Palazzo Bonaparte in Rome hosts the year’s biggest and most eagerly awaited exhibition dedicated to the genius of Van Gogh, on the eve of the 170th anniversary of his birth. The State Museum of Otterlo in the Netherlands is lending 50 exceptional works such as the famous Self-Portrait (oil on cardboard, 32.8×24 cm) painted in 1887. The show runs until 26 March 2023.
If it is possible to trace the life of a man through what he has left for posterity, it is definitely worth doing so when it comes to Vincent Van Gogh. This exhibition tells us about the artist’s life through his most famous works. The exhibition is produced by Arthemisia and curated by Maria Teresa Benedetti and Francesca Villanti, with the patronage of the Lazio Region, the Comune di Roma – Assessorato alla Cultura and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Through 50 works from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo – home to one of the largest holdings of Van Gogh works – and an abundance of biographical testimony, the Rome exhibition reconstructs his human and artistic story in order to celebrate his universal greatness. The chronologically organized exhibition itinerary makes reference to the periods and places where the painter lived: from the Netherlands to his stay in Paris, then Arles, and on to St. Remy and Auvers-Sur Oise, where he put an end to his tortured life.
Born in the Netherlands on 30 March 1853, Vincent Van Gogh was an artist of extreme sensitivity who led a tortured life. His bouts of madness are famous, as are his long stays at the Saint Paul psychiatric hospital in Provence, the episode of the severed ear, and the epilogue of his life, which came to an end on 29 July 1890 with his suicide – a pistol shot to his chest in the fields of Auvers – at only 39 years of age.
In spite of a life permeated with tragedy, Van Gogh painted a disturbing series of masterworks, accompanying them with sublime writings (his famous “Letters” to his brother Theo Van Gogh) and inventing a unique style that made him the most renowned painter in the history of art.
His impassioned relationship with the dark landscapes of his youth and the sacred study of working the land generated figures acting in the grimness of everyday life, like the sower, potato pickers, weavers, woodcutters, women engaged in housework or carrying heavy sacks of coal, or digging the earth, with attitudes of awkward sweetness, expressive faces, and toil understood as inescapable destiny.
All these are an expression of the greatness of Van Gogh’s world, and its intense relationship with the truth. Particular emphasis is given to the period of his Paris stay, when Van Gogh devoted himself to a careful exploration of colour in the wake of the Impressionists, and a new freedom in choosing subjects as he conquered a more immediate and chromatically vibrant language.
His interest in human physiognomy also grew, becoming a determining factor also in his production of a numerous series of self-portraits, pointing to his wish to leave a mark of himself, and to his conviction of having acquired, in his technical experience, a fertility quite greater than in the past.
The 1887 self-portrait with a blue background and touches of green, on view in the exhibition, is from this period. In it, the artist’s image stands out in three-quarter profile, his penetrating gaze towards the viewer showing an unusual pride not always evident in Van Gogh’s complex output. His rapid brushstrokes and stretches of paint laid one alongside the other betray his ability to have a frighteningly complex, tumultuous idea of himself pierce through the image.
The immersion in southern light and warmth starting in 1887 generated even larger openings towards chromatic excesses, and chromatism and strength of his line are reflected in his rendering of nature – hence the return of the image of The Sower done in Arles in June 1888, with which Gogh signalled that something could be added to that expressive sphere only through a metaphysical use of colour.
The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy (1889), then, takes on the appearance of an intricate tumult, while the steep slope of a Ravine (1889) seems to swallow up all hope, and the depiction of a Sorrowing Old Man (1890) becomes an image of fatal desperation.
The generous loan by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo allows an important selection of works to be offered, documenting the entire artistic path travelled by Van Gogh. Introducing visitors to the emotional and intimate journey amid the artist’s masterpieces, significant paintings by other artists bear witness to the richness of a collection built lovingly by Helene Kröller Müller, who devoted much of her life to creating the Museum.
