Van Gogh at the NGV: 'He wasn't easy to get on with, but that doesn't make him mad'

As Melbourne hosts the biggest exhibition of the artist’s work in Australia, its curator says there are myths that need clearing up

• Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria – in pictures

“Van Gogh was really not insane,” says the art historian Sjraar van Heugten. The 19th-century artist best-known for slicing off his own ear was certainly “a really moody man; he was slightly melancholic and he was not an easy man to get along with, but that doesn’t make him mad”.

Van Heugten is in Melbourne to launch Van Gogh and the Seasons, an exhibition he has curated at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is the largest exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work to go on show in Australia and an exhibition that has been over a decade in the making. Van Heugten believes there are some myths about his subject that need clearing up.

“The suffering artist is kind of an icon,” he said. “The suffering teacher or suffering carpenter is not.”

The episodes that came to define the artist’s legacy – perhaps psychosis, perhaps epilepsy, there is no definitive diagnosis – really only began to occur in late 1888, two years before his suicide at the age of 37.

By that time, Van Heugten says, Van Gogh had been painting and drawing for a number of years. When illness struck, it incapacitated him. “He couldn’t paint, he couldn’t write … yet people tend to project [madness] on his paintings.”

The use of colour and the impressionist style that became emblematic of Van Gogh’s work “were conscious and very clever choices made by Van Gogh himself, and not something that was dictated by his unsound state of mind.

“There is this romantic notion of an artist, and even the notion that an artist should suffer to become a real artist, which is nonsense.”

Nursery on Schenkweg by Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh’s Nursery on Schenkweg, April–May 1882, The Hague. Black chalk, graphite, pen and brush and ink, heightened with white. Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Rather, Van Gogh was as driven and dedicated to art, when he set his mind to it, as he had been at his previous, albeit rather unsuccessful, vocation: religion. “He had set his mind on becoming a preacher, following in the footsteps of his father, but really moving towards the poor,” Van Heugten says.

Much of the poverty that Van Gogh experienced – another enduring myth that has come to define him – particularly earlier in his life, was self-inflicted. “He wanted to be at one with [the poor], giving away his clothes, giving away his money, hoping to become one of them, which of course didn’t happen.

“What he wanted to do was meant very well, but Van Gogh lacked a kind of social intelligence for that kind of thing.”

Instead, at the urging of his brother Theo, he transferred that fervour to his art. And as an artist he was prolific, creating more than 850 paintings, not to mention sketches and studies, during his career – often working in great frenzied bursts. His empathy for and fascination with the poor featured in much of his work, as did the natural world.

Farmhouse in Provence, painted in June 1888.
Farmhouse in Provence, painted in June 1888. Photograph: National Gallery of Art/National Gallery of Art, Washington

While Theo often supported him financially, Van Gogh also made sales during his lifetime and, close to his death in 1890, was beginning to receive recognition from his peers.

The volume of art that he left behind was accompanied by a wealth of correspondence. The theme for this exhibition, which is structured around the four seasons, emerged directly out of that correspondence.

Sjraar van Heugten with Van Gogh’s great-grandnieces Sylvia Cramer and Josien Van Gogh at the exhibition in Melbourne
Sjraar van Heugten with Van Gogh’s great-grandnieces Sylvia Cramer and Josien Van Gogh at the exhibition in Melbourne. Photograph: Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

The exhibition, part of NGV’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series and presented in partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia, opens with a short film. Narrated by the film critic David Stratton and the actor David Wenham, it features lush footage of the changing seasons across landscapes in France and Holland, and introducing the artist’s life and work. Two rooms of “inspiration” materials follow, including 16 lithographs from Van Gogh’s collection, and a selection of the NGV’s Japanese prints (the artist’s own collection being too fragile to travel). Finally there are the artist’s works themselves, from early black-and-white sketches to the vibrant, shifting landscapes for which he is so well known.

Arranging the works thematically rather than chronologically serves to highlight Van Gogh’s changing aesthetic sensibility over the years, and in particular, the late emergence of his fascination with colour.

For an artist whose works are so recognisable, if there is anything under-appreciated about Van Gogh, Van Heugten says, it is a product of the mythology that has developed around him.

“The icons, the myths – they are in the way, almost, of a fresh view of Van Gogh,” he says.

“This was a man with a message, with a drive to do something, to mean something … He was a man who found these beautiful things in nature, and managed to create something so special that it still fascinates after all that time, and only great artists can do that.”

Van Gogh and the Seasons is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until 9 July


Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

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