Saturday, 17 November 2012

Van Gogh – Dreaming of Japan – Pinacotheque Museum in Paris

Van Gogh – Dreaming of Japan – Pinacotheque Museum in Paris, 3rd October 2012 to 17th March 2013

The Pinacotheque museum in the heart of the Madeleine district in Paris is hosting a retrospective of the renowned artist Van Gogh. Forty works, mainly landscapes, are on show and are devoted exclusively to this Dutch great master of Post-Impressionism. Moreover, as the title of the show reveals, the exhibition simultaneously depicts the works of the famous Japanese artist, Hiroshige, alongside Van Gogh, and daringly exposes the profound influence he had on the Dutch painter. The importance of Japanese art and philosophy in the Impressionist era becomes the central subject of the exhibition whilst also showing a significant number of Van Gogh’s evocative and stunning paintings – some of which I certainly have never seen before.

Vincent Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853 and his artistic career is marked by his legendary tortured personality and fragile psychology. Whether he was suffering from bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia or some kind of psychological disorder, we see how strongly it affected his view of the world and his artistic output. In comparison Hiroshige conveys a different psychology – one of inner peace, serenity, calm within nature and solidity. We see how the majority of Van Gogh’s landscapes in the exhibition are constructed around a referential system at the centre of which is Hiroshige’s world vision. By almost each Van Gogh painting is placed a corresponding Hiroshige painting and the similarities between the two are marked. Van Gogh discovered Japan in a Parisian prints seller and it had a dramatic effect on him; soon all that corresponded to Japan became a haven for him. In his painting Oliveraie, painted in June 1889, we see hundreds of trees in an olive grove in the South of France. The combination of yellows, greens and blues make for an astoundingly beautiful and luminous picture. The rough beauty of the painting and its emotional intensity is astounding. The corresponding Hiroshige print next to it portrays how closely Van Gogh based this painting on the Japanese artist.

In Van Gogh’s painting Tree Trunks in the grass, one of my favourite paintings in the exhibtion, there is an immensely intense quality to the painting yet all we can see in the picture is tree trunks and flowering grass. The zig zag of the tree trunks and their form and shape are resolent of Japanese art. Van Gogh thus transformed all the paintings he was painting during that part of his life into celebrations of nature based on Japanese principles of form and style. He wanted to find in the South of France a reflection of Japan. In his painting Cyprus and two silhouettes we see how the women look very Japanese and are wearing what looks to be traditional Japanese dress. The swirls of paint and rich colours of the composition combine to create an amazing masterpiece of light, form and colour. In many ways Van Gogh was searching for the inner peace in his paintings that alluded him in real life. The symbiosis of the works and nature, colour and beauty, the trees and the sky combine to create amazing masterpieces.

The number and variety of Van Gogh and Hiroshige’s paintings on show is incredible. The expose becomes a moving testament to the demons in Van Gogh’s soul and his attempt to squash them and create for himself a peaceful and serene life which, sadly, he never ultimately achieved. Perhaps the only problem to be aware of before going to the museum is that there are no english translations of the factual commentaries and no audioguides. If you are not familiar with french this might present a problem to you however the paintings are so beautiful and mesmerising that they merit seeing in their own right.

As always with a Van Gogh exhibition one leaves the show feeling a sense of sadness that such a great artist died so young. He was only 37 when he died after years of mental illness from a self inflicted gun wound. He had far reaching influence on 20th century art.

By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

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