Van Gogh

Between Wheat and Sky

Vicenza, Basilica Palladiana


The Exhibition

curated by Marco Goldin

I, too, at times feel very weak, when I work on the dunes or elsewhere: I certainly do not eat my fill. My shoes are all patched up, completely worn out; all that and other small miseries give me lots of wrinkles. Finally, all this would be nothing, Theo, if I could hang onto the idea that everything will in any case turn out well, provided I persevere.

Vincent to Theo, summer 1883

Van Gogh. Between Wheat and Sky, exceptionally presents a very high number of works by the Dutch artist, fortythree paintings and eightysix drawings; with the fundamental contribution of that Van Gogh treasure chest, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland. It precisely reconstructs the entire biographical story, initially placing the accent on the decisive Dutch years that, from autumn 1880 in the mines of Borinage, actually in Belgium, through to autumn 1885 at the end of the fundamental Nuenen period, are a kind of inflamed and continually protracted stigmata. A genuine via crucis in the agony and desperation of living. It will be like going into the laboratory of Van Gogh’s spirit, into that secret place, known only to him, where his images were formed. Often in the sharing of themes, firstly with Jean-François Millet and then with the artists of the so-called Hague School, a kind of Dutch version of the Barbizon School.

And one goes into this laboratory with respect and circumspection, aided by the fundamental letters that Vincent sent, like a genuine diary of his anguished heart, particularly to his brother Theo, but not only. The letters then, day by day, like the pages of a diary, make up the central theme of the exhibition, because through the words one can fully penetrate the tormenting mystery of the beauty of a work that never ceases to fascinate, because it is so closely related to the presentation of a life always on the edge. From the first letters related to his artistic activity, of September 1880, when the first drawings appeared, through to the final one, found in his pocket when he shot himself with a revolver at the end of July ten years later, in Auvers-sur-Oise.

The exhibition, with a completely different approach from the others I have curated on and around Van Gogh over the past fifteen years, initially studies, and in depth, the five years of the artist’s stay in Holland, in Brabante, from Etten in spring 1881 to autumn 1885 in Nuenen. But also the wonderful months spent in autumn 1883 in the Drenthe region, much loved by Dutch landscapists and where Van Gogh produced some sheets of an exquisite elegance. With the harbinger determined, before everything else, by the long period spent in Belgium, from December 1878 to October 1880, in the mining district of Bornage, south-west of Mons, before some months in Brussels.

And after the three months in Antwerp to attend the local Fine Arts Academy, between 1885 and 1886, came the decisive move to France at the start of March 1886, initially to Paris, through to the morning of 19 February 1888 when, as a parting, he visited Seurat’s studio with his brother Theo. To come into direct contact with the Impressionists’ paintings and those of the post-Impressionists, Seurat, precisely, first of all. He had seen his works directly for the first time only a few weeks after his arrival in Paris, when he went through the rooms of the eighth and last of the Impressionist exhibitions in May.

Then, finally, the much desired immersion in the south, first in Arles, from 20 February 1888 to the beginning of May 1889, and then for a year, until mid-May 1890, in Saint-Rémy. Before the few days spent in Paris at his brother Theo’s house, to reach the end of his life with the seventy, feverish days in Auvers-sur-Oise, when everything comes to an end in the horizontal expanses of the fields, stretched under a sunny or rain swollen sky, which it seems will never end. The yellow of the gold of the crops and the blue of the sky. The proximity to and distance from the world. Often in a single, tormented image.

The exhibition, with its particularly large number of works, will focus, apart from the painting, decisively on the drawing. On the other hand it is a unique opportunity, given that the drawings themselves are never exhibited and can be seen only briefly at temporary exhibitions. These sheets are the crucial node for understanding how Van Gogh’s years of development unfolded, in a kind of apprenticeship but in contact only with himself and the sources he found in books and magazines. Starting with Charles Bargue’s Drawing Course, a genuine ABC for Van Gogh. Along with the works he was able to see directly.

An absolutely unique case in the entire history of art, and the exhibition will give an account precisely of the birth and making of a genius. He who only in summer 1880, at the age of twenty-seven, communicated in a letter to his beloved brother Theo, that he had ‘decided to become a painter’. By way of a parabola that was to take him, in a single decade until July 1890, to trace the shortest and most tormented story in the entire history of art. But the short life of an absolute genius. Which the exhibition intends precisely to recount.

In a letter written on 24 September 1880 to Theo, from Cuesmes in Belgium, Vincent immediately shows how important drawing is to him. To identify a world, his world, and make it copyable. To enter into the course of events, to stay inside a story. One would say to not lose the thread of the story; the story that means more than anything:
‘I am still working on Bargue’s drawing course, and I tell myself to finish it before starting anything else, because day by day it exercises and strengthens both my hand and my spirit, and I will never be sufficiently thankful to Mr Tersteeg for having so generously lent it to me. The models are excellent. In the meantime I’m reading a book on anatomy and another on perspective, which Mr T also sent me. This study is very hard and at times these books are fairly difficult, but in any case I think I do well to study it. So you see that I am working relentlessly, but for the moment I have not reached very satisfying results. I hope though that these thorns will bear flowers in their time and that this apparently sterile struggle is none other than a labour of procreation. First pain, then joy.’

