Saturday, June 12, 1999

Blake Gopnik
Visual Arts Critic,Ottawa

p. C12.

Flower power from the Dutch master

The National Gallery has brought together eight of van Gogh's floral masterpieces. The small, well-curated show offers a big chance to savour the inspired painter.

Gourmand or gourmet, whatever your art appetites, the National Gallery of Canada is catering to them this summer.

Flocking to yesterday's big openings, gourmands were turning left to gorge on a massive feast of prints, paintings, drawings and sculptures by 19th-century genius Honoré Daumier. But more epicurean patrons were hanging right for a delicate collation of just eight fragrant treats cooked up by Vincent van Gogh.

In a couple of the museum's airy, skylit galleries, curators have gathered a choice posy of the Dutchman's famous flower pictures.

The centrepiece is Ottawa's own Iris (1889),painted by van Gogh the year before he died, while shaking off his madness in a sanatorium in the south of France.

It's joined by three very different florals from the Ottawa collection: two potfuls of blooms painted soon after van Gogh's arrival in Paris in 1886, and an earlier ink drawing of a Dutch marsh.

And then there are four late-blooming canvases of irises, roses and flowering fields shipped in from the Metropolitan in New York, the Getty in Los Angeles and the National Galleries in Washington and London.

Altogether as refreshing a bouquet as anyone could ask for — but also more than just a pleasant whiff of summer.

If this show isn't a definitive scholarly exercise in van Goghian botany — famous irises are missing, not to mention all those zillion-dollar sunflowers — it provides an opportunity for a special kind of viewing. Instead of trying to take in room after room of promised masterpieces, and maybe coming away with only blurry mental snapshots of a few, this exhibition, with its eight pictures, gives even the most casual visitor time to try on lots of ways of seeing.

By valuing quality over quantity, the National Gallery's curators have invited Joe Public to look at art the way they do, day after day, as they live and work and struggle with the stuff. There's room here for a museum event to become a real art experience.

With a spread of pictures from summer of 1881 to just months before his death in 1890, you can start by trying to see how they reveal changes in van Gogh's life over that eventful decade.

The early Marsh (rendered while van Gogh was still at home in Holland) is suitably grey and dreary. Little raindrop flicks of inky line, touched up with misty pencil strokes, give a sopping sense of place that must have matched van Gogh's mood: It was his summer of romantic discontent.

Five years later, van Gogh's in Paris, settled in his brother's home, and the Ottawa pictures radiate bourgeois comfort. Vessels plucked from the kitchen hug bouquets of garden flowers. A nearby window makes blossoms glow and vases glint against a coolly dark interior.

And at the end of that decade, the light of southern France comes pouring into van Gogh's pictures. The pink background of the Met's Still Life: Irises glows like southern stucco bathed in squinty summer sunshine. (Impressive in its current faded state, the original effect must have been quite stunning.)

The wall behind Washington's Roses looks positively stroked by sun, with stripes of creamy white floating across a pale-green ground.

The planted irises of the Los Angeles and Ottawa pictures beckon us outside to take a stroll with van Gogh — through the grounds of his insane asylum. Which just goes to show the dangers of following a biographical reading too far. Who would ever guess that all this lighthearted pleasure in the way things look comes from the brush of a painter at war with his demons?

It may be better to go back to the beginning, asking the pictures to tell us about the painter's art while we leave his life behind.

The Marsh is pure Rembrandt — right down to its quill pen and scratchy line. An artist just getting started, van Gogh has sensibly gone back to the greatest local master to learn his trade.

The Parisian bouquets are also eminently Dutch in basic feel and structure, with a touch of French exuberance mixed in. They revel in the surfaces of things, and set out every blossom like a bright gem on dark velvet, just as low-country painters had been doing for centuries. The lively impasto may have thickened a bit from its 17th-century roots, but it's still essentially descriptive: In Ottawa's Bowl with Summer Flowers, one droopy pastel bloom almost falls off the canvas it's so ripe with paint.

