By Paul Gessell
Has there ever been a more intoxicating painting created by a madman in an asylum?
We speak, of course, of Vincent Van Gogh’s Iris, created in 1889 shortly after the Dutch artist and his self-mutilated right ear entered the French Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Remy in Provence for a year-long stay.
The painting appears to have been sketched initially as Van Gogh was down on his knees, seeing the blooming iris plant from the same height a toddler or small animal would see it. The very posture he had to assume to paint Iris must have marked him, at least by other artists of the day, as somewhat loopy.
The iris plant grew wild in the parkland around the asylum. Indeed, there is something frenzied and untamed about this iris plant, with its long pointed leaves reaching up in a dozen different angles and its bluish-purple blossoms ragged and fragile.
Iris is owned by the National Gallery of Canada and it is a painting that can truthfully be said to be the beating heart of the newly opened summer-long exhibition there titled Van Gogh: Up Close. The main curators of the show, Cornelia Homburg and Anabelle Kienle, used Iris as leverage to borrow 46 other Van Goghs from around the world; most have never before been seen in Canada.
That’s the way the art world works. That’s how the gallery managed to organize the splendid Gustav Klimt exhibition in 2001, by telling other museums and collectors that they simply had to loan their works to stand alongside Ottawa’s magnificent portrait of a wickedly dangerous and very pregnant woman, Hope I.
Van Gogh: Up Close opened this winter at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and now fills the National Gallery for the important tourist-laden summer period. And the tourists should come, considering Van Gogh is one of the most beloved artists in the Western World (and Japan, too) and this particular exhibition provides a new take on the artist’s oeuvre: His love of painting flowers, tufts of grass, wheat sheaves, and other objects in extreme close-up from a vantage point right on the ground.
The exhibition covers Van Gogh’s so-called French period, from 1886 to 1890. He was also rather unhinged this time, even more so than usual in his very troubled life.
Initially, we see bouquets of flowers, painted in a fairly conservative, traditional style. But soon the artist becomes more daring, isolating small objects such as a bowl of fruit or an old pair of boots floating in a background entirely created by short, fierce brushstrokes of surprising colours.
And the brightness and combination of the colours are surprising. I have had a copy of the exhibition catalogue since January and have returned to it time and time again to view Van Gogh’s work. Still, I was unprepared for Van Gogh’s startling use of colour in the backgrounds of such paintings as Sunflowers or A Pair of Boots. Photography simply can not do Van Gogh justice. The paintings must be seen to be believed.
Van Gogh: Up Close officially launches May 25 at the National Gallery and runs until Sept. 3. For information visit www.gallery.ca.