Out of a mental health crisis comes the glow. When Vincent van Gogh locked himself in an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889, he produced a series of paintings evoking Provence through an unexpected motif: olive trees. The Dallas Museum of Art brings this series together for the first time in the groundbreaking exhibition, Van Gogh and the olive groves, now visible through February 6.
The exhibition presents 26 works by 12 international lenders and eight American institutions. As one of the world’s most popular artists, his works have been reproduced in a variety of mediums. “But nothing compares to the special and intimate experience of seeing the actual work of the artist’s hand,” said Agustin Arteaga, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Eugene McDermott.
The exhibition is co-curated by Nicole R. Myers, Acting Chief Curator of the Museum and Barbara Thomas Lemmon, Senior Curator of European Art and Nienke Bakker, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition will be on display at the Van Gogh Museum from March 11 to June 12.
Myers began investigating Van Gogh’s olive grove paintings almost ten years ago. “They had never before been the subject of serious studies, publications or exhibitions. Van Gogh himself considered them to be some of his best works of his stay in the south of France, ”Myers said.
The conservation team initiated a technical study to fully understand this body of work. The aim of the research initiative was to establish the chronological sequence of paintings within the series, to determine which paintings were painted outside or in his studio, and investigate Van Gogh’s use of unstable pigments. “We invited all owners of olive grove paintings to join us in a collaborative technical study of all works in the series, a three-year project led by Kathrin Pilz, curator of paintings at the Van Gogh Museum,” Myers said .
The most intriguing finding of the study was how much the colors of the works changed over time. Van Gogh used the pigment “red lacquer” in his work. The pigment was unstable and faded relatively quickly when exposed to light. Van Gogh might as well have painted with fading ink. “So really, these paintings were so much more colorful when they were painted,” Myers said.
To better understand what the paintings could look like when Van Gogh created them, Laura Eva Hartman, the museum’s curator of paintings, painted a few reconstructions of Van Gogh’s work. “Being Van Gogh isn’t easy, I found out,” Hartman said. “It wasn’t until we put paint on the canvas that it really made sense to see how much Van Gogh used the painting process, how precise his understanding of color theory was. , his absolute mastery of brushwork and the control he had to use to achieve these beautiful and daring paintings.
The research initiative is narrated in an impressive gallery, further exploring Van Gogh’s use of color theory and techniques. It is a fascinating intersection of art and science.
The exhibition presents two of Van Gogh’s motivating concepts. He painted in series as a marketing strategy to attract middle-class collectors and he was drawn to the depiction of the seasons. “For an artist who reveled in the changing colors of the landscape and hunted his subjects from season to season, the appeal of the subject for Van Gogh lay elsewhere,” Myers said.
Capturing the passage of time represented the constant renewal of nature, an eternal cycle of consolation that life continues after death. This cycle is physically embodied by the installation of the series in the exhibition. “If we were to bring the olive grove together, I wanted to present them in a circular space so you could see the seasons unfold in front of you,” Myers said.
The paintings of the summer of 1889 confirm the conclusions of the study. “We know that for the majority of the paintings, now that he started them outside in olive groves, with a few exceptions,” Myers said.
Van Gogh portrayed summer using the Impressionists’ short brush strokes, vivid colors, and whitening the landscape as intense sunlight would. “For him it was the heat of the moment,” Myers said.
Van Gogh experiments with sythnetism, an expressive abstract style that interests Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. Painted in the same vein as his famous The Starry Night, Olive trees, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, presents an olive grove framed by the Alpilles chain and abstract swirling clouds.
“Van Gogh takes inspiration from all of this complex symbolism and pours it into this painting, exaggerating again the different lines with incredible and pulsating energy throughout the landscape to give his ideas on what he felt in front of the motif”, Myers said.
Van Gogh suffered another mental health crisis in July, preventing him from painting for six weeks. On his return to the olive groves in September, he changed his mind about synthetism after seeing Gauguin’s painting of Christ in the Garden of Olives. “He was absolutely shocked the wrong way,” Myers said.
Van Gogh’s autumn olive paintings reflect his renewed dedication to observing the subjects of life. Rather than painting religious figures in a landscape, nature reflects the spiritual. Olivier, dating from November 1889, is dominated by a vibrant sun. “Typically when you see suns in the photo and a yellow sky, it represents the presence of God or Christ in heavenly golden light. So he was using the language of color to convey some of that spiritual or religious meaning in the picture, ”Myers said.
When Van Gogh used figures in his paintings, they were workers working in the harvest. The unnamed men and women represent a continuation of the sacred cycle of nature. “He wanted him to offer us messages of hope and consolation for us modern viewers tired by the stresses of everyday life. It was, he said, the future of modern art: to truly provide the spiritual consolation and renewal that was once offered by traditional religious painting, ”Myers said.
Before leaving Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh created a series of paintings depicting cypresses and the Alpilles, elements he considered to be the quintessence of Provence. The exhibition ends with A walk at dusk, a work bringing together cypresses, Alpilles and olive trees. The painting was completed a few months after Van Gogh’s suicide at the age of 37.
“What’s really poignant and bittersweet about this painting is that you see Van Gogh himself walking with an imaginary companion through the olive grove at dusk,” Myers said. “It is this poignant message of longing and showing his need for spiritual consolation, companionship, love, strength, optimism and courage to come to terms with his difficult health issues and uncertain future with the same kind of grace that he associated with the suffering of Christ in the Garden of Olives.
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