The National Gallery of Victoria’s popular van Gogh exhibition reveals the artist’s fascination with autumn, and prompts reflection on the way we connect with the seasons today.
‘How beautiful it is outside,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote in 1882. ‘I sometimes yearn for a country where it would always be autumn, but then we’d have no snow and apple blossom and no corn and no stubble fields.’
Artists, writers and painters have long been concerned with the seasons, and with autumn in particular. George Eliot wrote: ‘Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise’. Rainer Marie Rilke observed, ‘at no other time does the earth let itself be inhaled by one smell.’ What is it about autumn that prompts artists to pause, to ponder and paint? And how do we interpret that here, in another hemisphere, where the trees that shed their leaves are imported, and we are largely disconnected from the European idea of the seasons?
I love the deciduous trees – I love the colours, their surrender, their dappled mess – but I don’t know how to interpret autumn in this landscape where, in an Indigenous understanding, there are as many as six or seven seasons. As Tyson Yunkaporta writes, ‘Australia actually has up to twice the number of seasons and a greater range of biodiversity abundant in each than up north.’ Do the spectacled rows of deciduous trees say something of a colonial desire to transplant symbols and their inherent meanings onto a foreign landscape?
The National Gallery of Victoria’s Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition is unique – with 35 paintings and 13 drawings from 20 lenders, curated by former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum, Sjraar van Heugten, with the assistance of NGV’s Senior Curator of International Art, Dr Ted Gott. ‘Van Heugten wanted to do a show looking at van Gogh’s constant love of the four seasons, which comes across in his correspondence to his younger brother Theo,’ Gott tells me in the cafe before I visit the show. ‘And for something so obvious, its incredible that this is the first exhibition looking at this theme really,’ he laughs, ‘but sometimes that’s what happens.’
The NGV sits opposite Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, so it was probably quite natural that ahead of meeting Dr Gott, I noticed the garden’s rows of deciduous trees. The plane trees had crimpled their edges, curled over and turned brown. Liquidambars were purple, with yellow pulsing through veins, and maples had turned burgundy and orange, their leaves fallen. In such a mix-matched urban landscape, with imported trees scattered among natives, I thought about how I interact with the seasons, or with the idea of regeneration, when my life is lived in office blocks, on wheels and between tiny apartments.
For many of us in urban, modern contexts, we shift between heating and air conditioning instead of coats, sandals and shade. We don’t come into contact with the the way the seasons roll into one another, or see up close the way native plants germinate. I read that wattle seeds are released as the pods ripen and, on hot days, are wont to burst open by themselves. But I wonder, if I understood more of these things – that autumn is the best time to collect these pods, for example – would I know more of how to hold on, or when to let go, in the various seasons of my life?
For many of us in urban, modern contexts, we don’t come into contact with the the way the seasons roll into one another.
The seasons are still important to us. Van Gogh and the Seasons has been recorded as the fastest selling exhibition in the NGV’s history – it clocked 150,000 attendees in the first five weeks of its opening. Our fascination with the seasons speaks of the way we interact with our surroundings – we cannot help but be impacted by the world around us. And an art exhibition in the middle of Australia’s second largest city connects us to nature and the world beyond the silver metropolis.
As Gott puts it, what comes across in this curation of van Gogh’s work is his ‘fascination with the seasons, and the way they change not only in climate, but also in colour.’ Van Gogh and the Seasons has been curated thematically, following the cycle from Autumn through to Summer. ‘By serendipity’ Gott says, ‘most of the works that fall into the first five years of his career in the Netherlands are in Autumn and Winter, and most of the works in the second five years of his career, which is in France: Paris and the South of France, fall into Spring and Summer.’
