Van Gogh and the Seasons Exhibition – National Gallery of Victoria

On the way home from uni at the end of May after teaching my last class for the semester, I saw a large advertisement on the train for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria: Van Gogh and the Seasons. Naturally I immediately photographed it so I could make stupid puns about it on social media with my friends:

But since I’ve been playing with my paints more recently and experimenting with Impressionism myself, I thought it might actually be interesting to see the exhibition. It would also mark the first time I’d been to an art gallery in about 15 years; the last time was when I was dragged along on a school excursion to look at a bunch of abstract contemporary art, which didn’t appeal to me at all (not just because I don’t care for the art style but at that stage of my life, I wasn’t making a lot of art anyway). I was looking forward to being able to wander around and take in the art at my own pace, rather than being hurried along past all the paintings I really wanted to look at. So as soon as I had a day free between exam marking and writing my thesis, I headed into the city to the National Gallery of Victoria.

As you enter the exhibition, there’s a video playing on the big screens, footage of various landscapes during the seasons providing a visually appealing backdrop to the narration by David Stratton. Also included are letters and comments from Van Gogh, read by David Wenham. Much of the information in here is freely available online and in books but it was a nice addition to the exhibition for those who might have been less familiar with aspects of Van Gogh’s personal life. There are also some tablets set up where visitors can scroll through an interactive timeline of the artist’s life accompanied by sketches and photographs.

The first main room has a number of prints and engravings by other artists that were owned by and/or inspired Van Gogh, including some beautiful prints by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige. I hadn’t seen much work in this style before now so I found the almost illustrative style of these landscapes and figures particularly beautiful. Once I’d spent time perusing these prints, I moved on into the main section of the exhibition where Van Gogh’s works were displayed. Throughout the exhibition are sections of text displayed on the walls, providing more details about specific paintings or series of paintings as well as the artist in general.

Unsurprisingly, many of Van Gogh’s most famous works – such as The Starry Night, Irises, Cafe Terrace at Night, Vase with Sunflowers – are absent from this exhibition; given their value, I’d imagine whichever museum or private collector owns them would be reluctant to let them out of their sight. Some of the paintings that were on show at the NGV included Still Life with a Basket of Apples and Two Pumpkins, one of his Self Portraits from 1887, River Bank in Springtime, and Avenue of Poplars in Autumn. Some of my favourites included The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow (1985) for its muted, misty qualities and bleak atmosphere, and Bowl with Peonies and Roses because of its loosely textured background and flower petals. The paintings are all arranged by season – as the title of the exhibition would suggest – and together they convey Van Gogh’s fascination with the way nature’s cycles influence and parallel our own lives.

Though it’s easy enough to look at photos of paintings online, it’s just not the same as being able to see the art in person. When you look at a painting on a computer monitor, you don’t see the textures, the rich brush strokes, the subtle blends of colour within each area of the painting. Some that I particularly loved were Orchard in Blossom, The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital and Flowering Meadow with Trees and Dandelions, where the short, sharp strokes created an almost illustrative style. The Green Vineyard also drew me to it with its brightly coloured, thickly applied paint; so much paint has been slathered on that the foliage look almost three dimensional, and areas of the sky look like they were blended with the artist’s fingers rather than with a brush.

As I left the exhibition, I couldn’t resist picking up a few souvenirs featuring some of the key works, The Wheat Field with Cypresses and View of Saintes-Maries.

Apparently Van Gogh is one of the fastest-selling exhibitions in Australia, with 150,000 visitors coming to the NGV in a little over a month. If you have any interest in Impressionism, it’s worth going along to the Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition. It provides an interesting look into the Dutch artist’s life and it’s a rare opportunity to get a close look at paintings by one of history’s most renowned artists.

The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria runs from April 28 to July 9, 2017.

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