The NGV's Winter Masterpieces exhibition is none other than famed Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh
Most people feel they know Vincent van Gogh, even if they’ve never stood in front of one of his canvases. Almost anyone shown 'The Starry Night' or any of those very yellow sunflowers will correctly name at least the painter. And they know about the severed ear, plus possibly more biographical details than any other artist. All of which means that Vincent is arguably the most famous painter in history. But do we really even know him?
Blockbuster exhibitions aimed at enticing large crowds to pay high ticket prices to see his now-very-expensive and hard-to-borrow paintings don’t necessarily lead to a deeper understanding of poor Vincent and his struggles; they risk degenerating into a macabre cabinet of trophies to a misfit’s torment.
The National Gallery of Victoria is hoping that their new show Van Gogh and the Seasons will get more than just a massive vote of sympathy from selfie-seeking fans. Specifically, the NGV want visitors to experience the artist’s “passionate vision of the circle of life within nature: birth, bloom, maturity and death.”
With more than 35 paintings on loan to the NGV, the fraught label of “blockbuster” is perhaps inevitable – but this certainly isn't a reissue of Vincent’s Greatest Hits. You may not have seen any of them before. Over a dozen works on paper are included (Van Gogh was a draftsman as much as a painter) and so are at least 17 works by other lesser-known artists from his collection. Inclusion is based not on fame or format, but a subject close to the artist’s heart: the seasons. He loved them all.
The perennial theme of season is so prevalent in art, music and poetry that it’s surprising that no major exhibition of van Gogh has previously focused on this topic. The curator who thought up the idea and has assembled them is Sjraar van Heugten, former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the largest collection of van Goghs in the world on a block of its own on Amsterdam’s Museumplein.
Van Heugten clearly wants this show to be more than a parade of lovely icons for merchandise. “It’s not just flowering trees, not just wheat fields... There’s dark still lifes with autumn produce. It shows connections to the life of peasants, which mean much more to him than the leisure of modern times.”
The NGV’s curator of international art, Laurie Benson, says that the exhibition could be viewed as four related retrospectives in the same building. But Melbournians are of course long accustomed to their weather offering all four seasons in a single day.
This show is a world exclusive for the leafy capital, perhaps the most appropriate city in the world in which to contemplate the ever-changing face of nature in a climate-controlled room full of art lovers on a wintery afternoon.
But the place that van Heugten is aiming to take you is closer to Vincent’s thoughts about Nature, beginning with spring, flourishing in summer, maturing in autumn and ending in winter, and “the idea of consolation that van Gogh wants to give us.”
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