Friday, June 29, 2012

(No.204) Van Gogh: an exhibition of "the least bad I can do"

The Van Gogh Exhibition in Ottawa: "the least bad I can do"

by   Alastair Rickard

To the extent that people have a particular impression of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) it may have been formed or influenced from seeing the 1956 Hollywood movie "Lust For Life" based on American novelist Irving Stone's 1934 potboiler. The movie starred Kirk Douglas as Vincent and was directed by Vincente Minelli. It still turns up on television occasionally.

Van Gogh suffered from mental illness and in 1890 shot himself. His cutting off of his own ear (actually his left earlobe) following an argument with French painter Paul Gaugin certainly caught the imagination of generations to come.

In any case Van Gogh, who declared himself to be an artist only in 1880 at age 27 and just 10 years before his death. was in the opinion of some people as great a writer as he was a painter.

This opinion is based on hundreds of letters he wrote, the bulk of them to his younger brother Theo whose wife, Johanne Bonger, was responsible for their being available in English. A six volume 'complete' compilation of Van Gogh's letters (819 of them, 658 to Theo) was published in 2009. The letters are available to read on line without charge at

Major public art galleries like Canada's National Gallery in Ottawa seek to serve the public as well as attract their attention and support by mounting major special exhibitions, especially during peak tourist seasons. In Ottawa this summer its "Van Gogh Up Close" organized by the National Gallery working with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It runs in Ottawa until Sept 3, 2012."

Anyone attending this Van Gogh exhibition in Ottawa expecting to see famous works like "The Night Cafe, Place Lamartine, Arles" (1888) will not. This exhibition has a tight focus, one that makes it particularly interesting: Van Gogh's works from nature painted during the last four years of his life (1886-90) including the year he spent at an asylum in Saint-Remy.

For some people "Up Close" may imply only a still life here or a bouquet of flowers there or a tuft of grass over there. It is so much more. The exhibition embraces numerous large scale subjects like fields of wheat or rows of plane trees. It also offers a variety of Van Gogh's styles from realistic to impressionistic.

Indeed the exhibition refers to Van Gogh's admiration of the impressionists. He liked Monet's work as a landscape painter and this is reflected in Van Gogh's own "Poppy Field" (1890). This work is in the exhibition.

Within the paintings on display in the Ottawa exhibition the viewer can contrast his paintings such as "The Large Plane Trees (1889, at Saint-Remy) or "Park of the Asylum at Saint-Remy" (1889)  with the more obviously impressionistic influence evident in "Undergrowth with Two Figures" (1890), "Sheaves of Wheat"(1890) or "Garden In Auvers" (1890).

It is an impressive exhibition of Van Gogh's work, the paintings of an artist who many regard as a great painter and some as very nearly a great writer. It is heart-breaking to read of his struggles to come to grips with his art and his life.

"I do not say that my work is good," wrote Van Gogh, "but it's the least bad I can do. All the rest, relations with people, is very secondary, because I have no talent for that. I can't help it."

This exhibition of paintings from the final years of Vincent Van Gogh's short life is powerful and provides a truly rewarding experience. Both one's pleasure and the value of the experience can be enhanced by use of the splendid audio guide to the exhibition. It includes Van Gogh's words as part of the narrative.

Congratulations to the National Gallery of Canada and its partner in this exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The exhibition "Van Gogh Up Close" is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until Sept. 3, 2012.

For information visit


There are several major special art exhibitions on currently in Canada or forthcoming, including:

Toronto:  The Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) visit

                 1. "Picasso Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris"
                     until Aug. 26, 2012 (see the review of this exhibition on, column No
                     197 posted May 7, 2012).

                 2. "Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting" from Oct. 20, 2012 to Jan.20, 2013
                       (75 paintings by the Mexican artists most famous internationally, Frida Kahlo and Diego          

                  3. "Revealing the Renaissance: Art in Early Florence", from March 18,2012 to June 16,
                        2013 (100 paintings,sculptures, stained glass and manuscripts)

Vancouver Art Gallery:  visit

                   "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore", until Sept. 3,
                    2012 (45 paintings, sculptures and drawings from a leading collection of early European

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: visit

                     "A History of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark", from Oct.13, 2012              
                       to Jan. 20, 2012  (74 paintings of French Impressionism from the Clark Art Institute in

Quebec City: Musee National Des beaux-Arts Du Quebec; visit

                       " In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United
                          States", running until Sept. 3, 2012 (179 works from 75 collections)




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