Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Van Gogh. The Last Landscapes. Auvers-sur-Oise

Van Gogh. The Last Landscapes. Auvers-sur-Oise

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Vincent Van Gogh, Bank of the Oise at Auvers, The Detroit Insitute of Arts, Legacy of Robert H Tannahill.

MADRID, SPAIN.-On 20 May 1890, Vincent Van Gogh got off the train in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village an hour from Paris. A week before, he had left the asylum in Saint-Rémy after a year spent there as a patient. Van Gogh came in search of a tranquil, rural place in which to recover his health and peace of mind. He hoped to begin a new life and a new phase of work as a painter. Just two months later, however, on 27 July, in the fields near the château of Auvers, he shot himself with a revolver and died two days later after great suffering in the early morning of 29 July.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid presents the first exhibition to be devoted entirely to the works executed by Van Gogh in the last three months of his life spent in Auvers. This was a very brief but extraordinarily creative period, and during these last weeks of his life, Van Gogh also became more conscious of his artistic debt to his predecessors. The exhibition is sponsored by Banco Caixa Geral and Fidelidade Mundial.

Van Gogh. The Last Landscapes, promoted with the collaboration of Consorcio Turístico de Madrid, brings together 29 works (26 paintings and 3 drawings) lent from museums and private collections world-wide. It also includes 6 paintings by Van Gogh’s great predecessors - Daubigny, Pissarro and Cézanne - who had painted in Auvers before him and whose presence the artist felt in its landscape. All the works by Van Gogh in the exhibition belong to his Auvers period and they include one of the Museum’s own masterpieces: “Les Vessenots” in Auvers.

The Auvers period: In a period of only 70 days, Van Gogh produced around 72 paintings, 33 drawings and a print. It was as if the artist was aware that his days were numbered and that little time remained to him. He got up at five in the morning and spent all day painting in the fields or in the village streets. In a letter, he wrote: “These days I work a lot and quickly; in doing so I try to express the desperately fast passing of things in modern life”. This frenetic rhythm was at times expressed in a bold and rapid manner of execution, but we also find remarkably serene works of this date. It has always been acknowledged that the Auvers period resulted in a number of masterpieces but overall these months have sometimes been seen to mark a decline in Van Gogh’s work. Up to now, little attempt has been made to compare its particular characteristics with those of other phases in the artist’s career.

After his time in Provence, Auvers represented for Van Gogh a return to the landscape of the north, to which he had devoted so much thought. In Auvers he rediscovered the rural subjects and life of his youth, which he had lost when he left Neunen. By thinking about the Dutch fields he also rediscovered the gaze of the great 17th-century Dutch landscape painters whom Van Gogh had always profoundly admired.

Stylistically, the Auvers period did not mark a break with the previous one, but the artist’s style was clearly evolving. The roots of Van Gogh’s style continued to be his training as a draughtsman during his Dutch phase of 1880-1882. The entire graphic repertoire which he developed since that time, specifically his vocabulary of dots, long and short strokes, either broken or undulating and first tried out with pen, would subsequently be translated onto canvas; drawing with colour is the key feature of all his late work. In Auvers, Van Gogh focused less on naturalistic details and his strokes became more numerous and twisting, producing arabesques in the trees and houses, waves in the cornfields and curving movements and rhythms of enormous dynamic vitality.

From Saint-Rémy to París: Between February and April 1890, Van Gogh suffered the longest of his mental crises in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de Provence. Following his recovery, he was convinced that he should not remain there as he felt that the treatment was not helping his state of mind and that living with other mentally ill patients was increasing his own problems. After a last conversation with Dr Peyron, the asylum’s director, he was given permission to leave. On 16 May Van Gogh took the train to Paris, despite the doubts of his brother Theo, who was anxious about the risks of a lengthy journey alone. Van Gogh only spent three days in Paris in his brother’s house, during which time he met Theo’s wife Johanna and their son, the young Vincent Willem. Johanna left an account of those days in which she noted that she was surprised by Van Gogh’s appearance as he seemed strong and healthy rather than sick and wasted. The artist would go out every day to buy olives and insisted that his brother and sister-in-law eat them with him. He made contact with various artist friends and visited exhibitions. The short time spent with his family was a peaceful, untroubled one and Saint-Rémy was not mentioned.

For Van Gogh, however, the most important element of those three days in Paris was the chance to see all his paintings together in Theo’s apartment and in Père Tanguy’s shop. In his letters Van Gogh had always maintained that to judge a single work by an artist it was necessary to know his entire oeuvre. Now, thanks to the improvised exhibition in his brother’s apartment, Van Gogh could gain the first overall impression of his entire output. As a result, the work produced in Auvers was a sort of recapitulation, an epilogue to his entire career. Van Gogh did not move forward blindly; for the first time he knew where he came from and where he was heading.

Auvers-sur-Oise and the Tradition of Landscape: Theo had spent three months looking for a place for his brother to live, preferably a peaceful, rural spot not too far from Paris where he could lead an independent life but under the watchful gaze of a trustworthy person. Camille Pissarro declined to be responsible for Van Gogh but suggested the name of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a doctor and amateur artist and an old friend of some of the Impressionist painters including Pissarro himself, Cézanne and Guillaumin. Gachet saw patients in Paris three times a week but lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, about thirty kilometres to the north-west of the capital.

Auvers has remained remarkably unspoiled over the years, despite the presence of numerous tourists, particularly Japanese ones, who come to visit the room in which the artist lived and died, his tomb next to that of his brother and the locations that appear in his last works. The rather sprawling village extends about eight kilometres along the bank of the river Oise, nestling in its course. Above the slopes of the small valley, however, is a flat plain with a spreading landscape of extensive cornfields.

At the time when Van Gogh knew it, Auvers had around 2,000 inhabitants (3,000 in summer) and was a rural village of farmers and livestock keepers with their own small-holdings. Auvers had one distinctive feature, however: since the mid-19th century it had attracted some of the great landscape painters including Daubigny, Pissarro and Cézanne. Daubigny, the leading name of the Barbizon school and a friend and forerunner of the Impressionists, built a studio-boat to travel along the Oise and paint on its banks. Around 1860 he purchased a house in Auvers and often received his artist friends from Paris, including Corot, Daumier, Dupré, Harpignies, Jacques and Berthe Morisot. In 1866 Pissarro moved to Pontoise, very close to Auvers, where he would spend lengthy periods of time over the following sixteen years. It was Pissarro who convinced Cézanne also to move to this area. Cézanne lived in Auvers between 1872 and 1874, painting dozens of landscapes of the area around Dr Gachet’s house at one end of the village.

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