What would be the ultimate blockbuster exhibition? High up anyone’s list would surely be a show of the still lifes of sunflowers that Vincent Van Gogh painted in Provence between 1888 and 1889.
Of course, such an exhibition would be impossible. The earliest painting in the series, depicting three sunflowers in a green earthenware pot against a vibrant turquoise wall, is privately owned, and has not been exhibited since 1948. The next, with six sunflowers and a royal blue background, was destroyed in 1945, during the bombing of Japan.
Yet, in a remarkable collaboration, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is loaning its magnificent Sunflowers to the National Gallery, where it can be seen side by side with its almost identical predecessor, which happens to be the most popular painting in the collection at Trafalgar Square, according to annual postcard sales. It is the first time the two paintings have been seen together in London in more than 65 years. The result is the exhibition equivalent of a game of spot-the-difference.
Van Gogh began painting sunflowers one August morning in 1888 while he was living in the Yellow House in Arles. The mistral was blowing hard, forcing him to work indoors, where he concentrated on updating the longstanding Dutch tradition of floral still lifes. By the end of the week, in a fit of vigour (“I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse,” he wrote to his brother Theo), he had completed four paintings on his theme, culminating in the resplendent symphony in gold and yellow that has been in the collection of the National Gallery since 1924.
In part, Van Gogh painted sunflowers for the sheer joy of it. In part, too, he was honouring the artist Paul Gauguin, whom he had invited to join his “Studio of the South”. He hung the painting that ended up in the National Gallery, along with its immediate forerunner, which is now in Munich, in the modest bedroom he had earmarked for Gauguin, who eventually joined him in October 1888. The message was clear: just as the sunflower swivels to follow the course of the sun, so Van Gogh would be guided by Gauguin.
Of course, the story of his encounter with Gauguin in Arles did not have a happy ending, after their strong personalities clashed. The following January, having recovered after mutilating his left ear, Van Gogh created three fresh versions of his sunflowers, including two against a yellow background. One of these is now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Seeing double: two versions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hang side by side in the National Gallery exhibition
Comparing it with the painting in the National Gallery is instructive. At first they appear identical. Both contain 15 flowers in the same earthenware pot against fierce, glorious yellow. But the more you look, the more you notice subtle differences. The splodge of white reflected light on the glazed pot in the earlier picture is missing in the later one. The blue lines denoting the edge of the table have become reddish-ochre. The background of the 1889 canvas is a slightly darker, richer shade, lacking the silvery sheen in the picture of 1888.
In the “copy”, Van Gogh introduced new colours altogether into his treatment of the flowers: deep red to the left, and pale blue to the right. He also used a brighter green for the centres of several pompom-like flower heads. His signature went from cramped ultramarine to spaced-out pale blue.
In addition, the basket-weave brushwork of the background is more pronounced in the later canvas, as though Van Gogh’s handling of paint was that little bit speedier and rougher – probably because this time he was not painting from life. In general, the second picture feels more stylised, flatter, and somehow slightly less in focus. It has greater ripeness, as though the flowers, some of which have already gone to seed, are a touch closer to decay. If the earlier picture, with its crisper details and more radiant sheen, evokes an early summer’s morning, then the later canvas is a midsummer afternoon.
Is the Amsterdam canvas simply a copy? More likely, Van Gogh considered it a variation. He knew that, with his sunflowers, he had created something strong, perhaps even a signature motif. When Gauguin wrote to him requesting a copy of the one against a yellow background that had hung in his bedroom in Arles, Van Gogh replied, referring to two of his contemporaries who had achieved recognition by painting specific flowers: “I don’t think that you’ve made a bad choice – if [Georges] Jeannin has the peony, [Ernest] Quost the hollyhock, I indeed, before others, have taken the sunflower.” His words would prove prophetic: today, sunflowers instantly evoke Van Gogh rather than any other artist.
The National Gallery is billing this new display, which also summarises the findings of recent technical research undertaken on both paintings, and includes X-ray images of each canvas, as a treat. Basking on a dull winter’s morning in Van Gogh’s bright, ferocious colours was certainly a pleasurable experience for me.
Source : The Telegraph