Cincinnati Art Museum's new Van Gogh exhibit delves into mind of revered artist

Posted at 9:00 AM, Oct 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-15 10:19:39-04

CINCINNATI -- Getting a sneak peek inside the mind of a revered, long-deceased artist isn’t something that happens often, but starting Saturday, Cincinnati Art Museum will offer that chance through new exhibit “Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth.”

Actually, to say the museum is offering only a peek is an understatement. Julie Aronson, curator of American painting and sculpture, Esther Bell, former curator of European painting, and the entire CAM team worked painstakingly for more than a year on the exhibit, researching, requesting and receiving artwork by Vincent van Gogh from museums around the world that cohesively tells the story of his artistic venture into the undergrowth.

A reference to the lush vegetation found on a forest floor, undergrowth served as a treasure trove of inspiration for van Gogh and many other 19th-century artists.

“We’ve built a show around van Gogh’s interest in these paintings of the forest floor, using a lot of work by artists that inspired him,” said Aronson. “What people don’t realize is the extent to which he’s indebted to the work of the previous generation of artists. You walk into this exhibition and there are these big paintings of trees. And they’re dark and moody, but they’re very earthy in quality, and these paintings were quite adventurous at the time they were made -- and van Gogh knew that.”

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Your only acquaintance thus far with van Gogh may be that of his struggle with mental illness. The Dutch Post-Impressionist artist was also a man of high intellect, Aronson said, intensely interested in his predecessors and contemporaries.

“Because everybody is sort of completely obsessed with his mental illness, we tend to forget about the fact that he was very well-versed in art history and in the work of his colleagues and what their interests were, and he’d have lots of conversations about the latest art,” she said.

Many of those conversations have been preserved in van Gogh’s prolific correspondence with his younger brother Theo, who financially and emotionally supported van Gogh during his short, turbulent life. The entire collection of van Gogh’s correspondence with Theo is available online for free, thanks to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Huygens ING, a research institute in the Netherlands.

His words offer an even keener sense of the artist he was, and quotes from his letters referencing many of the artists and artwork in the exhibition accompany the pieces.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Undergrowth with Two Figures, June 1890, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum; Bequest of Mary E. Johnston, 1967.1430

“One of the remarkable things about van Gogh is because we do have this very substantial body of letters, in which he carries on these great conversations of what he’s looking at, what interests him about other artists, we’re not left looking at this painting (“Undergrowth with Two Figures”) and just trying to guess what he’s thinking, because often we have a record of it,” Aronson said. “In some cases we know exactly what painting he was looking at, and in other cases we know what artists interest him.”

The exhibition is like a van Gogh painting itself -- the closer you get to a piece, the more detail you notice. Many of the influences van Gogh drew from are present throughout the exhibit, which begins with works from artists of the Barbizon School, including Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, among others. These artists’ reaction to the rapid industrialization of society can be found in their pieces focusing on nature; as notes in the exhibit state, they “sought to immerse their viewers in the forest.”

Interspersed between the works of his forefathers are van Gogh’s own, each highlighting different aspects of his growth as an artist. In contrasting the van Gogh of the start of the exhibit with the final van Gogh, “Undergrowth with Two Figures,” you feel his eagerness to capture the same sentiment his forebears did, coupled with his growing strength in his own voice.

A particularly fun interactive area in the middle of the exhibit gives viewers the chance to write their own letters, on iPads, and email them to friends or family. It’s a clever melding of 21st-century proclivities with 19th-century tendencies.

The last portion of the exhibit, “Unlocking Van Gogh’s World,” drives home van Gogh's progression as an artist. Here, you see some of van Gogh’s earliest works. The inspirations of other influential artists such as Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and that of the many forms countryside and nature take, are evident throughout van Gogh’s body of work. 

“Undergrowth with Two Figures,” the masterpiece at the center of the exhibit, came to CAM in 1967, when Mary E. Johnston, an heir to the founders of Procter & Gamble, left it to the museum in her bequest. Johnston acquired the piece in the 1940s and kept it in her private collection, which included many other pieces that are at the museum.

“I think people do feel a sense of ownership of the painting,” said Aronson. “It’s wonderful that people have that sense of civic pride here, but I also think (with) this particular painting, there’s something very compelling about it that attracts people.”

“Undergrowth with Two Figures” lives up to the hype. It is an irregular size, horizontal and long; the 78-page book Aronson compiled details that van Gogh cut the canvas himself. It is still and stirring simultaneously; the two figures in the piece resemble ghosts. It is best described in van Gogh’s own words, from another letter to Theo: “ … undergrowth, violet trunks of poplars which cross the landscape perpendicularly like columns. The depths of the undergrowth are blue, and under the big trunks the flowery meadow, white, pink, yellow, green, long russet grasses and flowers.”

Conservator Per Knutas worked with Gregory Dale Smith, a conservation scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Jeff Fieberg, associate professor of chemistry at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, to find out just where the pink had been -- and consequently, give us all a peek at what van Gogh really painted. A digital restoration of the original color is on the wall next to the painting, along with a fascinating recounting of the process.

Take a moment in the next few weeks to stop by Cincinnati Art Museum and wander into the undergrowth. It’s a trip worth taking. 

'Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth'

Opens 11 a.m. Saturday.
Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive.
$10 general admission. $5 for college students (with valid ID). $5 for children ages 6-17. Free for children ages 5 and under. Free for members.
Runs through Jan. 8.

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