It is with Autumn that van Gogh begins his painting career, having failed as an art dealer, a languages teacher and a lay minister. On the suggestion of his brother Theo, he decided to pursue a life as a painter, and began with his favourite subject – melancholy – from his various Dutch studios. Using ochres, black brown and olive green – riffing, Gott says, on ‘his great love of Rembrandt and the 17th century Dutch landscape painters – he produced some of his early works: Potato digging (1883), Avenue of poplars in autumn (1884), and Vase with honesty (1884).
Imbued in these images, it would appear, is van Gogh’s fascination with seedtime and harvest. He felt an affinity with the poor, a sort of kinship with the working class, with the toiling peasants – and felt it necessary to reject his bourgeois roots in order to relate to them. His early paintings are of workers: sower, digger, woodcutter, ploughman. In early 1882, van Gogh wrote in a letter that his black and white sketch reproduction of Jean Francois Millet’s The Sower, was prominent among his ‘most beautiful’ prints.
Imbued in these images, it would appear, is van Gogh’s fascination with seedtime and harvest.
In her catalogue essay, Joan E. Greer writes: ‘In Millet, van Gogh saw the Christological image of a humble and pious artist, living and working among the people he depicted and championed.’ Having grown up in a household that subscribed to the Groningen School of Theology which taught the existence of God could be proved in the observation of nature (his father was a minister in the Dutch Reformist Church), it is natural that his work is steeped in artistic and biblical symbolism. (Vase with Honesty is one such work. Oak and bay leaves, symbolising strength and posterity sit in a vase with silvery lunia, known as ‘coins of Judas’ in the Netherlands.)
Van Gogh’s early paintings, such as Avenues of poplars in autumn and Planting potatoes (both 1884) are replete in dark amber, touches of bronze, a landscape that is altogether sombre. When asked by his brother in 1885 if he’d thought about using colour, or if he’d heard of the impressionists, Gott says that he effectively replied: ‘if black, brown, white are good enough for Rembrandt, they’re good enough for me.’
But something happens over the course of van Gogh’s career, as he moves from scattering seed to noting abundance – he moves from feeling a duty to strip himself of a bourgeois status, to simply existing, and in capturing the beauty of nature, to be a part of it. Five years into his career, van Gogh paints new scenes of autumn from Arles in southern France. He has entered the ‘second season’ of his painting career.
He writes to his brother Theo from Arles in September 1888:
I already told you in my last letter that autumn had shown itself in rain and bad weather. That inconvenienced me a bit, but in the sunny intervals I still managed to finish a canvas of ploughed fields. A blue sky with white clouds. An immense field of an ashy lilac, furrows, innumerable clods of earth, the horizon of blue hills and green bushes and small farmsteads with orange-coloured roofs… As long as autumn lasts I won’t have enough hands, canvas or colours to paint the beautiful things that I see.
In the south, he paints prolifically – it is there he created his masterpieces. His works are coloured with the warmth of a different autumn, works with his signature dabbing of paint straight from the tube onto canvas. ‘He’s moved to a new phase,’ Gott explains. ‘He’s raised believing nature proves the hand of God. Then he decides he’s so deceived by experience, that he abandons Christianity, but not Spirituality… van Gogh doesn’t paint what he sees, but what he experiences. It’s about being a part of something pulsing and heaving around you.’
Days later, something about that ‘pulsing and heaving around you’ sticks with me. I’m at a School of Life workshop on autumn, talking to a permaculturist who has a big garden on the New South Wales Central Coast. She shows me what looks like a dead twig with branches and explains that it is living. She talks about its nature as a fractal, and how the fractal patterns that exist in the garden replicate those of the human body. As she speaks, I think back on Van Gogh’s anthropomorphic Pine trees at sunset (1889). ‘In trees,’ he wrote in 1882, ‘I see expression and a soul, as it were. A row of pollard willows sometimes resembles a procession of orphan men.’
