Escape to nature

Seni­or cur­at­or Joseph Rishel dis­cusses paint­ings in the ex­hib­it, in­clud­ing Van Gogh’s 1890 paint­ing Al­mond Blos­som. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

— Artist Vin­cent van Gogh cer­tainly had his share of con­flicts with his mind. The great out­doors provided the troubled paint­er with a col­or­ful out­let for some of his most dis­tinct­ive works.


When the com­plex­ity of life over-burdened Vin­cent van Gogh and eroded his psyche to the point of self-de­struc­tion, the artist sought refuge in the minu­ti­ae of nature.

When re­peated bouts of in­tense anxi­ety, de­pres­sion and rage forced him to take up res­id­ence in Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-R&ea­cute;my, France, Van Gogh rendered his own ther­apy. He ex­amined the ir­ises, dan­deli­ons, wheat fields, cypress trees and blades of grass in the asylum gar­dens and sur­round­ing coun­tryside.

He then painted them, cre­at­ing dozens of im­ages as dis­tinct­ive in their dis­tor­ted per­spect­ive, rugged tex­tures, ir­reg­u­lar pat­terns and vi­brant col­ors as they would be pivotal in the trans­ition of mod­ern art from the 19th cen­tury in­to the 20th.

Many of those Saint-R&ea­cute;my com­pos­i­tions are among more than 40 of the artist’s land­scapes and still-lifes in­cluded in the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art’s Van Gogh Up Close ex­hib­i­tion, which opened last month and will re­main on view through May 6.

Mu­seum of­fi­cials ex­pect it to be­come one of the most-at­ten­ded events in the ven­ue’s re­cent his­tory. Some 200,000 vis­it­ors saw the mu­seum’s first Van Gogh ex­hib­i­tion in 1970. Thirty years later, more than 300,000 at­ten­ded Van Gogh: Face to Face, at­test­ing to the Dutch­man’s en­dur­ing power to cap­tiv­ate audi­ences more than a cen­tury after his death.

“You just see this big guy a little bit big­ger be­cause of this show,” said Joseph J. Rishel, co-cur­at­or for the ex­hib­i­tion and the mu­seum’s seni­or cur­at­or of European paint­ing be­fore 1900.

Rishel col­lab­or­ated with the mu­seum’s as­so­ci­ate cur­at­or of European paint­ing be­fore 1900, Jen­nifer Thompson; along with Ana­belle Kienle of the Na­tion­al Gal­lery of Canada in Ot­t­awa and Cor­ne­lia Hom­burg, an in­de­pend­ent art his­tor­i­an who ed­ited the 288-page ex­hib­i­tion cata­log.

Phil­adelphia is the only United States ven­ue. The ex­hib­i­tion will open in Ot­t­awa this sum­mer, then close for good. Ac­cord­ing to Timothy Rub, dir­ect­or and CEO of the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art, it took the or­gan­iz­ing in­sti­tu­tions five years to plan the ex­hib­i­tion, which in­cludes works bor­rowed from mu­seums and private col­lect­ors in the U.S., Europe and the Far East.

The com­pil­a­tion cov­ers the fi­nal four years of the artist’s tu­mul­tu­ous life, which ended at age 37 with a fatal and likely self-in­flic­ted gun­shot wound. The ex­amples date as early as 1886, when Van Gogh ar­rived in Par­is and, with con­tem­por­ary av­ant-garde im­pres­sion­ists as an in­flu­ence, he began ex­pand­ing his palette with bright, ex­plos­ive col­ors and “mod­ern­iz­ing his brush strokes,” Rishel said.

“It’s all cre­ated with­in a very short span of time, 1886 and ’87. It’s all kind of sim­ul­tan­eous,” Rishel said. “You see him ex­per­i­ment with col­or burst­ing at the seams.”

It was dur­ing this time that the artist pro­duced his icon­ic Sun­flowers series, along with oth­er flower ar­range­ments such as Fritil­lar­ies in a Cop­per Vase. Yet, he also took his fo­cus out­doors, con­trast­ing the close-ups with dis­tant, yet equally de­tailed and col­or­ful land­scapes.

Yet, des­pite his artist­ic rev­el­a­tions, Van Gogh be­came equally defined by his per­son­al struggles. Con­flicts with his young­er broth­er and de facto care­taker, Theodor­us, along with poor health led Vin­cent in early 1888 to the French coun­tryside, where he took up res­id­ence in the town of Arles and hoped to found an artists’ colony.

Al­though he re­mained pro­lif­ic as ever and his work garnered the in­creas­ing at­ten­tions of his more-es­tab­lished con­tem­por­ar­ies, not­ably French­man Paul Gauguin, the colony nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized. Gauguin stayed with Van Gogh for a time late in 1888 un­til the lat­ter sliced off a por­tion of his left ear with a razor blade in a fit of anxi­ety over their friend­ship.

The fol­low­ing spring, Van Gogh ad­mit­ted him­self in­to the asylum at nearby Saint-R&ea­cute;my. There, he painted ir­ises, dan­deli­ons and gar­dens with even great­er vi­brancy and de­tail.

“There is no ho­ri­zon line. The fo­cus is en­tirely on the (sub­ject). It’s something that at the time no oth­er artist would have done,” Kienle said.

Van Gogh drew upon his long­stand­ing ap­pre­ci­ation for Ja­pan­ese wood­cut print-makers and their sub­limely fo­cused and philo­soph­ic­al treat­ment of the nat­ur­al world.

“They really had it all down,” Kienle said. “They really knew how to rep­res­ent nature. It’s a ‘single blade of grass.’ That’s what really draws at­ten­tion.”

Rishel noted that this meth­od would’ve al­lowed Van Gogh to block out dis­rupt­ive forces in his work and his emo­tion­al well-be­ing.

“Fo­cus al­lows him to re­set his bound­ar­ies. It’s like tun­ing in­to one chan­nel,” Rishel said.

However, this men­tal­ity presen­ted a double-edged sword. It also would’ve es­cal­ated the artist’s in­tro­spec­tion and isol­a­tion.

“It’s like tight­en­ing the lid on the bottle,” Rishel said.

“In the last years, he’s tre­mend­ously pro­duct­ive. You’re get­ting this great com­plex geni­us at work here.”

Van Gogh left the asylum in May 1890 and re­turned to Par­is, liv­ing in the nearby com­munity of Auvers to be near his broth­er and phys­i­cian.

He died two months later, but even in his fi­nal weeks worked at an alarm­ing rate, pro­du­cing dozens of paint­ings, in­clud­ing many on wide “double square” canvases, in­clud­ing Un­der­growth with Two Fig­ures, which Kienle con­siders her fa­vor­ite of the ex­hib­i­tion. ••

For in­form­a­tion about Van Gogh Up Close, vis­it www.phil­amu­ or call 215-763-8100.

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