Between 1907 and 1938, Kröller-Müller assembled a collection without equal in Europe, which comprised paintings by Picasso, Gris, Mondrian, Signac, Seurat, Redon, Cranach, Gauguin, Renoir, Latour, and of course Van Gogh. It was she before anyone else who appreciated the work by the Dutch painter, to whom she felt bound, recognizing in his art her own personal and non-dogmatic spirituality.
Helene Kröller-Müller showed the Van Gogh paintings in Europe and the United States, thereby increasing not only the artist’s fame, but also that of her own collection, laying the groundwork for convincing the Dutch government to contribute to the museum’s construction. Works began in 1937, and the Museum opened the following year, with Helene serving as director.
This opening section displays some masterpieces from the collection, including Portrait of a Young Woman (The Madrilenian) by Picasso, In the Café by August Renoir, and Atiti by Paul Gauguin. From here, visitors enter into the heart of the exhibition, which follows a chronological order and makes reference to the periods and places where the painter lived: from the Netherlands to his stay in Paris, then Arles, and on to St. Remy and Auvers-Sur-Oise, where he put an end to his tortured life.
Section 1 – Helene Kröller-Müller
Helene Kröller-Müller entrusted to art the task of ferrying society towards the future, while expanding the artworks’ world beyond the concept of beauty. If art is tasked with leading us to tomorrow, the artist becomes the mediator between two worlds, giving voice to feelings yet to be felt and offering the world his or her vision of the future through aesthetic experience.
More than anyone else, Van Gogh was able to take Helene beyond the safety of the present; the epic story encased within the suffering humanity that he depicted crossed the boundaries of time. The desperate realism that emerged from the artist’s canvases comforted Helene, who saw in the Dutch painter the same torment that pervaded her. Vincent, however, did not hide that torment but accentuated it, intensified it, and exposed the suffering. Helene came to understand the meaning of revolutionary modernity in the violent transcription of reality contained in Vincent’s works. Van Gogh’s quest for the absolute disoriented and fascinated her; in the paintings, she perceived the same restlessness she felt in her own soul, which found peace and consolation thanks to the therapeutic value of painting, the door to another universe.
Helene fervently wished to satisfy the intimate, profound need to leave the mark of her passage on the Earth, and understood the value of the contribution she could make, by promoting change through the creation of a large collection of modern artworks. She purchased her first Van Gogh painting in 1908; three others followed in the months thereafter, and then more and more – until she had put together one of the world’s most important collections of the Dutch painter’s works, second only to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Section 2 – The Dutch period
Van Gogh’s artistic activity took place in the brief span of years between 1881 and 1890. Dominated initially by drawing enlivened with strokes of colour, it was soon to be enriched with the use of oil employed in dark tones capable of creating a surprisingly rich climate beyond any literal meaning, for what may be termed a spiritualized realism.
He had an overriding love for the land and for the activity of human beings engaged in hard work always illuminated by a spiritual attitude and a religiosity that sacralized the humility of daily toil. Vincent looked with interest at the works of the French Barbizon painters, taking particular inspiration from Jean François Millet and Charles François Dubigny. What is so striking and effective is his realism not without rawness, enlightened by his love for the poor figures in a world of peasants, weavers, woodsmen, and women toiling in the fields and in their housework.
One breathes a climate that has remained intact, uncorroded by any type of social or worldly evolution, bound to a sense of duty that has the strength of making toil epic, noble, and necessary. Van Gogh felt he belonged to a world that lives in sod huts, that devoutly prays, with the awareness of living the totality of an experience always worth being lived. We follow him as he moves from Etten to The Hague, Drenthe, and Nuenen, always searching for live witness to a world that for him has an absolute value made incarnate in his figures.
Section 3 – Paris
In late February 1886, Van Gogh decided to relocate to Paris, sensing the need to take on a world about which, albeit indirectly, significant news was arriving. He found himself at the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition, dominated by the young figures of Seurat, Signac, and Gauguin. He penetrated intensely into the new debate, in which the Impressionist experience mutated into a language with scientific assumptions, based upon the juxtaposition of pure colours and upon synthetic drawing.