And in the midst of the many difficulties of his daily life ( ‘I don’t earn a centime, and although I work hard I will still need time to get to such a level as to be able to think of anything like coming to Paris. Because the truth is, to be able to work as you should, you need at least a hundred francs a month, you can also live on less, but then you’re hard up, far too much. For the moment I don’t see how the thing would be possible, and it is better that I stay here, to work as I can and will be able to, and after all life here is less expensive. But I certainly cannot carry on for long in the little room I’m in now. So I would like to take a small workman’s room, which costs about nine francs a month’), he remains lucid on the opportunities drawing offers him to continue his apprenticeship, which should take him to the centre of the world he wants to reach.

Drawing acted as a grammar for him both of hand and spirit together, a necessary or rather indispensable language for speaking of the things of the heart. In the same fundamental letter of 24 September 1880, just cited, he confides again in Theo: ‘I will never be able to tell you how much, despite the fact that every day new difficulties arise and will continue to arise, I will never be able to tell you how happy I feel to have gone back to drawing. Already for some time this worried me, but I always considered it something by now impossible, and beyond my capabilities. But now, though feeling my weakness and pitiful subjection and many things, I have rediscovered my peace of mind, and my energy comes back to me more and more each day. It is a matter for me of learning to draw well, of mastering the pencil, the charcoal and the brush, and once I have achieved this, I will do good things, it doesn’t matter where.’

The drawings will speak then of this spasmodic tension for truth in art. And the exhibition will start from the study on Charles Bargue’s drawing course, published in 1871. Or else from the copies made from pictures reproduced by some of the magazines Van Gogh assiduously read. From here, immediately, arose his love of Millet and his famous subjects, like that of The Diggers and The Sower. All themes that in subsequent years he was to take up in painting, with canvases that will be seen in the exhibition accompanied precisely by the first drawings, in a kind of vast temporal arc to give the sense, as said, of the novel form in his work.

Twenty-odd paintings will be placed next to these Dutch drawings, all by Van Gogh, from the same years, to allow an understanding of how drawing and painting were closely linked. But this will not be the only cause for interest in this part of the exhibition, because Van Gogh’s works will be accompanied throughout the exhibition by those of the artists of the Hague School in Holland, who were very pertinent to his acquisition of an independent language, especially before nature, and more. The Hague School brought to Holland the new word ‘realism’, which the French Barbizon painters – from Corot to Daubigny, Rousseau and Troyon – had scattered like a seed, with their example, throughout Europe. And Van Gogh, looking directly at their works reproduced in the magazines, and being able to know those of the Hague School painters which had led on their stimuli, built inside the power of the reality represented his own view of the world that was rapidly changing.

The exhibition will then continue after Van Gogh’s Dutch years, and with famous paintings will allow a fundamental, founding aspect to be understood by this project. That is, how those five years of training were an indispensable grammar, of hand and spirit, for igniting the new colour that Van Gogh made vibrate as place of a troubled heart and a lacerated spirit. Perhaps no other painter in the entire history of art of all time has been able to represent in his paintings that genuine sounding of a depth that is expressed in pictures in every way. Whether those pictures be the interiors of Parisian restaurants, the faces of his subjects, the still lifes, a windmill again in Paris, a drawbridge just outside Arles, the olive trees of Provence or the fields of wheat in Auvers. Possibly under the rain. Or in the red of the poppies

So famous paintings from the Paris period will follow one another first, and then especially from the Provencal time between Arles and Saint-Rémy and the last seventy days of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died at the end of July 1890. Nature above all was to be the reference of a world that was not only the theme of the view that looks onto an exterior from himself, but was to increasingly become, until dying of it, the interior of himself. That space filled with colours, visions, dreams, screams and clamour. Of sighs and sobbing breaths, of sudden and so brief kindlings of happiness. That space that only Van Gogh, before and after, was able to paint in this way.

And the meaning of the project will then emerge clearly in the full understanding of a decade that had in the time of his Dutch training its first, and rapidly mature, spell. To show how the birth of a genius took place starting from there, from that charcoal black of the first drawing in the mine and ended - birth become hard and dramatic life - at the edges of the yellow and old gold of a field of wheat. His last letter was found in his pocket, as he pointed a revolver: ‘Well, I risk life in my work and my reason is half gone’, and when our emotion also overflows one grasps, as if to a thread never wishing to lose its end, what has become the recognisable image of him. That which this exhibition aims to show. As a tribute, certainly, but also for the sense of the very human pity for the tormented fragility of a genius.

And with an innovative staging that will link the beauty of so many works to a reconstruction of Van Gogh’s life. This will be rendered in a genuine film lasting an hour, made for the occasion, screened in a continuous cycle in a room at the end of the exhibition itself in the Basilica Palladiana. A moving way to combine the masterpieces of painting and drawing with a screening of the life in a single show. Finally, a reconstruction of the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole home for the mentally ill in Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh decided to be treated from May 1889 to May 1890, can be admired in a big model of about twenty square metres.

Marco Goldin