Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom at Arles, October 1889. Oil on canvas, 22 11/16 x 29 1/8 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais/Hervé Lewandowski/Art Resource, NY.
If all you got from it was the opportunity to stand in front of Vincent van Gogh’s heartbreakingly beautiful painting The Bedroom in Arles, the upcoming exhibition at The Phillips Collection would be well worth the visit. After all, this will be DC’s first van Gogh exhibition in fifteen years, and the first in the Phillips’ history.
There’s more, however. This exhibit is an exquisite study of the artist’s process.
In 1889, Vincent van Gogh set up his easel on a village road and hastily painted an oil sketch of the scene on an improvised canvas of stretched fabric. Later that year he would paint it again, on a proper canvas sent by his brother Theo.
Vincent van Gogh, The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1947.
The former work, The Large Plane Trees, was acquired by The Cleveland Museum of Art in the 1940s, as was the latter work, The Road Menders, by The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. The two works are reunited for the first time in DC at Van Gogh Repetitions, opening at The Phillips Collection on October 12.
Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1949.
That seems a very straightforward introduction. But it’s an intense experience for the arts viewer to stand in front of these two works, to think of them and their journey across time, the improbability of their survival and reunion given van Gogh’s tortured end. Van Gogh, famously unappreciated during his life, is so beloved now that any exhibition of his work is bound to be popular. Here, co-organizers The Phillips Collection and The Cleveland Museum of Art seek to present a new view of van Gogh. It’s an investigation of his process through comparison of what he termed “repetitions.” Van Gogh’s practice of repeatedly painting the same subject, either by revisiting his own treatment of it or by copying the works of other artists, was a reliable technique by which he honed his craft. By focusing on the artist’s methods, rather than the man’s madness, the exhibit succeeds as a thoughtful study providing a new appreciation for his work.
Over thirty paintings and works on paper will be on view at The Phillips Collection through January 26, 2014. Given the meditative aspect of both the Phillips (one of my favorite places to just quietly wander) and the exhibit itself, entry for non-members will be by dated and timed reservation. With tickets at only $12, return visits over the four months are entirely feasible, and I think you’ll want to see such pieces as The Bedroom at Arles (on loan from the Musee d’Orsay) repeatedly. There’s much to ponder about van Gogh’s process, such as in the permutations of portraits of the Roulin family – postman Joseph, his wife Camille, their baby Marcelle – who seem to breathe again as you observe van Gogh’s attempts to capture their likenesses and personalities.
Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne (Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux),1888–89. Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951.
There’s also an intimacy to this exhibit that rises unexpectedly. I experienced this first hand upon viewing the two perspectives of Madame Ginoux (“L’Arlesienne”), first in van Gogh’s copy of Gaugin’s sketch, and then in the further repetition of his own work. Familiar with the profile version of L’Arlesienne from many Metropolitan Museum of Art visits as a child, it was a revelation to see Madame straight-on in Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art acquisition of van Gogh’s copy of a Gaugin sketch. To see the kindness in her eyes that van Gogh captured, completely different from the look Gaugin saw, was a happy surprise. She came vibrantly alive for me, as did a strong sense of van Gogh’s technique and artistry.
Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlesienne, 1890. Oil on canvas, 23 5/16 x 19 3/4in. Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art. By permission of Ministero dei Beni, delle Attività Culturalie del Turismo.
Van Gogh Repetitions will be on view at The Phillips Collection from October 12, 2013 through January 26, 2014. Admission (for non-members with a dated/timed ticket): $12. The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street NW, Washington DC 20009. Closest Metro stop: Dupont Circle (Red line). For more information visit the exhibition website.