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 Hero
First section

After having painted the memorable series with the wheat fields on the Crau plain around the abbey of Montmajour near Arles in summer 1888, two of which will be on view in the fourth section of the exhibition, Vincent van Gogh painted a small picture, square but slightly lengthened at the top.
Titled The painter on the road to Tarascon and held in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. That picture was destroyed during an Allied bombardment of Magdeburg at the end of World War II. It shows the painter, Van Gogh himself, walking under the sun on his way to his daily work in the countryside. The path is roughened with patches of colour and the shadow of the wayfarer extends over it threateningly, like the head of a swooping predator. He is dressed in a blue slightly darker than the sky and positioned exactly at the centre of two trees, Japanese in their design within the vastness of that same sky.

He carries the easel on his shoulders, the palette and paints in his right hand and a canvas under his left arm along with a very thin cane. Beneath the wide-brimmed straw hat, yellow like the wheat, his light eyes flash of a blue that fades into green and so blends with nature. Two gemstones glinting in the light. Images almost of an old film in early Technicolor roll by behind the painter. There is wheat still to be cut, blond and still; the green of the grass and further away, still more wheat. Finally the line of the horizon, the red roof of a house and some cypresses of a darker green. The line of the Alpilles is barely visible in a soft distance of light lilac. Those small mountains on the Crau plain that closed off the distant space towards the North, were soon to loom over his life, up against the asylum in Saint-Rémy. Oh, and see the slight breath of a cloud, almost hidden behind the branches of one of the two trees? This was all.

This is where the exhibition starts. From this destroyed and therefore invisible painting.  There are many ways to begin a journey, this new journey with Van Gogh. As many as he indicated. Infinite. But this is perhaps the most sulphurous, mysterious and fluctuating in all its shadings. Always febrile and alarmed in his meeting with fate. The journey of this painter; the journey of Vincent Van Gogh, is the journey of a hero. The painter as hero. He who has a mission to complete and sacrifices everything to do so. I would like this exhibition to speak of the painter as a hero through his works and meetings with fate. I want my words to tell this specific story. The words of a simple – and natural language.

It was to this kind of painter, this modern hero, that Francis Bacon looked when he decided to paint some wonderful canvases, drawing them precisely from the image that remained after the destruction of the painting following the bombing of Magdeburg. So he took that Technicolor reproduction - at the end of 1956 / beginning of 1957 - and pinned it to the wall of his studio with a tack. He pinned it up after having long looked at it, long thought about it. Van Gogh under the Midi sun, on the road to Tarascon, is what Bacon saw. He who in 1951 had painted a first portrait inspired by Van Gogh, now in the Cleveland Museum, after five years during which he had spent some time in the south of France.

A great painter who used to communicate with that hero painter who had been dead for more than half a century. He thought he would pay him homage, because he had always idolised that Dutchman who had ended badly in France, in the midst of the wheat fields. Pay him homage as one does one’s own hero, but the hero of all when the singularity of the experience becomes that of a multitude. He thus began conceiving some images, their meaning, their truth, out of his fascination with creating his idiosyncratic portraits, highlighting even a person’s breath, the throbbing of the heart, the rhythm. It was difficult, so difficult, for Bacon to do portraits - as it had been for Van Gogh - because it was a matter of touching the spirit that a person emanated. In the face, the infinity of time that starts from life.

Bacon desired to represent Vincent as a wayfarer in constant movement, making the most of that cinematographic angle of the images that made the figure emerge as a silhouette almost burnt by the Provencal sun; the sun that highlighted the role of the shadow beyond any words. The black in Bacon’s pictures was a much more fundamental element than the shadow had been in Van Gogh’s painting. His Van Gogh was almost a figure of maudit, a kind of Rimbaud fleeing life and destiny, to find a more authentic place in the world. Belonging and not fleeing.

Finally, after raging and dripping weeks of work, some paintings Francis Bacon had dedicated to Van Gogh were exhibited in the Hanover Gallery, London, in March 1957, in a chaotic and festive atmosphere. They began with the picture the artist had seen in the 1945 monograph published by Phaidon. It was the Studies for a portrait of Van Gogh series, and it was the uncertain, telluric, dripping focusing of a figure that crossed the space of the work as if he were cleaving that of the world. One who belongs to life and also death, to the time of before and that of after. There was the sense of a direction in those paintings, an opening towards the roads of the universe. Bacon painted Van Gogh exactly like this: like one who leaves and has never left, one who still travels after having long travelled. And perhaps his journey took him to the possible space between the breath and the suspension of breathing, between the full and the empty. Until the moment comes to leave the world, perhaps under the sun that burns everything. And he is no longer there and precedes every one of those who pass, those who go.

Bacon painted Van Gogh exactly like this. This is why the exhibition begins with one of his paintings dedicated to Vincent van Gogh. The painter as hero, he who announces the future even in the apparent failure. And loads the world onto his shoulders.