The new exhibition “Van Gogh Up Close” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is not about exploring the Dutch artist’s tumultuous life. It’s a look at the way he painted his surroundings and reinterpreted the familiar in his own style and vision. Van Gogh had a short and prolific career, all his work was created in ten years.
This major show opens a door to one of his most dramatic series of paintings during Van Gogh’s final years when he focused on nature and explored the intricacies of flowers, trees and landscapes.
In a letter van Gogh sent to his brother, he says, “What I wanted to paint was the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat,” explained curator Cornelia Homburg.
Homburg has spent the past 25 years studying van Gogh’s work and the cultural and historic context of his life.
“When he came to Paris in 1886, he started to change the way he represented nature. He was like a photographer, zooming in on objects, making a very strange selective use of grasses and flowers,” said Homburg. “Very unusual compositions showing the landscape where one part was very close while the rest receded towards the distance.”
The exhibition is a relatively small, intense show consisting of 43 paintings and 27 prints and photographs. It’s designed to invite audiences to look again at paintings that have become so familiar. “Looking with a fresh point of view is to get rid of extra baggage and discarding that and realizing there’s miles to go,” said exhibition curator Joe Rishel.
Take van Gogh’s famous sunflowers in a vase, for instance. It’s the first painting you see in the show.
“We put it next to another thing, two cut drying sunflower pods thrown to the ground, crushed — I’m getting very dramatic here — but it’s such an emotional thing as he zooms right in,” said Rishel.
Woven throughout the show is the presence of van Gogh’s mental illness, his epileptic seizures and the time he spent in an asylum. He defied his demons by capturing the natural world around him. In fact, van Gogh’s obsessive fascination with nature is credited for fueling his most groundbreaking work that redirected the course of modern painting.
Rishel says van Gogh was acutely aware of the art world around him.
“He wasn’t all gloomy and withdrawn,” said Rishel. “Thus it’s as if the brass section gets up in Beethoven’s Ninth, it’s the most joyous, celebratory painting of the 19th century, practically,” added Rischel of van Gogh’s painting “Almond Blossom.”
Rischel points to “Almond Blossom” as an iconic painting strongly influenced by Japanese art. In it, branches of a blooming almond tree are viewed from below, supported by an intensely blue sky. A joyful painting to celebrate the birth of his first nephew. One of his last paintings.