In April 1897 Paul Gauguin had already been back in Tahiti for two years. His health was poor and he rarely worked outside in the lush natural world or by the ocean. He spent much more time in his studio. That month he received the news from his wife Mette that his daughter Aline, at the age of only twenty, had died in Copenhagen in January from complications due to pneumonia. Gauguin was utterly distraught at this news and in the following months he gradually resolved to take his own life. Illness and distance from home were an unbearable weight. But before leaving the world he wished to paint his masterpiece, one last great work summing up the meaning of his journey in the world and among the lights of painting. So he ordered fresh paints and lots of brushes, some very large, from Paris. On Tahiti he had an enormous canvas made, almost four meters long and one and a half meters high.
Having been admitted to the French Hospital with heart problems on the second day of December 1897, he immediately walked out again and set to work on an epoch-making painting, one of the most celebrated works in the whole of the history of art. By the end of December the painting was finished, and the day before old year's night he climbed up into the mountains with a jar of arsenic, bent on suicide. But he swallowed so much all at once that he immediately vomited the poison. Prey to convulsions and in terrible pain, he lay on the mountain for a whole day until he eventually managed to stagger back down to the village for help. What survives from this whole experience is the celebrated painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, which thanks to an equally epoch-making loan will be on show in Genoa as the finest jewel in an already extraordinarily rich exhibition. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts
is lending the work for only the fourth time ever and only the second time in Europe, after Paris around ten years ago.
A visit to the exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin's Journey will thus be an absolutely unique experience. This work is a world rarity and the idea that it will be on show in Italy is quite unbelievable. No other work, moreover, could better illustrate the sense of the journey that the Genoa exhibition wishes to explore: the journey as geographical exploration, as physical movement and also as an inner voyage. We could almost say that without this painting the exhibition would not have been possible or that this unique painting could be a whole exhibition unto itself.
But this stunning exhibition actually consists of 80 masterpieces of 19th- and 20th-century European and American painting from museums worldwide, inspired by Vincent van Gogh's preeminent role in the art of the two centuries in question. The extraordinary adventure of the "journey" the ultimate, innermost meaning of the exhibition gradually developed around his ever-burning flame.
This journey is not only from one place to another and, therefore, through the "spaces" mentioned in the subtitle. It is also a digging deep into self on an equally long and at times more challenging adventure. The twofold meaning thus alludes to journeys with all their physical and geographical connotations, discoveries and explorations, and interior spiritual journeys.
Van Gogh fuses both journeys in his painting. On these grounds, thirty-five of his most significant works (twenty-five paintings and ten drawings), almost all loaned by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, form the core of this exceptional Genoa exhibition documenting the transition from the gloominess of Dutch interiors to the almost unbearable brightness of the southern sun. In his self images more than any other subject Van Gogh sought to portray both an interior world and an exterior world. The exhibition thus features the greatly acclaimed Self-Portrait as an Artist, painted in 1888 and exceptionally loaned for the occasion by the Van Gogh Museum. This painting is a perfect, extreme synthesis of the unsolved tension between a journey as leading to somewhere and a journey to isolation.
Not by chance this painting alone emerging from darkness will be displayed in the doge's chapel, the second to last room. It's a seal before reaching the very last picture, portraying a haystack flied over by crows, which are heading towards territories in a journey of no return.
Wheat stack under a cloudy sky, depicted by the artist only three weeks before his death will be displayed to the public for the first time in over forty years. It represents just one of the extraordinary fruits born by this garden, along with, for example, some of the letters written by Van Gogh to his brother Theo and related to the paintings shown at Palazzo Ducale. Fragments of paper similar to holy pictures in a room plunged into darkness that will certainly and deeply touch the viewer.
Van Gogh is thus at the centre of the exhibition with numerous, authentic masterpieces, including the most celebrated version of The Sower, painted at Arles in June 1888, and Shoes. The latter painting of the artist's own worn-down boots could not be a more fittingly symbolic subject in an exhibition on the theme of the journey.
Another two sections in the exhibition one before and one after Van Gogh feature American and European painting, respectively. The section on 19th-century American painting is an exploration of unknown territories or the description of a space that was shaping the identity of a new nation. Two painters have been chosen to represent this longing for the unknown, this pathos or primordial force driving them on the journey towards a longed-for place almost to be embraced, had the dimension of the embrace not been out of all proportions: Edwin Church, the painter of the East, of the Hudson Valley, and the Maine coast; and Albert Bierstadt, the painter of the West, of the discovery of Yellowstone and Yosemite.
After a gap of a few years, we come to Winslow Homer's journey on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, to Prouts Neck on the Maine coast. That journey made at the turn of the century ended in the solitude of stormy waters and the darkness of a whirlpool mirrored by black swirling clouds massed in the sky. Another extraordinary painter, Andrew Wyeth, was to paint the same Maine coast for the whole of the second half of the 20th century, continuing the figurative tradition not only of Homer but also of Edward Hopper, an artist who captured the sense of the journey in provincial America in dumb syllables of stunned silence. He also grasped the feeling of interior journeys in some of his most famous mute and pensive figures.
After Hopper's nights and dark bends, the exhibition continues with the almost monochrome surfaces of Mark Rothko and one of the most remarkable interior journeys that the history of painting has ever witnessed. A journey plumbing the depths of land and water to transform everything into the bruise-like hints of waves. Rothko provides a fascinating comparison with Turner, when his blacks and browns are seen side-by-side on the walls with the almost identical seashores painted by the English artist a century and a half before. After Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn converts sea storms into his electrifying Ocean Parks as he watches the buzzing flow of electricity wires from a high window overlooking the Pacific.
And while the American section ends here, the European painting section begins from the mind's journey when confronted with the infinite of Caspar David Friedrich, a small boat heading its way in the fog. William Turner, on the other hand, blends paint with paint, color with color, ash with ash, water with water, fire with fire, and painting with painting in the swirling of a journey harnessing the power of the elements.
Paul Gauguins journey was to the antipodes, first Tahiti and then Martinique. He couldnt have gone further to discover new color and measure the distance from the education of feeling to feeling in its primordial state. Here the journey is seeing afar and being elsewhere. