BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - “In landscapes, Van Gogh found the peace of mind and balance that was missing from his own life.”
Visitors to a stunning exhibition at Basel’s Kunstmuseum could be excused a quibble with this assertion from its curators as they emerge from the 70-work survey of the Dutch artist’s frenetic 10-year career in the 1880s.
But there is no doubt that the show in this art-mad, 1,000-year-old Swiss Rhineside city on the borders of France and Germany is a European cultural highlight of the summer.
“Vincent Van Gogh-Between Earth and Heaven: The Landscapes” has already, half way through its five-month run, attracted a record for the museum of 250,000 visitors from around the world.
Billed as the first-ever exhibition covering landscapes from every period of the artist’s work, it ranges from the dark tones of the rural Brabant scenes of 1881-85 to the pastel-bright country views of his final and frenziedly productive three months in Auvers, north of Paris, where he put a bullet in his chest during a walk through the fields in July 1890.
In between, it covers the cityscapes and suburban vistas of his 1886-88 Paris years, the blooming orchards and startling blue and yellow Provencal harvest scenes of his eventful year in Arles, and the menacing cloud swirls and twisting trees of the next 12 months he spent as a patient in the Saint Paul psychiatric hospital at St. Remy nearby.
These last, as they have for many critics over the last 120 years, seem to encapsulate the mental turmoil that had built over the years as he switched from unsuccessful art dealer to failed Protestant preacher and finally to the penniless painter that he was at his death at the age of 37.
They include “The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital” of November 1889, where the chunky stump of a decapitated tree leans toward the wall of the asylum like a stricken giant seeking support — a clear image of his own predicament.
Also in the show from this time are “Enclosed Field with Ploughman,” an allegory of his confinement, and the archetypal olive groves and cypresses and a reaper in a sun-soaked wheatfield, symbols of his unorthodox but firm Christian belief.
Little sign here, then, of “peace of mind.”
The works on show in Basel have been gathered from public and private collections in Europe, the United States, Israel and Japan — the last a country whose delicate art style he partly adopted and which he longed to visit, had the funds been there.
But as with so many other artists, Van Gogh was penniless and largely ignored until after his death when, as the show’s catalog records, he was recognized as a revolutionary whose influence stretched through the 20th century.
Throughout his decade as a full-time artist, he was supported by his younger brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris — a dependence which his letters show tortured and oppressed him.
At Theo’s suggestion, he moved to Paris from the Netherlands in 1886 to mix with the Impressionists and their successors, meeting Paul Gauguin who was to play a central role in Van Gogh’s later year of drama in Arles.
In Paris, his palette lightened — as shown in Basel with familiar Montmartre and rooftop scenes and delicate suburban, even semi-industrial vistas: “The Seine Bridge at Asnieres” and the triptych “Riverbanks in Clichy.”
In 1888, he concluded that the Bohemian city life was affecting his physical and mental health, and headed south, leaving the train during a freak snowstorm in Arles where he determined to set up an artistic community.
As the spring came, he began painting prolifically, focusing on blooming apricot orchards and the cypress trees that he was convinced, as he said in a letter to Theo, would help sell his work in the cold European north.
But amid the creative activity, highlighted in Basel by some of his best-known works, the project crumbled for the artists’ collective in the town where his sometimes erratic behavior led locals to dub him “le fou rou” — “the mad red-head.”
Gauguin came down to stay but they quickly quarreled and in a fit of fury two days before Christmas 1888 Van Gogh sliced off part of his own earlobe.
Gauguin headed back to Paris, and Van Gogh headed out into the fields, producing works like “Peach Blossom in the Crau” and “Landscape under a Stormy Sky,” both in the Basel show.
But alarmed at his sharply fluctuating moods, in May 1889 he checked himself into the St. Remy clinic where he saw periods of frenetic creation interrupted by recurring mental crises.
In May 1890, Theo moved him up to Auvers and into the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, a specialist in depression and similar illnesses who had treated many other artists.
Over the next three months, Van Gogh produced over 80 works including the landscapes “Daubigny’s Garden” and “Farms near Auvers” which are among the world-famous canvases of this period on show in Basel.
The exhibition ends with the hint of an enigma — not on his well-documented reasons for shooting himself but on his relations with Gachet’s daughter Marguerite.
Briefly abandoning the landscape theme, the curators have included his portrait of the girl — “Mademoiselle Gachet at the Piano” — alongside “The Plain at Auvers” which Van Gogh enigmatically told Theo in one letter had to go together.
“It is believed that he developed feelings for her that were not requited,” says the Basel catalog. But it cites little evidence either way.
How did Marguerite, a 21-year-old used to artists around the family but perhaps not to one who made her the subject of his work and took her on his creative sorties, respond?
“The Last Van Gogh,” a 2006 novel by U.S. writer Lyson Richman on offer at the exhibition’s bookshop, suggests she did indeed fall for him, deeply.
Richman, whose has researched extensively into the Gachet family, argues that Marguerite was in fact the last — if unconsummated — love of his life.
Editing by Steve Addison