Van Gogh and the Seasons – NGV Melbourne Winter Masterpieces

After finishing the first semester of uni, I finally decided to visit NGV International’s exhibition Van Gogh and the Seasons, as a huge treat. As it was expected, the number of visitors was gigantic that I had to wait in line for 50 minutes to enter the exhibition. And so this time I chose not to take pictures that can potentially distract other visitors from appreciating artworks. Instead, I left my phone in the bag, in the silent mode, and simply immersed myself in the atmosphere produced by artworks.

A wheatfield, with cypresses
A Wheatfield, with cypresses, early September 1889 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 72.1 x 90.9 cm. National Gallery, London. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1923 (NG3861) © The National Gallery, London Photo: The National Gallery, London

This exhibition focused on Van Gogh’s understanding and perspectives on the seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter, and their transitions. It also highlighted the development of the painting techniques from early in his career to the establishment of his own aesthetic qualities.

I was first amazed by his detailed lithographic works. Although the art form is different, his passion in depicting the natural landscape was already prominent in those works. Those prints reflected the incorporation of the depth in the space, which was then contrasted against the frontality and flatness of Japanese Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints and paintings). His collections of ukiyo-e revealed where his use of bold linework, the dynamic composition, and the unique use of colours for tone may have come from. I was aware of the fact that Van Gogh was strongly influenced by the Japonism as I had seen works by Van Gogh directly copied from Utagawa Hiroshige’s works, such as Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige) (1887), so it was great to see some of his collections in the exhibition.

Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige)
Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, 1857) to its copy painted by van Gogh (right, Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), 1887)

His early paintings were characterised by the darkness and the strict, realistic approach. The volume of objects and their materiality are accurately portrayed, using the fine brush strokes. These aspects of Van Gogh’s works may be less known, however, it clearly proves his technical competence in depicting the life in front of him, even before starting to explore his own style.

Still life with apples and pumpkins
Still life with apples and pumpkins. September 1885 Nuenen, oil on canvas, 59.0 x 84.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 102.578) © Kröller-Müller Museum

The later works were peppered with the playful mixtures of colours, manifest contours and thick brush strokes that remind us of Van Gogh. Individual lines got stronger presence than they were in the earlier works, and the eccentric yet calculated juxtaposition of bright colours illuminated the freshness and the innocence of nature.

Tree trunks in the grass late April 1890
Tree trunks in the grass. Late April 1890 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 91.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (KM 100.189) © Kröller-Müller Museum

Unlike exhibitions with his most famous works, this exhibition at NGV distinctly highlighted the transformation of van Gogh as an artist through his passionate engagement in the richness of nature, especially the seasons that never remained the same.

Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet)
Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet), January 1890 Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, 72.1 x 92.0 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) (s0175V1962)

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