This new way of understanding nature denoted adherence to an Impressionist and freely Neo Impressionist language, with the palette welcoming the brightness of colour. Thus won over, the painter identified a host of possibilities for expression – something that can also be seen in the fine still lifes dominated by rich juxtapositions of colour, especially when the artist was painting flowers deploying a rare ostentation.
During his brief stay in Paris, Vincent absorbed the city’s lively artistic climate, forging bonds with artists like Émile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Loius Anquetin. He defined himself and his friends as the artists of the “Petit Boulevard,” while reserving the appellation of artists of the “Grand Boulevard” for the major figures of Impressionism like Monet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro. For him, Gauguin, whom he met immediately upon the latter’s return from Martinique, embodied an ideal image of a vagabond, of a world traveller alien to any precise destination.
Section 4 – Arles (February 1888 – May 1889)
In an 18 August 1888 letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “It’s just that I find that what I learned in Paris is fading, and that I’m returning to my ideas that came to me in the country before I knew the Impressionists. […] Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.” In the blinding southern light, colours took on another dimension. The lesson of Paris was no longer determinant. Vincent resumed dreaming of the symphonies of colours that could be associated with musical tones. All drawn spatiality was eliminated, and shapes were placed into the softness of coming together and flowing with no rigour, but with great gentleness. Space was created by colour, and one senses a new freedom. Since his arrival, the painter exploited the suggestions of that land, seeking to renew himself and to pour a dynamic climate of youth into his paintings. He compared his stay in Provence to Delacroix’s in North Africa, when the latter, too, was in pursuit of light and colour.
He recalled how Monet and Signac visited the regions of the Mediterranean, and how Cézanne had established his final residence in Aix-en-Provence. The geography of associations extended all the way to Japan, a place immersed in the golden age, the age of innocence. In describing the countryside, he wished to express sensations of cheerfulness and joy, with the profound hope of making paintings that were always full of light. Although Van Gogh descended into the abyss, he was capable of rising from it suddenly and with vehemence.
His study of colour was always associated with its interiorization, with a transformation of the technical datum into other meanings. This took the painter increasingly farther from Impressionism, which was connected to the prevalence of the optic experience, while his passion for Delacroix, Millet, and Corot remained. Through colour, he amplified the meanings of reality, even in his depiction of the human figure.
Section 5 – Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Auvers-sur-Oise (maggio 1889 – luglio 1890)
In Saint-Rémy, the artist wished to return to a simpler use of colour. He compared refraining from drinking to his abandonment of chromatic generosity, aiming for a greater lucidity. His faith in the therapeutic power of moderate colours proved unjustified. His first bout with madness at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum struck him in mid-July, while he was painting in the fields on a windy day.
After the first month during which he was not granted permission to leave the confines of the hospital, he finally ventured outside its walls and returned to the fields. On tranquil days, when the tempests in his mind were calmed, he was even perfectly capable of self-analysis. He was surrounded by his works, done just before his attacks or during his period of recovery.
He believed these works reflected the highs and lows of his moods – and above all that it might have been the artistic creations themselves that had triggered the madness. He wondered whether his changed language was in some way linked to his unstable mental condition. The hidden dangers preceding his fall lay in a nature now incapable of granting gentleness. Working from life was not his only commitment. On 23 October 1889, after he received a new series of reproductions by Millet from his brother, his open-air painting was joined by the copying exercise that he believed was essential as an artistic experience, in addition to being a pleasant, comforting activity.
During the final three months spent in Auvers-sur-Oise, he devoted himself to a large number of works: he painted people close to him, but also the occasional model; he produced landscapes and still lifes. As for portraiture, he stated he wished to explore it from a modern perspective.
The exhibition is supported by its main sponsor Acea, sponsor Generali Valore Cultura, special partner Ricola, mobility partner Atac and Frecciarossa Treno Ufficiale, media partner Urban Vision and is recommended by Sky Arte.
Location: Palazzo Bonaparte, Rome. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Contacts: www.mostrepalazzobonaparte.it