A Passion for Detail

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Vernissage, Spring 2012

This summer, the Gallery will present Van Gogh: Up Close, a landmark exhibition that will bring everyone — from seasoned admirers to casual observers — closer to understanding the inspiration for, and the passion behind, the way Vincent van Gogh radically changed his painting style in the final years of his life. In the first major Canadian exhibition on the Dutch artist in more than 25 years, Van Gogh: Up Close will bring together about 45 of the artist’s canvases from collections around the world to highlight a late theme in his work that has never before been examined in depth: his close-up views of nature.

Vincent van Gogh, Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886), oil on canvas, 50.2 x 61 cm. NGCVincent van Gogh, Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886), oil on canvas, 50.2 x 61 cm. NGC

“Van Gogh loved nature in all its aspects and he turned this fascination into some spectacular paintings. Several feature sweeping vistas of the countryside while others zoom in on a small detail of nature — and those are the images that have inspired this exhibition,” says guest curator Cornelia Homburg. “In the late 1880s almost no one dared to paint a portrait of a plant like Van Gogh did, where he managed to create amazing paintings from quite ordinary things.”

 About five years ago Homburg, an internationally recognized Van Gogh expert, began to research a theme in the artist’s work that had so far been overlooked: about a quarter of the paintings the artist completed from 1887 onwards contain elements of a close-up view of nature. Homburg discussed this observation with her former colleague Anabelle Kienle, the Gallery’s assistant curator of European and American Art, in relation to the Gallery’s Iris (1889), which Van Gogh completed in the garden of the Saint-Rémy asylum where he was recovering from a bout of illness. The painting, Homburg argued, was a perfect example of this approach, and out of that discussion came the realization of this exhibition.

“The Iris is a great starting point for this exhibition,” says Kienle. “We will also see how Van Gogh painted other pictures in the same garden, focusing either on the little yellow flowers or on a larger section of a meadow. Some of his compositions — the dramatically cropped tree trunks, for example — are exceptionally daring.”

In presenting this new understanding of Van Gogh’s work, the exhibition will answer such questions as: How did Van Gogh come up with the idea of the close-up? Why did it interest him so much? What was his objective in taking this radical path in his work and how did he pull it off? The show will also examine the different ways the artist achieved the close-up, from the portrayal of a plant such as the Gallery’s Iris, to the use of the close-up in more sweeping landscape works such as View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground. In this painting Van Gogh depicts a vista of the countryside but still brings a part of the picture right up close, allowing the viewer to see what the artist himself saw when he stood there — not just the town of Arles in the distance, but the flowers right in front of him and everything in between.

When Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886 he was exposed to the art of the Impressionists and Neo Impressionists, who were using a much brighter palette and modern brushstroke. Working from an apartment he shared with his brother Theo, an art dealer in Montmartre, he experimented with these influences in a series of still lifes of flowers and fruit, toying with brighter colours and a more dramatic brushstroke. In 1887 he departed from the traditional still-life format to create works that played with different angles, cropping, depth of field and focus. Fruit, flowers and other objects were not only painted brightly, they were viewed from different angles in tightly cropped compositions without conventional backgrounds.

Following his move to Arles in the South of France in 1888, Van Gogh took this radical new approach outdoors. The artist not only painted close-up views of grasses growing in a meadow, he also experimented with depth by tipping up horizon lines or eliminating backgrounds altogether to better focus in on the elements of nature before him. In some paintings we see him looking down to the ground; in others he cuts off tree trunks very close or takes a dramatic angle to produce works that are more than mere detailed observations of nature; they also convey the physical and emotive experience of being outside, within nature.

We know from his letters that the artist would have been inspired by other close-up views in works by the likes of Dürer. It is also clear that his approach to painting was influenced, in part, by the Japanese woodblock print. Van Gogh first wrote about these prints during his brief stay in Antwerp in the winter of 1885—86, and he began to collect and study them seriously in Paris where he was a regular customer in the shop of Siegfried Bing, a dealer in Japanese artifacts and prints. In September 1888, while living in Arles, Van Gogh wrote to Theo praising the approach to nature shown by the Japanese artist:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Van Gogh identified with the Japanese approach to understanding nature by starting with the single blade of grass as a basis for moving outwards to comprehend nature as a whole. In works such as Iris, for example, we can almost visualize the artist up close to his subject, or imagine him down on his knees in the grass to get his own close up view of this delicate flower, with the surrounding blades of grass and tiny wildflowers.

It is a testament to Van Gogh’s strength as an artist that more than 100 years after his death it is still possible to find new and exciting ways to understand not only his work but the man’s deep interest in and fascination with nature.

Before the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Van Gogh: Up Close could open in Ottawa it first had to open in our partner institution, The Philadelphia Museum of Art. This meant Van Gogh's Iris, a key work for the exhibition's central thesis and a greatly valued painting in the National Gallery's collection, first had to travel down to Philadelphia. 

But how does a priceless painting make it from our gallery to theirs? How is it prepared for travel? How is it packaged, transported, and cared for along the way? For a behind the scenes look at how this journey was completed, watch this short film.

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