But the workshop mostly draws on the writings of North American author Parker J Palmer, whose ability to draw on a connection between autumn and surrender feels forced, particularly as we read them from Sydney’s Botanical Gardens instead of our own. I compare this to the works of John Olsen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ You Beaut Country exhibition, where the beauty, the colour, the warmth of our seasons are emphasised. Even Olsen’s autumnal work, inspired by Gerard Manly Hopkin’s Pied Beauty, translates the Northern Hemisphere notion of the season and transposes it onto an Australian landscape.
And I think that’s because there is something universal about coming to understand the seasons. In his diary, on 4 January 1966, Olsen wrote: ‘We saw the Courtauld collection, the impressionist section is really outstanding. 10 of the most beautiful Cezanne’s, 2 very good van Goghs pulsating with life, I can really see my relationship to this man.’ While van Gogh authentically paints the Europe he knows, Olsen does the same in Australia. And in the South of France, as in the warmth of Australia, both paint a sun-filled landscape.
In June 1888, van Gogh wrote to friend and artist Emile Bernard:
For my part, I’m getting on better here than I did in the north. I even work right in the middle of the day, in the full sun, with no shade at all… I’m as happy as a cicada… My God, if only I had known this country at 25 instead of coming here at 35!’
He encloses in the letter a sketch of a new Sower he has painted – one in full, vibrant colour.
It is a far cry from his 1882 sketch reproduction of Millet. This sower scatters seed among lilac flacks, golden sheaves of wheat against an orange pulsating sun. The later work, The Sower (1888), is recognisable among his masterpieces. He wrote of the work to his brother in June 1888:
Yesterday and today I worked on the sower, which has been completely reworked. The sky is yellow and green, the earth, purple and orange… Millet’s sower is a colourless grey – as are Israel’s paintings too. Can we now paint the sower with colour, with simultaneous contrast between yellow and purple, yes or no? Yes – definitely. So do it then! – yes – that’s what père Martin says too, ‘you must make the masterpiece.’
In Arles, as in the Netherlands, van Gogh is interested in his workers – they simply take on new colour.
Something happens to van Gogh, as he moves geographically with the seasons. In Arles, as in the Netherlands, he is interested in his workers – they simply take on new colour. His sketches of the workmen transform, such as in his 1890 golden and blue sunstroke work, The Siesta (after Millet). It as if the sunlight has entered his work. And while it was here that van Gogh also began hearing voices and entering delusional states, including one which led to the infamous loss of his ear – it is the paintings from the South of France that are among his most beloved today.
For Ted Gott, van Gogh’s exhibition has something to say to an urban Australia: namely, that we must begin to love and respect nature, before it’s too late. ‘In the cities, we pretend there’s no climate crisis… What we get from this [exhibition] is the sense that we are part of nature and ignore it at our peril… That is what van Gogh is trying to tell his contemporaries,’ Gott says, ‘to get out of Paris, to feel the beauty.’
When I later speak to the lady at the workshop, she talks of regeneration: the idea of one thing dying to give life to another. And there’s something in me that wants to hear more – she speaks with a wholeness, with an understanding of working with the earth. When that word – regeneration – comes from her lips, it doesn’t feel trite, as though she were trying to preach to me in metaphor. It feels more, like van Gogh’s Arles sower, something compelling borne out of simple immersion in nature.
Because the closest I most often come to connecting with autumn is from the window bench of a cafe that looks out onto imported deciduous trees, in a suburb that looks something like a town in England. I’m new to the idea that what appears as waste, or decomposition, may just fertilise the next thing. I live in a society that packages old relationships as mistakes, labels the end of a work tenure redundancy, and doesn’t know how to talk about death.
But I think there’s more to the end of things than the way society boxes them up. And in a way that doesn’t feel preachy, like van Gogh’s early sowers – I think there’s something in inhabiting the seasons. And maybe I don’t quite yet know what that something is. But ‘it is something,’ van Gogh wrote exactly half way through his two-term career, ‘to be in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring.’
Van Gogh and the Seasons is showing at NGV International until 12 July.
Artworks (except Sower with setting sun) kindly supplied by the National Gallery of Victoria.