Sydney Morning Herald Column

Van Gogh and the Seasons

Published May 13, 2017
Vincent Van Gogh, A wheatfield with cypresses (1889)

When Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a field near Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890 he was on the verge of a successful career. The tide had turned against Impressionism, which was felt to be too dry and rational in its methods. Up-and-coming critics such as Albert Aurier were championing the role of the imagination, and saw Van Gogh as a “giant” in the making. His actual words, as quoted by Ted Gott in his catalogue essay for Van Gogh and the Seasons at the National Gallery of Victoria, are worth repeating:
“What characterises Van Gogh’s entire art, is excess, excess force, excess nervousness, violence of expression …he is a fanatic …a kind of drunken giant …a terrible and distraught genius …with a touch almost of the pathological.”
It’s hard to imagine how any artist, let alone one as febrile as Van Gogh, might react to such praise. After years of neglect, suddenly a critic calls you a genius – but a terrible, distraught, drunken, pathological one.
This was a sore point for Van Gogh, who had just spent a year in an asylum in St. Remy. He didn’t want people to think of him as a madman, and his art as merely a symptom of a deranged world-view. Van Gogh had dreamt of a community of artists working together in sunny Provence. His dream had come undone after the manic episode in which he mutilated his ear, and saw his friend, Paul Gauguin, retreat to Paris.
Van Gogh saw himself as a realist who painted from first-hand observation. He became irritated when he found out that Gauguin and Emile Bernard had been producing pictures of Jesus, whom they presumably hadn’t seen with their own eyes. (Gauguin found Jesus in the mirror, because his version of the Savior is a self-portrait.)
In his early twenties Van Gogh had been a religious zealot, but during his years in France he abandoned organised religion in favour of a pantheistic relationship with a God who could be found everywhere in the landscape, and in the hearts of human beings.

Vincent Van Gogh, Orchard in blossom (1889)
Vincent Van Gogh, Orchard in blossom (1889)

This attempt to find God in nature is the subject of Van Gogh and the Seasons, a show that contains only a handful of outstanding paintings, notably A wheatfield with cypresses (1889), from the National Gallery in London; Orchard in blossom (1889),from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; and Tree trunks in the grass (1890), from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo – one of the most generous lenders to this show.
Vincent Van Gogh, Tree trunks in the grass (1890)
Vincent Van Gogh, Tree trunks in the grass (1890)

