Hurry to the Clark for Van Gogh Exhibit

(Also Whistler's Mother)
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Gallery
Williamstown, MA
Through September 13 (9/27 for Whistler)

Early homage to Millet
As clichéd as it may sound to postmodern ears, Vincent Van Gogh is my favorite artist. I would, however, be the first to admit that any museum launching an exhibition of his work could be accused of risk-aversion—perhaps even pandering to middlebrow taste. Put simply, Van Gogh (and most other impressionists) has been overdone. In that spirit, let me state that if you've been avoiding a trip to Berkshires to catch "Van Gogh in Nature" because you're convinced it's just a nostalgia trip down Starry Night Lane, you're mistaken. One of the great joys of the Clark Art Museum show is that its 40 oils and 10 drawings are, for the most part, not famous works.

The red anchor
They are, as the title implies, works that explore Van Gogh's relationship to nature. Being that it's Van Gogh, that relationship was complicated. He simultaneously felt more peace amidst nature than anywhere else, yet was so overwhelmed by it that bald mountains, fecund fields, and majestic cypress trees made him feel unworthy and were another nail in the self-built depression coffin that led to his suicide at age 37. But what a glorious 37 years they were. The Clark exhibit shows Van Gogh's evolution as a painter who first drew inspiration from Daubigny and Millet—check out Van Gogh's homage to Millet's The Sower­—to one whose unique style only fully emerged in nature. It began with drawings and oils of a marsh executed in 1881, then we see his palette come alive with color when he
moved from the somber Dutch countryside to France—first to Paris, but with full vibrancy in the countryside (Arles, the asylum grounds of Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise). That vibrancy extends to subtle things, such as the way Van Gogh often used a splash of red to anchor his work and forced the viewer's eye to roam where he wished.

Early spring or late snow?

It wasn't the only psychological game he played. We see an orchard awash in white, but it's an April scene and the only reason we have to see blossoms rather than a late snow is our knowledge of the Provence climate. We view farmhouses in Auvers, but we only know that the winding blue course disappearing around a tree is a country lane rather than a stream because there's a solitary figure trudging down it. For those who want to psychoanalyze even more, as a youth Van Gogh painted variations of Millet's The Sower, but as he entered his mid-30s, sickle-wielding reapers more often appear. Ahh, that line between genius and madness. From May 1889 to May 1890, Van Gogh was in an asylum, but it was also his most fertile period—one in which he created a new work nearly every other day. He left Saint-Rémy to be near his brother in Auvers and created a stunning oil unlike others, Landscape at Auvers in the Rain in July of 1890, and was dead before the month ended. [See image below]

Auvers in the Rain
The only drawback to this triumphant show lies, once again, with the Clark's unfortunate rebuild. The exhibit is in the basement special exhibit gallery of the new wing and is dimly lighted. The harsh track lighting neither shows Van Gogh's radiant tones to full advantage, nor relieves the sense of being in a bunker. Though one could construct a useful metaphor about the gloaming just beyond the rays of light, I doubt that this what was intended when the show was hung.

Also on exhibit at the Clark's airy Stone Hill Center is James McNeill Whistler's iconic 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, better known to posterity as Whistler's Mother. There is also a small collection of Whistler etchings and prints, but the painting is the big attraction. The pocket-sized show also tells the tale of how the painting, which yielded mixed to scathing reviews when first executed, became famous (after 1932, nearly 30 years after Whistler's death). There are also a few choice parodies of the work. The biggest attraction of all is that as remote as Williamstown, Massachusetts might be, it's cheaper to get there than to fly to Paris to see Whistler's famed work in its permanent home, the Musée d'Orsay. I'll grant you that a trip to Paris has side virtues, but you won't need a passport if you get to the Berkshires before September 27. Rob Weir
The blue path. Note red roof.