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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark

Vincent Van Gogh - A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889 oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
Here's what's obvious: You must not miss Van Gogh and Nature at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which ends its exclusive run there on Sept. 13. Simply put, you will never get another chance to see such a breathtaking collection of this artist's work - gathered from all over the world - together again. Ever.

Here's what may be less obvious: The title of the show, and its claim to being “the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s abiding exploration of nature in all its forms” are off the mark. Take, for example, the brilliant painting reproduced above. The sky and mountains are not wrought by human intervention, however personally interpreted by the painter, and the wind ruffling the many plants below that sky is all natural. But what about those plants, and that landscape they inhabit? This is not by any means a natural place. It is dominated by a cultivated wheatfield, cypresses, and olive trees that were, I'm fairly certain, planted by people, in a place that was most likely clear cut centuries before Vincent laid eyes on it. Is this nature?

Giant Peacock Moth, 1889
Chalk with pen and brush and ink on paper
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Elsewhere in the exhibition, text and images do support the intriguing and meaningful notion that Van Gogh was keenly interested in and moved by natural phenomena, particularly plants and insects. It could be argued that his deeply felt and vividly expressed responses to the world around him, including forces of weather and geology, are the wellspring of his genius and his popularity. But much of what Van Gogh observed so sensitively and depicted so richly (even in this selection) was culture - agriculture most particularly, as well as architecture, industry, religion, and other human inventions.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
oil on canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
And the power of his work, the legacy that keeps the crowds coming to blockbusters such as this one, is as much about human nature - in the form of the psychology of the sensitive, spiritual, suffering artist - as it is about anything else. Frequently overheard throughout my visit to the exhibition were comments related to Van Gogh's psychological states: his anger, his ecstacy, his mental illness, his tragic suicide at 37. Many of the finest paintings in this show were made while Van Gogh was living in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, where he had placed himself voluntarily; in one late letter, referring to a painting that depicts a landscape in the rain (shown at the bottom of this review), he wrote, “before such nature I feel powerless.” Not to belabor a point, but the painting also depicts a dense little village across its middle.

The exhibition is also about history - Vincent's personal history, tidily summed up in wall texts that guide visitors through sections devoted to key locations and periods in the artist's career (Holland 1881-85; Paris 1886-88; Provence 1888-90; and Auvers 1890), and the history of his influences, with excellent examples of other artists' work, including a lovely Monet from the Clark's collection, works by Millet, and woodblock prints by Hiroshige (all considered major influences on Van Gogh).

Undergrowth, 1887 oil on canvas Centraal Museum, Utrecht
What many people will learn for the first time here is the stunning fact that Van Gogh's entire career as an artist spanned barely 10 years, only five of which were spent painting. He is (rightly) revered as a towering figure of modern art (Impressionism was the first modern movement), yet he was very young, and still rapidly developing, when he died. The chief benefit of the "nature" thesis presented at The Clark is that it caused a good number of minor works to be included - drawings, sketches, early paintings, and experiments - which demonstrate how incompletely formed this artist was even a year or two before the final burst of creative intensity that cemented his importance.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Who knew that Van Gogh tried pointillism, or made bumbling botanical illustrations, or was, early on, apparently rather intimidated by color? That he struggled for years before finding his own mode of expression puts him on equal footing with all unsuccessful artists - that he actually found his mode and then realized it fully enough in the brief time before his death to leave a lasting legacy is an astounding achievement. Nature caused Vincent to do this, and its overwhelming forces cost him both his sanity and his life. What he accomplished along the way is one of the most valuable slices of human culture to be found anywhere. The Clark show offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to soak up a huge chunk of it. Go and revel.

Rain–Auvers, 1890 oil on canvas
Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Whistler's Mother

The Clark is also showcasing one of the most famous American paintings of all time, through Sept. 27. Popularly known as "Whistler's Mother," James McNeill Whistler's monumental  Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) normally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but it is here on loan as part of a reciprocal arrangement from a recent European tour of some of The Clark's French masterpieces.

We recognize Whistler's own masterpiece from the countless reproductions, parodies, and ads that have borrowed the dour central figure, which experts have said is only incidentally part of this modern composition. The Clark has provided well thought-out accompaniment in the form of numerous fine lithos and etchings, as well as several examples of the painting's many pop-cultural takeoffs. Grab the trolley or take a stroll up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to enjoy the view and peruse the painting's "musical notions of harmony and balance."

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1
(Portrait of the Artist's Mother) 
1871 oil on canvas Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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