Despite the preponderance of minor pieces the organisers have still managed to create a vivid portrait of the world’s most popular artist. This is due to the ingenuity of Dutch curator, Srjaar van Heugten, who came up with the theme of the show, and did his best to secure relevant works. It’s also thanks to a remarkable piece of exhibition design by the NGV. Before we see anything by Van Gogh we negotiate two preliminary rooms, the first devoted to popular prints the artist collected and admired. This is followed by a room of Japanese prints, which provided Van Gogh with a major source of inspiration.
Finally we arrive at a hang made up of numerous temporary walls, with each of the four seasons separated by mesh curtains. This arrangement allows generous space to even the tiniest works, making viewers pause instead of rushing past the less spectacular items. We begin to feel that everything in the display is capable of providing some unique insight.
It would have been unrealistic to hope for a show of the same magnitude as last year’s Degas exhibition, which set a standard that may never be matched in our lifetimes. Van Gogh is the artist all the world wants to see, and the major pictures are absurdly valuable. In preparing a selection for Australia, van Heugten had to devise an argument that would encourage art museums to part with their treasures.
He took his cue from an American exhibition, Van Gogh and Nature, held at the Clark Institute, Williamstown, in June 2015. Working on that show, he realised he could dig a little deeper into the artist’s responses to the natural world, using a subject that had already been explored by the artists of the Middle Ages, by Breugel and Poussin.
Looking back over Van Gogh’s brief, productive career, one can see he was always attentive to the changing seasons and the symbolism this allowed. He wasn’t simply expressing delight in the summer sunshine of Arles, or finding intimations of mortality in a snowy, winter landscape. For the hypersensitive Van Gogh every season had a deep spiritual meaning.
To understand this we must look back on those years before Van Gogh discovered his artistic vocation when he failed at one job after another. After being sacked from his uncle’s art dealing business, Goupil & Cie, Van Gogh sought to emulate his father and become a preacher. For Vincent this wasn’t a job, it was a sacred calling. His religious fervour grew so intense he became a kind of holy fool, giving away his possessions, sleeping on hard planks, dressing in rags. The Bible was his constant companion. “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” was his motto.
Vincent’s family knew that anything their wayward, tortured son decided to do would be pushed to extremes. He would put people on pedastles then reject them bitterly when they failed to meet his expectations. His letters were full of love and kindness for everyone, but in person he could be rude, egocentric and demanding. He would take the sins of the world on his own shoulders, then become agitated when someone disagreed with one of his eccentric opinions. He sought solitude, but suffered from the most abject loneliness. This bipolar approach even extended to his taste in art. If Van Gogh loved an artist’s work he became an idolator, recognising no hierarchies of established taste.
In Joan E. Greer’s catalogue essay we find Van Gogh saying that he rates Jean-François Millet and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte more highly than Poussin. This was because the two later artists had produced a more realistic picture of peasant life than anything conjured up by Poussin’s idealising classicism. Throughout his life, Van Gogh’s admiration for peasants was unshakable.
Much of Lhermitte’s work feels too sentimental for comfort nowadays, but Millet has a simplicity and grandeur that never palls. Both artists made works on the theme of The Sower, with the same Biblical overtones. Greer notes that Van Gogh left almost 50 paintings and drawings on this theme. In this show we get only one Sower drawing from 1882, of a bearded peasant absorbed in his work.
Vincent Van Gogh, The sower (1882)
Vincent Van Gogh, The sower (1882)

The peasants get a better run in four pictures made in the Dutch town of Nuenen in 1884. They belong to a set of six paintings of rural life, and have been gathered from separate collections. We see peasants planting potatoes, tending sheep, and gathering wood in the snow. The works owe an obvious debt to Millet, but Van Gogh’s rough honesty is already present. We know these scenes are drawn primarily from life, not art.
Most of the paintings and drawings in this show are landscapes and still lifes, charting Van Gogh’s progress from the muted tones of his early work to the fierce colour and vigorous brushwork that made him seem so excessive, even to his admirers. Today we can’t get enough of that colour and energy. One of the most striking scenes is a chilly, pale blue reworking of Millet’s Snow-covered field with a harrow (1890), painted from a print. Van Gogh made a series of copies after artists such as Millet and Delacroix while confined indoors at St. Remy, but they are really reinventions. In the Snow-covered field the composition belongs to Millet, but the colour, the turbulent brushwork and intense feeling are entirely to down to Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh, Snow-covered field with a harrow (1890)
Vincent Van Gogh, Snow-covered field with a harrow (1890)

We don’t need to be persuaded that Van Gogh discerned what van Heugten refers to as “a higher force inherent in the eternal cycle of life”. That sense of a higher force is intrinsic to his mature work. It’s the reason that people who claim to know nothing about art find themselves transfixed by his paintings.
Van Gogh may have overcome his religious fixations, but his paintings contain much of the same substance as the sermons he once delivered as an evangelist. When he painted a peasant sowing his fields, he still thought of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-9), which contains the famous line: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
For much of his life Van Gogh’s paintings might be classed as seeds that had fallen on stony ground, as the Gospel puts it, but he continued to work with the same sincerity, the same worshipful attitude towards that “higher force”, be it God or nature. When he took his life he must have felt that no one was attending to his sermons in paint. He’d be astonished to see how popular those pictures have become, but perhaps might still be wondering if we really get the message.
Van Gogh and the Seasons
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 9 July

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May, 2017