Saturday, June 02, 2012

Time to Van Gogh

As I mentioned a few days ago the big "blockbuster" exhibition at the National Gallery for this summer is Van Gogh: Up Close - the first major showing of a collection of the Dutch post-impressionists paintings in Canada for 25 years.  The first time I saw a real Van Gogh would have been in the late 1950s - if my fading memory serves me right.   I vaguely remember lining up to shuffle - and in some case be shoved - passed some of his more famous works at the old AGO.  I do recall a flash of brilliant yellow and orange sunflowers until someone barked at me that "others wanna see the pictures too you know!" or at least that was the gist of the remark.  Ah the sophistication of Toronto in the 1950s.

The opening night of the current exhibition dragged that memory out of the fog of time as we joined the crowds gathering around the 40 paintings that have been culled from private and public collections from around the world.  It was difficult to appreciate the stated purpose of the exhibition to give us an "up close" view of his development - the volume of people meant you were either at a distance or really really close up.  I'll hold off on giving an opinion on it after a second - hopefully less crowded - visit in the next month or two.

Painted in Paris early in 1887 this is one of a series of canvases capturing the worn
footwear of a labourer.  The Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Fine Art  

But as so often happens I found that as lovely as the Iris and the Almond Blossom paintings are I was captivated by a still life Van Gogh completed in 1887 of a pair of old shoes.  Shoes were the subject of at least seven of his oils between 1886 and 1888.  Not the shoes of the ladies and gentleman of the salons but the worn, scuffed and oft mended shoes of labourers and workmen.  There have been lectures, dissertations and the odd thesis written about the meaning of these works.  Is Van Gogh using them as a metaphor for the wearing artistic road he has chosen?  Do the shoes symbolize the rough existence of the painter in an unappreciative world?  Or are they just a pair of shoes? Simply just another subject for a still-life?  What ever it is I found it one of the more interesting paintings in the exhibition.

Van Gogh purchased a number of woodcut prints in the dockyards at Antwerp and began to paint
copies of several of them including this one of The Plum Garden in Kameido.  I have to say that
I prefer the Hiroshige original(left) to the Van Gogh copy. I find he has turned something
that was light and has life into a dark, flat and ponderous vision.

100 Famous Views of Edo
Evening Shower at Atake
and the Great Bridge
Hiroshige - 1856-1856
Now I may just be being perverse but on first viewing I enjoyed two other related exhibits more than the major one.   With the opening of trade from Japan Ukiyo-e had begun to appear on the European scene at the time and Van Gogh had purchased a series of the stylized woodblock paintings that were to influence many of his works.  I had forgotten that the Royal Ontario Museum has an extensive collection of these pieces; thirty of them were on loan to the Gallery as illustrations of the style and their impact on the painter.  The majority of them were by the renowned and much revered 18th century artist Hiroshige - Van Gogh painted copies of several of the Japanese master's works.  My own feeling was that though it did accomplish its stated purpose - to illustrate their influence on Van Gogh  - this small exhibition was of such quality and interest that it could have stood very well on its own.

One of the thirty five small landscapes that Augustin Hirschvogel etched between 1545 and 1549.  This small jewel
is only 5.4 by 15.5 cms (2.126" by 6.102") but is filled with details that bring the scene to life.
Perhaps a little more obscure in purpose was a collection of graphics - etchings, pen and ink - from the National Gallery's own collection.  Many of the pieces on display are squirrelled  away in the archives of the Gallery - there just isn't enough space - and aren't often on display.  A lady beside mentioned that they can be viewed by arrangement with the gallery - which is perhaps a project for the future????  There were three in particular that immediately attracted me and that I must admit I spent more time in front of than anything else at the exhibition.   First and foremost was a small landscape by Augustin Hirschvogel - a tiny perfect view of a small town.  Hirschvogel was a member of the Danube School and is best known for a series of small landscapes he etched between 1545 and 1549.  I was fascinated by the detail that he achieved in a medium which he had only taken up in the last decade of his life.

Kolbe's The Cow in the Reeds is typical of his work - the vegetation takes on
gigantic proportions and dominates the scene almost overwhelming the resting cow.  Perhaps given all that
greenery the cow has decided she would be foolish to leave such abundant grazing.
Beside the Hirschvogel was a lovely study of St Jerome and the Lion amongst Ruins from the same period.  I haven't been able to track down anything about it either on the Gallery's website or through Google.  I will have to make another visit to find out more about it.  From a later period (1801) was an etching by Karl Wilhelm Kolbe, a German artist who seemed to have a bit of an obsession with cows.  A quick search revealed that his studies of various flora seemed to have cows as their fauna on more than one occasion.  I found The Cow in the Reeds which he did somewhere between 1800 and 1803 a delight.  It took a bit to find the cow but she is definitely there and seem quite quite contented.

During a bit of a hiatus in my work life at the beginning of July - more about that another time - I'll try and get back to the Gallery for a second more leisurely look.  But in the meantime I'm gearing up for the possibility of more Van Gogh's when I spend a few days in Amsterdam next week  - and more about that later.

02 June - 1846: Birth of the Italian Republic: In a referendum, Italians vote to turn Italy from a monarchy into a Republic.

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yvette said...

In Amsterdam there are brilliant showcases with his letters and drawings to his parents and brother, I wish I could see these again. There are also some poems he composed at one point and it is heartbreaking, linked to a girl he painted. I will be reading you ...(I only had a day there, I should go back. I looked for his edited correspondance with all the sketchings, it is rather expensive though..)

Debra She Who Seeks said...

We visited the Ukiyo-e Museum in Japan when we were there in April. I loved all the Hiroshige and Hokusai prints in particular -- so wonderful! I'll do a post about that visit eventually.


I have an art book on a museum in Amsterdamn

Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.