Cover image of the review

Van Gogh and the Seasons

13 May 2017
28 Apr - 9 Jul 2017

There are many extraordinary works of art to be seen in Van Gogh and the Seasons and yet certain aspects of the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition are disappointing. Individual paintings that stand out as masterpieces of modern art are shown side by side with frankly insignificant and minor pieces. In addition, several of the works that visitors might reasonably have expected to encounter including those depicting sunflowers and the artist's self-portraits are—with one exception—not present. A far worse drawback, however, is the ill-conceived audio-visual presentation to which viewers are subjected before entering the exhibition space.

Vincent van Gogh, The green vineyard, 2–3 October 1888 Arles, oil on canvas, 72 x 92 cm © Kröller-Müller Museum

A work from October 1888 painted near Arles, one of the first works the viewer encounters in the exhibition proper, is titled The Green Vineyard. The palpable presence of the pigment applied by the artist in thick, stubby strokes to represent grapevines is the most prominent element of the composition. At the same time the lighter greyish areas near the bottom of the canvas suggest a world of empty space opening at the viewer's feet. By comparison the sky above the crisp horizon line in the distance has been solidified into a woolly mass composed of squiggles of intense blue paint. In such works, we witness the artist's continuing reliance upon 17th- century Dutch landscape paintings, his unique interpretation of French impressionism, and the daring compositional strategies he borrowed from 19th-century Japanese prints with their shocking collisions between near and far. The human figures—never the artist's strong suit—are almost lost in the dizzying morass of texture and the see-sawing effect of space created in the juxtapositions of sky, horizon, and foreground. Such figures remind us moreover that the artist, who never properly mastered the art of drawing, produced many pedestrian depictions of labourers of which there are far too many in the Melbourne exhibition. No doubt it is interesting to discover more about works for which the artist is relatively less famous, and thereby put his later, far more important paintings into context, but many of the early works are dull and uninspired.

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