Over the summer I visited Amsterdam and coincided my visit with a trip to the Van Gogh Museum to see their recent exhibition On the Verge of Insanity. The exhibition combines Van Gogh’s works with pieces documenting the development and presence of his illness including the doctor’s note when he cut off his ear, and the supposed gun he shot himself with. One of the most powerful effects of an exhibition is that it presents to you a train of thought to piece the works along and map the connections between a lifetime of art; so here is my run-down of the exhibition.
Reminiscence of Brabant (1890) is heavy on its use of muted colours and with a quick glance greens, blues and purples create the murky mess of clouds which almost swamp the picture. Upon closer inspection the landscape comes to life and the multiple tones of each cloud are framed by waves of ochre and draw your eye to the resting sun. Below the vast sky, two figures take centre stage and yet don’t feel dwarfed by their surroundings. Dashes of salmon pink and red hint towards poppies in the foreground.
Tree Roots (1890) is a nudge to his blue period amongst other cool colours that are brought forward by bold dark lines; this painting shows a clear like for those tones. According to the information square to the side of the piece, this was his last painting before he took the gunshot to his chest that very afternoon. To add to the poignancy is that in a letter to Theo, his brother, a couple of weeks before he said “I usually try to be quite good-humoured, but my life, too, is attacked at the very root” for his words and images to feel so close is saddening.
Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889) is, again, more use of pale colours such as the green sky. Although Van Gogh’s use of colour is emotive in many of his works, I found the green sky to be a perplexing choice – when is the sky ever such a noticeable colour as that? How did he see the world, and in such a way that he felt so confident to pursue this choice? The lifted scythe signals the reaper’s constant action, and the mimicking motion of the wheat in breezy air coheres together. The sky motif appears again in The Sower (1888) with more dark, lime green tones contrasting with pink clouds.
The famous stories surrounding Van Gogh’s ear cutting moment have been thoroughly debated including a documentary on the BBC, The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear, which follows the discovering and examining of the doctor’s note. Additionally, they delve into the possibilities as to why he cut off his ear and who he did it for, with some speculation that it was to physically empathise with a young girl who worked in a brothel but became ill.
Stepping outside of the exhibition and admiring his many self-portraits, I notice a consistent use of a blue background and clothing to contrast his ginger hair where strikes of lighter turquoise add interest and depth. A similar technique is used in portraits with his yellow straw hat. What becomes striking is that portraits over the course of two years differ shockingly to the point where you might ask “is this really the same person depicted in each painting
It’s easy to see the tragedy of Van Gogh’s life being ridden with his mental illness, and even more so when reading his letters to Theo; a line that particularly caught me was “More than ever I have a pent-up fury for work, and I think that this will contribute to curing me”. Yet, with a whole museum dedicated to him and his art displayed in galleries around the world, we know that unfortunately he was never cured. With the recent passing of World Mental Health Day on 10th October, it stands as a reminder that we still have very much to learn and much to discuss on this topic.
The museum has a constant open collection; however, this exhibition ran from 15th July – 25th September. Although, on exhibition currently, until 27th November, is an exploration of how he influenced Fauvists and Expressionists such as Matisse, Kirchner, and Kandinsky. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions/van-gogh-inspires-matisse-kirchner-kandinsky
From the 21st October 2016 to 29th January 2017 is an exhibition looking at Daubigny’s influence on Monet and Van Gogh. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions/daubigny-monet-van-gogh