By ROBERTA SMITH Published: February 2, 2012
PHILADELPHIA — Vincent van Gogh was shaken but also calmed by nature. The natural landscape inspired some of his most implacably innovative paintings, roiled of surface, ablaze with color and steeped in feeling. They are blunt, irresistible instruments for seeing. Yet nature — and its tiniest details in particular — also sharpened his visual acuity and soothed and comforted his often unstable personality.
In the catalog to “Van Gogh Up Close,” a succinct, revelatory exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the art historian Anabelle Kienle notes van Gogh’s repeated references in his letters to “a blade of grass,” “a single blade of grass,” “a dusty blade of grass.” He not only thought that something this small and modest was a worthy subject for art — as demonstrated by the spare works of the Japanese artists he so admired — he also invoked it as a kind of centering technique for regaining concentration. Writing to his sister-in-law, he recommended focusing on a blade of grass as a way to calm down after the tumult of reading Shakespeare.
“Van Gogh Up Close” has been organized by Joseph J. Rishel and Jennifer A. Thompson, curators in Philadelphia, working with Ms. Kienle, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and Cornelia Homburg, an independent scholar. It examines van Gogh’s relationship to nature at its most intimate, cutting a narrow path through his achievement, with 45 often small, sometimes seemingly tossed-off paintings. In doing so it manages to lead us to the fullness of his achievement along a fresh and eye-opening route.
The show focuses on van Gogh’s tendency to depict nature in close-up, either in teeming detail or with a highly compressed sense of space, sometimes achieved by high horizon lines and thick brushwork that flatten the image and appear to push the surface of the picture close to the viewer. It includes a cache of unfamiliar works from abroad, some of which are being exhibited in this country for the first time anyone can remember. Stellar among these is a strange wonder titled “Garden in Auvers,” with its patchwork of dotted walkway and heaving, dappled lawn erupting with tangled oval flowerbeds that seem about to toboggan out of the painting and land in our laps.
As might be expected, the show centers almost exclusively on landscapes, aided and abetted by a few still lifes of flowers and fruits. It is devoid of portraits, self-portraits and interiors. There is little indication in the art, the wall texts or the excellent, extravagantly illustrated catalog of van Gogh’s fraught relationship with Paul Gauguin, his bouts of mental illness or the partly sliced-off ear.
Devotees of van Gogh as crazed visionary may be disappointed by this low-key approach, but they may also appreciate having his visionary genius grounded so specifically in tangible experiences of the real world.
The works here span his intensely productive last four years, from his arrival in Paris from Antwerp in early March 1886 to his death in Auvers in July 1890. In three still lifes of flowers painted early in his stay in Paris, he begins to grapple with the heightened colors, brighter light and greater tactility of the Impressionists, which he was seeing for the first time. He remained in Paris almost two years, living with and supported by his devoted art dealer brother, Theo, drinking in art, meeting artists and collecting Japanese prints, with which he decorated his room.
But Paris left van Gogh frazzled and on edge. In February 1888 he headed south to Arles, dreaming of establishing an artists’ colony, but mainly in search of the respite of nature, along with light and color that would enable him to surpass the Impressionists. That he did so is evidenced by the “Sheaves of Wheat,” which reads as a hallucinatory, muscle-bound version of something by Monet, whom van Gogh greatly admired.
The show proceeds thematically — or perhaps more accurately, topographically — in sections with titles like “Blades of Grass,” “High Horizons” and “Tree Trunks and Undergrowth.” In essence we follow van Gogh across different terrains as he explores various viewpoints and angles, most of them low to the ground, or contracts space with dramatic contrasts of near and far, a device he picked up from Japanese prints. A handful of these prints, some identical to ones he owned, are included in the show.
Perhaps most surprising is how mercurial he is stylistically; his paint handling is under continual adjustment. In the “Blades of Grass” section different canvases zoom in on a single iris plant, a wallpaperlike expanse of ears of wheat and clumps of spiky grass overseen by white butterflies. Here his long quick brush strokes come closest to approximating the textures of nature, one stalk, leaf or blade at a time, without ever forfeiting their vitality as paint on canvas. They do something similar, if more ethereally, later in the show, in “Rain,” a painting that is a tour de force of colluding materiality and illusion.
In “High Horizons” paint dominates. Natural textures are translated into a mutating vocabulary of juicy shorthand marks and strokes, sometimes applied one color over another, wet on wet. In works like “Field With Wheat Stacks,” with its house-shaped piles, the act of looking centers on deciphering these shifting textures and tonalities. We see at least a dozen different pale greens, mint greens and yellow greens that are wildly artificial and yet approximate, in their own way, the variety of color in nature. As in many of these works, the forms and surfaces seem more fluid than solid; the paintings resemble sea charts demarcating shifting currents and eddies. Strokes move vertically, horizontally, then diagonally in their march across and up the canvas; they coalesce into regiments of commas or herringbone.
In the section titled “Tree Trunks and Undergrowth” the combination of vertical shafts and spreading horizontal textures is handled in ways both radical and not. In “Undergrowth With Two Figures” there is a mutually energizing tension among the numerous tree trunks, which recede in space, and the fomenting plants below, indicated in yellow brush strokes that remain fairly constant in size and make no concession to distance. In contrast to such abstract push-pull, there is the relative verisimilitude of “Undergrowth,” in which van Gogh looks back to Corot and the Barbizon school with realistic browns and greens, but envelops them in a hazy atmosphere that has an almost Pointillist shimmer.
The presentation has been slightly diminished by the last-minute cancellations of several loans that were compensated for by less relevant paintings. And some of the smaller works here are borderline negligible, little more than oil studies whose slipping, sliding brushwork lacks traction. But even these are revealing. The slithery yellows of “Edge of a Wheat Field With Poppies” and the bleached slope of “Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day” register as attempts to paint not so much what is seen as the process of seeing itself, in light so bright it obscures more than it illuminates.
These paintings convey another aspect of the restless intelligence, always looking, always striving, that permeates and is also given a new sense of order and forthrightness by this marvelous show. Van Gogh knew what he was about and wanted us to also know. “I’d like to paint in such a way that if it comes to it,” he wrote, “everyone who has eyes could understand it.”
Van Gogh Up Close
WHEN AND WHERE Through May 6. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
MORE INFORMATION (215) 763-8100, philamuseum.org.
EATING IN PHILADELPHIA Figs, 2501 Meredith Street, (215) 978-8440; Trio, 2624 Brown Street, (215) 232-8746.