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Breathtaking Van Gogh ‘olive trees’ exhibition is a must-see at Dallas Museum of Art

10 stunning works from his late-in-life asylum stay are paired with in-depth gallery notes on his techniques.

In May 1889, toward the end of his short life, Vincent Van Gogh checked himself into the Saint-Paul asylum at Saint-Rémy in Provence, afraid that his fragile mental health would lead to another breakdown, like the one that had led to his self-mutilation the preceding Christmas.

Nestled in the Chaîne des Alpilles mountains, in France’s southeast not far from the Mediterranean coast, the asylum, a former monastery housed in a Romanesque building, promised to provide Van Gogh with the tranquillity he needed to stabilize himself and to pursue his painting.

He ended up staying there for a year before checking himself out in May 1890, productive but still troubled. Two months later, he would be dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. During his stay, despite his struggles, he painted a remarkable 150 canvases, including a series of the local wheat fields and olive trees, and of the asylum itself.

Van Gogh knew that series was good for marketing. He was always canny about the art business, having apprenticed as a dealer in his first, failed attempt at a career. Moreover, his namesake uncle and dear brother Theo were both longtime art dealers.

“A Walk at Twilight” by Vincent Van Gogh is among 10 works from the artist's olive trees series on display at the Dallas Museum of Art.
“A Walk at Twilight” by Vincent Van Gogh is among 10 works from the artist's olive trees series on display at the Dallas Museum of Art.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Ten of the 15 paintings in the olive trees series, never before the subject of a dedicated exhibition of its own, are now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, the result of a decade-long campaign by Nicole Myers of the DMA and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the show will travel next spring.

Like nearly all of Van Gogh’s best-known works from these final two years of his life, the olive trees series boasts the emotionally expressive color palette that became his trademark. Since his move to Arles the previous year, the bright light and landscape of the South of France had moved him to finally abandon the remarkably dull grays and browns of his first eight years of work.

Even after seeing countless reproductions of Van Gogh, the real thing is breathtaking for a viewer. The colors seem to leap off the canvas like living things, shimmering and twisting. Van Gogh’s accomplishment is all the more astonishing once you learn that he unfortunately used so-called “red lake” pigments that were prone to fading almost from the moment he finished his work. Thus, the reds that we see are mere shadows of what they once were.

Van Gogh's olive trees series has never before been the subject of a dedicated exhibition of its own. It will travel to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam next spring.
Van Gogh's olive trees series has never before been the subject of a dedicated exhibition of its own. It will travel to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam next spring.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

How did he do it? The technical side of that question is answered in a sprawling and highly informative gallery that follows the main exhibition, exploring Van Gogh’s materials and techniques in loving detail. This is the result of a major research and conservation effort by the participating museums, which established a firm chronology for the series as well as the extent of the red-lake tragedy. Science-minded visitors will be especially interested.

On the creative side of the question, the exhibition shows how Van Gogh’s approach evolved over the summer and fall of 1889, when he painted the series in two distinct groups. First, in June and July of 1889, he produced the first group of four canvases now in the main gallery, in which he explored how to render the distinctive, tricky shapes of the olive trees in the abstract, expressive style of Synthetism.

“Field with Wheat Stacks” by Vincent Van Gogh captures the landscape in the Chaîne des Alpilles mountains mountains, not far from the Mediterranean coast in southeast France.
“Field with Wheat Stacks” by Vincent Van Gogh captures the landscape in the Chaîne des Alpilles mountains mountains, not far from the Mediterranean coast in southeast France.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

This group includes The Olive Trees, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is a companion piece to the world-famous The Starry Night, painted at the same time. Here, the trees, as well as the Alpilles in the background and the clouds in the sky, have become swirling, undulating, organic forces, almost seeming to move.

The curators call attention to how olive trees symbolize, in addition to the agrarian seasonal rhythms of the Mediterranean, both physical and spiritual life in biblical narratives. Accordingly, in his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the consolation that these trees represented: the serenity of finding himself at home and alive amidst living nature.

Indeed, the paintings appear to practically vibrate with vital energy. It’s hard to guess, from looking at them, how much distress Van Gogh was suffering.

But after this summer success, misfortune came again: first, another series of breakdowns that laid Van Gogh low for several weeks. Then, in the fall, his friends and fellow Synthetists Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, thinking to encourage him, wrote with copies of their current work. Each was painting a version of Christ in Gethsemane’s olive garden, where he prayed on the night before his arrest and crucifixion.

Whether from jealousy, aesthetic judgment or both, Van Gogh vehemently rejected the efforts of his friends. He believed that their works were too purely imaginative, not grounded in the close study of real olive trees, as he had been doing in the vicinity of the asylum. Turning away from his friends’ Synthetism for his final group of olive trees in November and December, he renewed his commitment to realism and close observation of nature.

Using a style of separate, distinct brushstrokes in the manner of Monet or Seurat to “scientifically” represent the effects of light and atmosphere, he told Theo he was pursuing a “rather harsh and coarse realism” that would “impart the rustic note, and smell of the soil.”

Indeed, in these paintings, the glowing light radiates across earth, trees and sky alike, so richly it seems you can almost taste it. Olive Grove, Saint-Rémy (loaned from Gothenburg, Sweden) shows the dramatic shadows of late-afternoon “golden hour,” as the harvest of ripe olives emerges from the trees in a burst of fecundity.

Van Gogh also shows a rarer sunny scene in "Olive Trees" from November 1889, on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Van Gogh also shows a rarer sunny scene in "Olive Trees" from November 1889, on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

These autumn paintings show one reason why Van Gogh’s work continues to have intense connection with audiences. Although he was committed to “realistic” methods, for him these did not simply reduce to a mechanical or scientific technique, as Seurat and Monet were sometimes accused of doing.

Rather, he continued to wrestle with deep spiritual yearnings throughout his career, and he believed that the close study of nature was actually the most authentic way to represent spiritual life as opposed to the overly literary, “unrealistic” paintings by his friends.

Taken separately, neither Van Gogh’s personal odyssey nor his technical ingenuity would alone yield great art. The secret is in the way he tied these together in a relentless quest to show how the very forms of the natural world revealed a deeper, spiritual level of reality that could speak to him and console him during his existential struggles.

As the curators suggest, for Van Gogh, the olive tree isn’t “just” an olive tree, but on some level, the Tree of Life.

It is hard to imagine a better definition of artistic beauty than that. Such an exhibition doesn’t come along every day, and is well worth the price of the special-exhibition ticket.

Details

“Van Gogh and the Olive Groves” continues through Feb. 6 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. Open Tuesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays to 9 p.m. Timed tickets required: $20 adults, $18 military and seniors; $16 students; free for members and children under 11. 214-922-1200. dma.org.

Benjamin Lima, Special Contributor. Benjamin Lima is a Dallas-based art historian and the editor of Athenaeum Review, the University of Texas at Dallas journal of arts and ideas.

artslife@dallasnews.com
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