the character painting furiously, then despairing, then eventually lopping off a portion of his ear. While the works on display certainly reflect a thoughtful man, sensitive and observant, they do not have the power to indicate a well, or not well, man. Yet the three curators, during a walk through the galleries, continued to emphasize that Van Gogh was a far calmer, more productive man than the myth suggests. Stolwijk explained that the most logical explanation for his continued mental lapses was not necessarily outright madness, but rather a form of epilepsy that went untreated in his day. “So much about Van Gogh has been lost in all of the hyperbole,” Kendall said. “This exhibition allows us to clear up many of these misperceptions and helps people understand Van Gogh in a new light.”
Thanks to its chronological arrangement, the show had an almost seasonal feel to it. The viewer moved from dark, wintery, sepia-toned early works (among them, The Swamp, 1881; Marsh with Water Lilies, 1881; Winter Garden, 1884), where you can almost feel the suck of the wet mud, to increasingly bright spring-like canvases. Color appeared almost immediately after Van Gogh left Holland for Antwerp in 1885, and especially when he reached Paris in February 1886, where he painted Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments (1887). He later moved to Provence (specifically Arles and Saint-Remy). The sky is blue, the trees are green, and people are milling about in his Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens (1886), while Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day (1887) is a glorious burst of pastel hues. The colors he employs, their very depth on the canvas, grow ever more vibrant, simultaneously Impressionistic, even Fauvist, in their blaze.
Included in the show was Monet’s Tulip Fields (1886), from the Clark’s own collection. “We know Van Gogh saw this work,” says Stolwijk. “He’d heard of the Impressionists, but he never imagined such vivid paintings existing. There was such a high light level. Van Gogh realized he was way behind the curve of Western art.”
He made up for it, so much so that he stands out, unique among Western artists. To see a Van Gogh is to know it as such. But this show proved there is yet another way to look at him, one that no visitor will forget.
1. Richard Kendall, Sjraar van Heugten and Chris Stolwijk. Van Gogh and Nature (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 7.
2. Ibid., 224.