In 1886, van Gogh was still new to Paris, and to the Impressionist painters and Japanese prints that eventually transformed his style. By 1890, however, and with a bit of help from Gauguin, he had left the safe past behind to forge a radical future.

In the late florals now up in Ottawa, heavy, decorative borders outline forms in a way that no realist — traditional or Impressionist — would have allowed. (It's a technical device from Japanese printmaking, here translated into paint for aesthetic reasons.) Within these outlines, or flying all around them, dabs of oil sit side by side, barely hiding the blank canvas behind them. Brushstrokes still stick to objects and help define them, but they also break free and spin across the painting to purely expressive ends.

The Ottawa Iris, in particular, becomes an explosion of painted marks flying out from the centre of the canvas, giving an improbable energy to an otherwise stately plant.

This dance from picture to picture, early to late, issue to issue and back again, is what a little show like this allows. As visitors leave Daumier behind, they'll have some serious digestion still ahead. Those who choose to go the floral route will have done their thinking as they look. Van Gogh's Irises: Masterpiece in Focus continues until Sept. 19 at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Call 1-888-541-8888 for tickets and information, or go to the gallery's Web site at

Not such a rosy life

However flowery the pictures Vincent van Gogh turned out in his last years, his life was no bed of roses. Haunted by mental illness, he floated from crisis to crisis, from manic activity to hopeless despair and confusion.

Dec. 23, 1888: In Arles, van Gogh attacks housemate Gauguin with a razor, then mutilates his own left ear and presents part of it to a local prostitute.

January, 1889: Van Gogh is seriously ill in hospital, then recovers and returns to his famous Yellow House. "I mean to enter into my calling as lunatic with as much composure as Degas practises his as a notary."

February: He is intermittently hospitalized for insomnia, hallucinations and paranoid delusions. "As far as I can tell, I am not actually mentally ill. … The pictures I painted between my two attacks are calm and no worse than others I have done."

March: At the insistence of the townspeople, the foux roux (crazy redhead) is hospitalized again. The Yellow House is closed down by police.

May: Van Gogh begins his voluntary one-year stay in a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 20 kilometres from Arles. He is diagnosed with epilepsy, and allowed to paint in the gardens under supervision. "I have a good deal of suffering ahead of me. This is not at all to my taste, because I really do not want a martyr's life."

July: He visits Arles under the care of the head orderly, but then has a relapse and is confined to the asylum for six weeks.

August: After swallowing toxic art supplies during an attack, van Gogh is forbidden to paint for most of the month.

September-December: Receives a rave review in a Dutch periodical, and contributes to important group shows of the Parisian avant-garde. "I am dead set on my work for just this reason, that I know the opportunities of working do not return. …A more serious attack may do permanent damage to my ability to work."

January, 1890: Van Gogh is reviewed for the first time in the French press. He suffers another serious attack of mental illness.

February-April: He makes his first and only sale, and is praised by Pissarro and Monet. He has frequent bouts of mental illness. "What am I to say about these last two months?… I am sadder and more watched than I can say."

May: After a brief visit to Paris, van Gogh is moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, under care of doctor and amateur painter Paul Gachet. Just before leaving Saint-Rémy, he paints Long Grass with Butterflies: "As soon as I got out into the park, all my lucidity for work returned. …The brushstrokes came like clockwork."

June: Van Gogh is declared cured by Dr. Gachet. He paints 80 pictures over the next two months and begins to make etchings on Gachet's press. "It really is remarkable that my nightmares have largely ceased here. I always did tell M. Feyron that I would be rid of them once I returned north."

July: He goes to Paris to visit his brother and friends. Distressed by Theo's domestic troubles and the turmoil of the city, he flees back to Auvers. Despite a troubled month, he paints several major canvases.

July 27: He goes for an evening walk, and returns after shooting himself in the chest. Doctors cannot remove the bullet.

July 29: Van Gogh dies. At the burial the next day, Gachet declares that "He was an honest man and a great artist, and there were only two things for him: humanity and art. Art mattered to him more than anything else, and he will live on in it."

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Created: June 13, 1999
Last modified: January 21, 2001
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