Monday, June 4, 2012

Van Gogh Writ Large

During the years I lived in New York the airfare to France was frequently cheaper than to anywhere in the United States, so Tom and I spent several vacations in Paris  During one we went on a day trip to Giverny and Auvers-sur-Oise  At Giverny we toured Monet’s house and garden; in Auvers we saw the room where Vincent van Gogh stayed, the church he painted, the field where he shot himself, and his grave.  In the garden at Giverny, viewing the green bridge surrounded by flowers and arching over the pond of waterlilies, I could squint and see what Monet had seen.   In Auvers, however, it seemed to me that only Van Gogh could have looked at the humdrum landscape and interpreted it as a magical whirl of color and movement.

Van Gogh’s singular vision of reality has been on unique display at the Arizona Science Center for the last couple of months, and I finally saw the exhibit last weekend.  “Van Gogh Alive: The Experience” was developed by Grande Exhibitions in Australia.  Giant photos of Van Gogh’s works and quotations from his writings (thoughtfully translated into English) are projected on the walls of several rooms to the sounds of classical music carefully chosen to coordinate with the images.  Some of the art is displayed by theme – at various points, one is surrounded by an array of enormous sunflowers, or the progression of Van Gogh’s increasingly abstract and unhappy self-portraits – but it is also in roughly chronological order, ending with his final painting of that desolate field in Auvers.

The projections of course did not accurately reproduce the tactile effect of Van Gogh’s work, with its vigorous brush strokes and frequently thick application of paint, and some of the more abstract works dissolved almost into pointillism when blown up to room size.  On the other hand, this was a fabulous opportunity to experience the evolution of his style, to learn more about his theories of art, and to bathe in the glorious colors he used.  It was also the closest most of us will ever get to some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, now in private hands and rarely accessible to the public.

We stayed through several showings of the program, moving from place to place in order to see all of the pictures.  Overall it was an amazing experience, and I hope that someday Grande Exhibitions will do the same for Monet; the already enormous waterlily paintings in the basement of the Orangerie in Paris, for instance, would look awesome projected all the way around a room.

"Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully." Vincent van Gogh (Letter to Theo van Gogh, 11 August 1888

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