Van Gogh. I colori della vita

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 - 11 April 2021

exhibition curated by
Marco Goldin

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 – 11 April 2021

The painter as a hero
First section

In the summer of 1888, after painting the memorable series of wheat fields in the plains of La Crau and around Montmajour Abbey near Arles, Vincent van Gogh produced a small work entitled The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. Preserved in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, this small painting was destroyed during allied bombing of Magdeburg at the end of World War II. Van Gogh himself can be seen in the painting, walking in the sunshine on his way to his daily work in the countryside. The road is dashed with blobs of color and the wayfarer’s shadow is cast threateningly on the road, like the head of a hawk clutching its prey. The blue of his clothes is a little darker than the light blue sky, while he has set himself exactly midway between two trees, drawn Japanese-like within the vastness of the same sky.

He carries his easel on his back, palette and paints in his right hand, and a canvas under his left arm, together with a very thin stick. Beneath his wide-brimmed straw hat as yellow as wheat, his eyes flash, their blue fading into the greenery.

The exhibition starts from here. From this painting, which is invisible because it can literally no longer be seen. There are many ways to start a journey, and especially to start this new journey with Van Gogh. As many ways as he has shown us. Infinite journeys. But this is arguably the most sulfurous, mysterious and iridescent in all its nuances. This continually feverish and alarmed encounter with destiny. The journey of this painter, the journey of Vincent van Gogh, is the journey of a hero. The painter as a hero, who has a task, a mission to accomplish and sacrifices everything to it.

It was to this kind of painter, this modern hero, that Francis Bacon turned when he decided to paint some wonderful canvases, inspired by the image that lived on after the painting had been destroyed during the bombing of Magdeburg.

In the 1950s a great painter thus dialogued with a heroic painter who had been dead for well over half a century. He wanted to pay homage to him, because he had always idolized the Dutchman who met with a terrible end on French soil, amongst wheat fields. Pay him homage as one does to one's hero, but in this case everyone’s hero, as individual experience becomes the experience of a multitude. Bacon thus began to conceive some images and explored their meaning and truth with his typical fascination that made his portraits so unique: they even seem to render a person’s breathing, his or her heartbeat, its rhythm.

Bacon wished to portray Vincent as a wayfarer on an endless journey, exploiting the cinematic angle that made the figure stand out as a silhouette almost scorched onto the road by the Provence sun. The sun that ineffably underscores the role of the shadow. So much so that black was a much more crucial element in Bacon's canvases than the shadow in Van Gogh's painting.

Finally, after furious, intense weeks of work in March 1957, Francis Bacon exhibited some paintings dedicated to Van Gogh in the Hanover Gallery in London. They started from the Tarascon painting, which he had seen in a 1945 monograph published by Phaidon. The series of Studies for a Portrait of Van Gogh was an uncertain, seismic, intense focus on a figure crossing the space of the painting as if he were crossing the space of the world. Belonging both to life and death, time before and time afterwards. There was in those paintings the sense of a direction, the opening up toward the roads of the universe.

That’s how Bacon painted Van Gogh. As someone setting out but who never left. Someone still traveling after a long journey. And perhaps his journey led him into the possible interstice between breath and suspension of breath, between solid and void.

That’s how Bacon painted Van Gogh. And that is why the exhibition has the unusual starting point of three of his paintings dedicated to Vincent van Gogh, displayed in the first room. The painter as hero, the artist who foretells the future despite his apparent failure. And loads up the world on his shoulders.