Over the last 125 years there have been hundreds of exhibitions featuring the works of Vincent van Gogh. Many of these exhibitions have been accompanied by catalogues which not only include excellent reproductions of the works on display, but also interesting and informative background information. Just a few of these exhibition catalogues are listed below.
All too often Van Gogh exhibitions bring very little new to the table in terms of the artist's life and works. Sometimes a Van Gogh exhibition is simply a generic and safe chronological look at the artist ("Becoming Van Gogh" -- Denver Art Museum, 2012). Other times a "Van Gogh" exhibition uses the mere mention of the name as a draw to what can questionably be deemed a "themeless" presentation ("Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and More" -- Art Gallery of Ontario, 2016-17). "Van Gogh and the Seasons," organized by Sjraar van Heugten (arguably the finest curator of Van Gogh exhibitions in the world), sets the standard for the modern Van Gogh exhibition.
And so too does the accompanying catalogue. Van Gogh and the Seasons is the most well presented art exhibition catalogue I've ever encountered. The colour reproductions are stunning and the book itself is a beauty--worthy of the exhibition it details. I'm sometimes skeptical that a new Van Gogh exhibition catalogue will shed fresh light on a well trodden subject, but Van Gogh and the Seasons was often full of surprises. This is due, in part, to the fact that Mr. Van Heugten knows Van Gogh's letters backwards and forwards and he mines these letters for the artist's own perspective in terms of his evolution as a painter. Who better to interpret the reasoning behind Van Gogh's art works than the artist himself? Mr. Van Heugten's commentary is clear, concise and painstakingly researched.
Van Gogh and the Seasons is a true gem of an exhibition catalogue. Unfortunately it's currently out of print because its initial print run was so well received. If it's reprinted, I'll be sure to update this review with details.
The catalogue contains four essays--each of which is well researched and insightful. The focal point of this exhibition is the Cincinnati Art Museum's masterpiece Undergrowth with Two Figures. The first essay in the catalogue explores the history of this painting, one of a series of dramatic "double square" (50 x 100 cm.) art works that Van Gogh painted in Auvers-sur-Oise in the weeks before his death. The other essays examine the early influences on Van Gogh (specifically the Barbizon School), the sous-bois genre itself and Van Gogh as a brilliant artist of nature.
These essays lay a solid foundation for understanding and appreciating the Van Gogh's sous-bois works. For me, though, this book truly shines in the catalogue section with commentary and beautiful illustrations for each of the art works in the exhibition. These paintings not only include works by Van Gogh, but as a further insight into the sous-bois genre, other artists such as Renoir, Seurat and Gauguin (informative artist biographies are included at the end of the book). One painting, Paul Cézanne's Interior of a Forest, is especially striking. I'm embarrassed to confess that I've probably seen this painting a dozen times over the years at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but I'll now look at it in a new light thanks to the engaging commentary in this book.
In addition, each painting in the catalogue section is examined in detail and the accompanying illustrations are of the finest quality--among the best I've ever seen in an exhibition catalogue. Photography has improved so much over the last few decades. The illustrations in older exhibition catalogues can be flat and lackluster. The illustrations in this catalogue seem to glow on the page. If a trip to the Cincinnati Art Museum isn't possible, then this catalogue is the next best thing.
This exhibition catalogue explores Van Gogh's time as a lay preacher in the Borinage. It was a period of passionate religious fervor for the young Dutchman. Ultimately his overwrought religious zeal would prove life changing. His career as a preacher would eventually be extinguished in the Borinage; his career as an artist would be ignited.
Van Gogh in the Borinage is a brilliant exploration of this pivotal time in Van Gogh's life. The catalogue is beautifully researched and provides unique insights into his evolution from the realm of religion into art.
It's impossible to properly understand Van Gogh's place in the art world without having an understanding of this period in his life. Van Gogh's experience in the Borinage "left him profoundly transformed at the human, spiritual and artistic level, as is pointed out in other essays in this volume. Indeed it is no coincidence that, having arrived in the Borinage as a servant of the Word, he left it as a future master of modern art." (p. 147)
I know Van Gogh's early life well . . . or at least I thought I did until I read Van Gogh in the Borinage. There is a wealth of new information, in both the catalogue text and the voluminous footnotes. There's hardly a page that didn't yield new insights to me. For example, the verso of Van Gogh's early drawing The 'Au Charbonnage' Café shows rows of declensions of ancient Greek pronouns (early lessons that young Van Gogh took--and detested).
Then there are the illustrations. In Van Gogh in the Borinage one will find the finest images of Van Gogh early works ever published. A picture speaks a thousand words and these extraordinary images are a revelation.
Van Gogh in the Borinage is the finest catalogue to focus specifically on the artist's early years. On a personal note, of all the Van Gogh exhibitions that have regretfully passed me by over the years, missing this wonderful exhibition pains me the most.
The writers, the four curators (Ives and Stein from the Metropolitan Museum; Van Heugten and Vellekoop from the Van Gogh Museum) have compiled an outstanding catalogue that focuses on the 119 art works included in the exhibition. Each art work (mostly drawings, but some watercolours, letter sketches and paintings as well) is separately profiled with background information, analysis as well as exhibition history and provenance details. The breadth of the information is exhaustive. And at the same time extremely well written and insightful. The writers successfully walk the fine line of assembling a huge amount of very detailed information while at the same time presenting it in an engaging and entertaining manner.
In addition to the work by work profiles, the catalogue also includes historical and biographical sections which detail Vincent van Gogh’s profession as an artist. These sections trace the course of Van Gogh’s varied and remarkable career as a draftsman and, as a result, provide new and astute insights into each of the art works included. For those with a more specialized eye, there are also some interesting sections that analyze the technical aspects of the art works themselves (infrared reflectography, scientific analyses of the materials Van Gogh used, etc.). Technical yes, but written for both the specialist and the laymen. Yet another layer of insight into the astonishing opus of Van Gogh’s drawings.
Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings is one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions of Van Gogh’s drawings ever presented. And this catalogue is a superb companion to such an outstanding and successful exhibition. Highly recommended.
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