A handful of digital production companies have produced so-called “immersive” van Gogh exhibitions touring dozens of cities across the United States and around the world. They animate the artist’s paintings onto huge screens with cinematic special effects and musical scores. In their own way, they’re dazzling. Nothing compares, however–and no digital image, no matter how many pixels or how powerful the computer generating it–effectively substitutes for the real thing.
If it weren’t for the magnificence of real thing, if the actual paintings weren’t as dynamic and personal and vibrant, there would be no demand for the spate of “immersive” presentations drawing sellout crowds more than 130 years after van Gogh’s untimely death at age 37. The real thing–24 original van Gogh paintings drawn from public and private collections around the world–can be seen now through February 6, 2022 at the Dallas Museum of Art during its groundbreaking exhibition “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves.”
Here, visitors come within inches of the hand of van Gogh, connecting to the artist through the actual objects he created. These images are what he saw. These are the scenes which inspired him and he felt compelled to share. He touched these canvases. This paint was applied by his brushes out of tubes he purchased and mixed.
“Van Gogh and the Olive Groves” presents an intimate communion with van Gogh, free from a third-party interpreter and the noise and razzle-dazzle of the digital experiences.
The viewer, the paintings and van Gogh.
An overlooked series
Astonishingly, van Gogh’s “Olive Grove” series has never been previously examined via exhibition or catalogue. How an important aspect of the world’s most famous painter’s short career–striking paintings of a little explored subject matter created at the height of his genius which he considered among his greatest achievements–could go unmined defies explanation. Credit for the idea goes to Nicole R. Myers, the DMA’s Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art, who began tinkering with the idea in 2012 as a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, working with its olive grove painting which appears in Dallas show.
Myers would later team up with Nienke Bakker, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, to bring the exhibition to fruition. Following its run in Dallas, “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves” travels to the Van Gogh Museum from March 11 through June 12, 2022.
Beyond the extraordinary feat of bringing the 15 paintings from the series together for the first time–along with other van Gogh and period paintings which help contextualize them–collaborative research between the institutions in possession of the paintings resulted new discoveries about the artist’s palette, techniques and materials, in addition to the timeline of his production, altering long-held assumptions about all.
One of the primary questions was the degree to which the paintings’ colors have changed since their creation. This inquiry was sparked by differences in the painting’s appearances from how van Gogh described them in his numerous, detailed letters. Scientific study found that the organic, “red lake” paint used by the artist at the time has faded dramatically.
“These paintings were so much more colorful when they were first painted and we weren’t expecting that, but I think what’s amazing is that you can look at these paintings today and you would never know that any of them had anything potentially missing from the palette,” Myers said at a press preview introducing the exhibition. “That is such a testament to the strength that Van Gogh has a painter, and to his true talent, that even with some of these color harmonies that he worked so hard to achieve–even with their disappearance or fading–the paintings are still as stunning, dazzling, beautiful, colorful and meaningful to us today.”
Myers asked the Dallas Museum of Art’s painting conservator Laura Hartman to try her hand at recreating a summer palette and fall palette olive grove painting in the style of van Gogh with the hope of capturing a sense for what the original color schemes might have looked like.
“It wasn’t until we put paint to canvas that it really made sense how much control van Gogh was using himself in the painting process, how accurate his understanding of color theory really was, his absolute mastery of brushwork and the shear control that he had to use to accomplish these bold, big, colorful paintings,” Hartman explained at the press event.
The “Olive Grove” series highlights van Gogh’s genius in more ways than technical mastery of paint. The object itself is a challenge.
“There’s no one quintessential shape or color that denotes the olive tree, nor is it stereotypically picturesque,” Myers said. “The leaves have two tones, they constantly shift color in the wind, and they’re also evergreen, so for an artist that reveled in the changing colors of the landscape, and who chased his subjects from season to season, the subject’s appeal for Van Gogh resided someplace else.”
Inspiration and illness
That appeal may have been as obvious as the view out his bedroom window.
All of van Gogh’s “Olive Grove” paintings were created during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. While the artist spent a year there, these paintings were completed in the six months between June and December 1889. For the first month, the artist was not allowed to leave his room, but through the bars on his bedroom window, he could see olive groves just beyond the institution’s walls.
His interest in the subject did predate his self-administered stay at the asylum. Prior to leaving for Saint Rémy, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo about olive trees he had seen in Arles:
“If you could see the olive trees at this time of year… the silver foliage greening up against the blue. And the orangish ploughed soil… it’s a thing of such delicacy–so refined… the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it… it is too beautiful for me to dare to paint it or to be able to form an idea of it.”
Fortunately, van Gogh’s attitude changed when he arrived in Saint Rémy and as soon as he was allowed to leave his room, he began exploring the olive groves.
Then, his demons returned.
“He’s out in the fields when, unfortunately, he had an unexpected return of his mental health crisis,” Myers explains. “He had been feeling better, he’d been feeling optimistic, and then out of the blue, he was struck down again by another severe crisis that incapacitated him completely for six weeks.”
This six-week blank in the historical record begins in July and lasts through late August when he starts writing to friends and family again.
Myers insightfully uses this period to destroy a popular myth about van Gogh’s creativity.
“Sometimes his style is described as being because of the mental illness that he suffered from, but in fact, he was not able to paint, he could not write, he was not really capable of doing very much when he was having these crisis–he often didn’t remember the different episodes that he had after,” Myers said. “The paintings look the way they do because of him and his artistry, not because of the illness.”
Fewer than 30 American art museums posses paintings by van Gogh. For anyone desiring to see the real thing and unable to make it to Dallas, “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” opens at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio) in November and will then travel to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Cleveland Museum of Art has brought four together. The finest permanent collection of his work in the U.S. can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and New York’s Museum of Modern Art proudly showcases “Starry Night.”