Van Gogh and the Seasons

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Given that Nature was perhaps Van Gogh’s greatest preoccupation and constant inspiration, it is astonishing that his personal sense of connection to the seasons has never been the focus of an exhibition

-Dr Sophie Matthiesson, Curator, International Art, NGV

More than 24,000 people visited this years NGV Winter Masterpieces collection in the first 5 days. Though Vincent Van Gogh only began to see recognition of his work in the later years of his short life, today he draws a crowd wherever he is shown, Van Gogh and the Seasons has been no different. With almost 50 pieces by the artist this is the biggest exhibition to be shown in Australia.

I visited the exhibit on a weekday to avoid crowds and listen to my Vincent playlist in peace (link below).

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The exhibition is an exploration of Van Gogh’s relationship with the seasons. It opens into a dark room playing an introductory video of nature footage, with David Stratton narrating (fun to see him doing something that isn’t an advert for a cruise), and David Wenham voicing Van Gogh. Based off Van Gogh’s letters to his brother and confidant Theo, the video outlines the premise of the exhibition, and it’s oh so persistent theme.

From this point, you move through a hall that is papered in similar nature images but cast in a grey monotone. This (perhaps unfortunately,) foreshadows the curation of the rest of the show. I shudder to think of this narrow hall on a busy Saturday afternoon. Many an ‘excuse me’ and awkward shove is needed, if you don’t feel like a snail’s pace blow by blow of Van Gogh’s education.

Before Van Gogh’s work there is a showcase of  some of the artist’s inspirations. Firstly with prints that he had collected throughout his teenage years and later had covered the walls of his studio with. It was cool to imagine, a teenage Vincent ripping these prints from magazines. The messily torn edges lets you imagine the actual man’s adolescent hands tearing the pages out with hurried impatience.

Sadly the following space, composed of Japanese influences is made up entirely of the NGV’s personal collection, actual prints from Van Gogh’s collection, remaining in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Standing in this room, you can glimpse the bright colours of one of Van Gogh’s later works through a veil-like partition. These dividers are throughout the exhibition and make it so you can always glimpse the next season approaching. Nice symbolism guys.

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Van Gogh’s work is divided into the four seasons (cue the Vivaldi), Autumn through Winter, rather than a more traditional chronological display. It is interesting to be viewing the paintings out of any real natural order of the artists development and periods, instead breaking the works up in a weird and jarring way. Earlier works of peasant culture in a muted traditional palette are broken up with the later bright colours of Post-Impressionism that Van Gogh embraced in his final years. I wonder if the rooms were divided into periods, and each wall a season if it would have felt less disjointed. Also the grey walls that were constant throughout somewhat drowned out any sense of the seasons in a heavy fog.

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In parts it felt as though a want to fit Van Gogh’s work into a particular interpretation functioned at the expense of the impact of particular works.

I was especially captured by the pieces that were painted during Van Gogh’s stays in asylums, and those that followed shortly thereafter. I’m probably being dramatic, but the grey and black of the walls and partitions really cast a heaviness of depression over the pieces. It was constantly at the brim, seeping into the edges of the canvases.

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The exhibition was launched with surrounding events like lectures and forums, which in part have aimed to reimagine mainstream interpretations of Van Gogh’s life. Again, this feels like an odd attempt to make fresh an artist who will not soon feel stale.

The exhibition all together is of course worth seeing. It’s hard to say when we will next be able to see these works in Australia.

The work of Vincent Van Gogh is universally awe-inspiring, but this exhibition fails to fully deliver on what we expect when thinking of Vincent, the emotions behind his work rather than high conceptual ideas of the seasons.

Let’s amend this by watching this clip from Doctor Who on repeat.

Be sure catch it because the exhibition ends earlier than typical Winter Masterpieces.

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9 thoughts on “Van Gogh and the Seasons

  1. It’s refreshing to read a review that’s not all light and rainbows, especially when it comes to blockbuster shows of the great masters. Your review has already piqued my interest in the works that Van Gogh painted when he was institutionalised and I’ll be looking forward to David Stratton’s commentary as well. I’m not a Doctor Who fan, but the video you’ve included is perfect to remind us that artists are often overlooked during their own lifetime and that art, the kind that lasts, resonates deeply with the viewer.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I was looking forward to seeing this exhibition. I visited the Van Gogh museum in the Netherlands twice, it moved me so much. The thick brushstrokes and the muted colours of the scenes he created left a huge mark on me the first time I saw his work up close. Sorry to hear that this failed to deliver. These big events often do. I prefer to focus on the emotion of his work, so I will head there during a quiet period to absorb it. I may even drag my mum along.

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  3. Great review. I like your balanced approach on the pros and cons of the exhibition. Like most painters that have stood the test of time, I only know their most popular works, and in this case, the beguiling ‘The Starry Night’. His use of colours has an otherworldly effect on me. I’ll be sure to pay NGV a visit during my mid-year break!

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  4. While this review focused on Van Gogh’s work, what I found most engaging were your tips and tricks for engaging with the gallery space best. Where you saw a flaw, you offered a solution. For example, going on a quiet week day so viewers don’t feel trapped in a crowd, throwing off their experience from the get go.

    Embedding a playlist made especially for the show was a fantastic personal touch. I think playlists curated for particular art exhibitions could be a great idea for a monthly blog post.

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  5. I am fascinated by Van Gogh’s work and life and am very much looking forward to this exhibition. I hope that the lens of the seasons will help me see his work from a fresh perspective, even if as you say it creates a bit of a jarring experience.
    Thanks for the tip about avoiding the worst of the crowds by deciding to go on a week day, I shall certainly be doing the same.

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  6. I’ve been meaning to attend the Van Gogh Exhibition! I’m glad I came across your review; I’ll be sure not to raise my expectations too high. It’s great that you provide a balance of positives and negatives in your review, and I love how you provided a playlist as well. With your recommendation, I’m going to be that person wandering around the floor with headphones on, staring into the Starry Night!

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  7. This isn’t just a review. It’s almost an interactive journey of its own. I especially loved the inclusion of a playlist, (it almost seemed like you’d had it composed for a while, just ready and waiting for a opportunity to be busted out), as the dynamic relationship between visual and audio are oft overlooked.

    I’m also curious at how you put it together, and whether the movement of the list matched the experience of the exhibition as you moved through it. Did it perhaps contribute to the jarred feeling that the seasonal groupings provided? Or did it help to provide a feeling of consistency while the visuals did not?

    Thank you for the even-handed journey through ‘Van Gogh and the Seasons’

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  8. I have been dying to see this exhibition, and although I’m still sure to go, your review makes me feel like i’ve already been! You really paint a picture– pardon the pun, and i’m taking note of that playlist for when I do go. Great use of digital media!

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  9. It’s a shame they did not do Van Gogh’s art justice and that they used pieces from their own collection. Nonetheless, I do feel like this is worth going to and I’m grateful that you’ve pointed these things out before I went.
    I love the playlist! What a wonderful touch to this in-depth review.

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