The Philadelphia Museum of Art Explores "Van Gogh Up Close"

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artwork: Vincent Willem van Gogh - "Sunflowers", 1887 - Oil on canvas - 43.2 x 61 cm. - Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in "Van Gogh Up Close" from February 1st until May 6th 2012.


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.- The Philadelphia Museum of Art is proud to be the only U.S. venue for A major traveling exhibition of work by Vincent van Gogh. “Van Gogh Up Close” will be on view at the museum from February 1st through May 6th. “I … am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his sister, Wilhemina, in July of 1889. An artist of exceptional intensity, not only in his use of color and exuberant application of paint but also in his personal life, van Gogh was powerfully and passionately drawn to nature. From 1886, when van Gogh left Antwerp for Paris, to 1890 when he ended his own life in Auvers, van Gogh’s feverish artistic experimentation and zeal for the natural world propelled him to radically refashion his still lifes and landscapes. With an ardent desire to engage the viewer with the strength of the emotions he experienced before nature, van Gogh radically altered and at times even abandoned traditional pictorial strategies in order to create still lifes and landscapes the likes of which had never before been seen.

Van Gogh Up Close, a major exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada, presents a group of the artist’s most daring and innovative works that broke with the past and dramatically altered the course of modern painting. Made between 1886 and 1890 in Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers, the works in the exhibition concentrate on an important and previously overlooked aspect of van Gogh’s work: “close-ups” that bring familiar subjects such as landscape elements, still lifes, and flowers into the extreme foreground of the composition or focus on them in ways that are entirely unexpected and without precedent. The exhibition includes more than 40 landscapes and still lifes, which have not been seen together or identified before as critical to our understanding of van Gogh’s artistic achievement.

artwork: Vincent Willem van Gogh - "Undergrowth with Two Figures", 1890 - Oil on canvas - 49.5 x 99.7 cm. Collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 6th.

Van Gogh Up Close, including major loans from museums and private collections in Europe, North America, and Japan, will be seen in the United States only in Philadelphia before traveling to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, its only Canadian venue, in the summer of 2012. After unsuccessfully pursuing careers as an art dealer, teacher, and pastor, Vincent van Gogh (1853 –1890), prompted by his brother Theo, began to study art in 1880. In the Netherlands in 1885, he completed his first major works using a palette of browns, greens, grays, and blacks. A year later, his work underwent a striking shift when, arriving in Paris, he was confronted for the first time by the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and by the new pointillist works of Georges Seurat and others. These progressive artists inspired him to lighten his palette and modernize his brushstroke. At roughly the same time, van Gogh began to collect Japanese woodblock prints, fascinated by their vibrant color, high horizon lines, tilting perspectives, and truncated or unusually cropped edges. These influences encouraged van Gogh to experiment with a radical treatment of field and space, flattening and compressing the picture plane in his paintings in order to create a sense of shifting perspective and tension.

Working initially in the apartment he shared with Theo in Montmartre, van Gogh painted a series of still lifes of flowers and fruit such as Still Life with Pears (1888, Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden) and Sunflowers (1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art). In these works, objects are often seen from above yet are placed very close to the picture plane in a tightly cropped space which provides no clues to their context or setting. Pieces of fruit appear to tip forward and threaten to roll out of the picture. Van Gogh’s landscapes such as Undergrowth (1887, Centraal Museum, Utrecht) stress the abundance of grasses and flowers by cropping out the horizon. By the spring of 1888, troubled by intense personal anxieties, van Gogh sought refuge from city life and moved to Arles in the south of France. There he hoped to emulate Japanese artists, working in close communion with nature and studying “a single blade of grass” in order to better comprehend nature as a whole. Landscapes such as Field with Flowers Near Arles (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) reflect a Japanese influence in their high horizon lines and bold colors. Here van Gogh began to adopt a more structured, deliberate treatment of his subjects.

artwork: Vincent Willem van Gogh - "Almond Blossom", 1890 - Oil on canvas 73.5 x 92 cm. - Collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in "Van Gogh Up Close" from February 1st until May 6th.

The open compositions that van Gogh created in Arles gave way to a series of landscapes painted in Saint-Rémy, where van Gogh had committed himself to an asylum late in 1888 after his break with Gauguin, and continued in Auvers outside Paris, where van Gogh ultimately took his life in 1890. In these densely packed compositions, the artist evoked the immediacy and closeness of his surroundings as he continued to develop an intimate, close up focus. The exhibition culminates in an audacious series of still lifes which were painted outdoors and take as their subject an extremely close view of a clump of iris, an upward gaze through a tangle of almond branches, or the vibrant patterning of a Death’s-head moth. In these works van Gogh closes in on his subject, dramatically reducing the depth of field and maximizing the expressive impact of his brushwork and color.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the largest art museums in the United States, showcasing more than 2,000 years of exceptional human creativity in masterpieces of painting, sculpture, works on paper, decorative arts and architectural settings from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. The Museum began as a legacy of the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876, held in Fairmount Park. At the conclusion of the celebrations, Memorial Hall–which had been constructed as the Exhibition’s art gallery– remained open as a Museum of Art and Industry “for the improvement and enjoyment of the people of the Commonwealth”. In the first few decades, the collections consisted of objects of an industrial nature, as well as fine and decorative art objects such as European ceramics. Books were also among the Museum’s earliest acquisitions, as were antique furniture, enamels, carved ivories, jewelry, metalwork, glass, pottery, porcelain, textiles, and paintings. In the early 1900s, the Museum published its first collection handbook and initiated an Education program for the general public. It wasn’t long before a Membership program was in place, and plans for a new building gained momentum in the following decade. Director Fiske Kimball set the tone for a new era in the 1920s, and the opening of the new building on Fairmount–what is now the Main Building–opened with an attendance record of one million visitors in its first year. Valiant marketing efforts and the skillful leadership of President J. Stogdell Stokes helped to keep the Museum vital during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while the 1940s witnessed extraordinary growth in the collections with a number of important gifts–including the John D. McIlhenny Collection and the George Grey Barnard Collection. Acquisitions of the 1950s, such as the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection and the A.E. Gallation Collection, assured the Museum’s prominence as a place in which to see masterpieces of early modern art.

artwork: Vincent Willem van Gogh - "Road Menders at Saint Remy", 1889 - Oil on canvas - 73.4 x 91.8 cm. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 6th.

A number of period rooms were opened to the public as well, and the decade even saw the gift of Grace Kelly’s wedding dress following her royal 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Conservation of objects and the renovation of the building were themes of the 1960s, with major gifts including The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr. Collection, The Samuel S. White III and Vera White Collection, 71 objects from designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic Étant donnés. Renovation was a continued theme in the 1970s, as the institution prepared for grand celebrations in honor of the Museum’s Centennial and the nation’s Bicentennial. The 1980s witnessed still more growth, with acquisitions ranging from Edgar Degas’s After the Bath to Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. During the 1990s, the Museum made great technological strides as it prepared to leap into the 21st century. The Museum transitioned into the new millennium with ease, and continued to navigate the changes that the first decade would bring with grace and strength. Now, with an astonishing history behind it, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is poised to meet the decades to come as one of the nation’s foremost destinations in which to see world-class art. Visit the museum’s website at … http://www.philamuseum.org