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Bob Goepfert Reviews "Van Gogh And Nature" At The Clark

Williamstown, Mass.  – He’s known throughout most of the world as Vincent Von Gock but in the United States he’s Vincent Van Gogh.

No matter how you pronounce his name he’s one of the most popular artists of all time.  And at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass, an exhibit of 50 of his painting is on exhibit in a show titled “Van Goght and Nature.”

One of the first works you see at “Van Gogh and Nature” is “Winter Garden,” a pen and brush and ink on paper done in 1884.  In the midst of this somber, dark work is a figure in a black robe.  It might be the symbol of death.

The last painting  “Rain-Auvers,” created in 1890.  It’s a sparse but colorful work with a powerful but peaceful energy.  It was probably the last painting he created as he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound two weeks later. 

“Van Gogh and Nature,” takes you on a 16 year journey that traces Van Gogh’s growth as an aspiring artist to become one of the most revered artists who ever put paint on a canvas.  

The exhibit is a fascinating look a painter whose work evokes a subliminal response that is almost primal in its need for the viewer to understand the working of a mind that is capable of mixing beauty with anguish within so many powerful images.

“Van Gogh and Nature” is offered in six chronological sections – Holland 1881-1885, Paris 1886-1888, Provence 188-1890, Arles February 1888-May 1889, Saint-Remy1889-May 1890, Auvers 1890. Each section is given its own background color to suggest the mood of the work and of the artist during the period.

The linking theme of the exhibit is Van Gogh’s love and obsession with nature. A stated purpose of the exhibit is to focus on “the serious artist, not the mythic ‘tortured painter’ of film and fiction.” To a great extent that goal is accomplished.  The early sections of the exhibit reveal a man struggling to find his artistic vision.  The exhibit wisely offers samplings of work by Monet, Rousseau and Japanese prints to show his influences.

Most of the early pieces show a man who has talent but is not unique.   There are works like “Square Saint-Pierre, Paris” that mimic George Seurat and  “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles” that was certainly influenced by his time spent with the artist Paul Gaugin.

However, in a brilliant move, Van Gogh’s “The Sower” is displayed next to Jean-Francois Millet’s earlier version of “The Sower” and you realize that though subjects and sometimes even styles might be the same, Van Gogh developed his own unique ability to make anything and everything seem new and different.

This idea is supported by seminal works like “Vase with Carnations and Other Flowers” and “Still Life with a Bouquet of Daisies.” They take typical still life subjects and show how Van Gogh established his own vocabulary when dealing with nature.  

Armed with this insight, the most exciting sections of the exhibit happen when the exhibit moves to Arles and Saint-Remy.  There Van Gough expands his vision with works featuring olive gardens, olive groves and olive trees. Most impressive is the barely-controlled energy that explodes off the canvas with the Wheatfield series culminating with ”Cypresses,” a painting that seemingly fights to be restrained by the canvas.  It is breath taking.

Finally it all comes into focus at Auvers where Van Gogh’s genius takes on more introspection without loss of any vitality.   The focal point is “Rain-Auvers, ” a sublime evocative work that suggests Van Gogh was possibly headed for yet another breakthrough within his painting style.

“Rain-Auvers” is one of Van Gogh’s most significant works and is shown near “Wheat Fields with Reaper” and “Green Wheat Fields.”   Taken together they form a mini-course on Van Gogh at the height of his power while institutionalized in Auvers.  With “House at Auvers” and other powerful paintings as an added bonus, this final section of the exhibit is alone worth the trip to the Clark to experience the exhibit.

The exhibit ends with “Rain-Auvers,” but like Van Gogh’s body of work it is only a start.   You have no choice but to re-enter the exhibit and take the journey once more.  Because you know the end, this time work that you might take for granted earlier has new insight and even the minor pieces become significant. 

And isn’t that what great art and great art exhibitions are all about?  Make no mistake, “Van Gogh and Nature” is a great exhibit.

“Van Gogh and Nature” at the Clark Art Institute, 225 South Street, Williamstown, Mass.   Through September 13.  Open Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.   413-458-2303, clarkart.edu

Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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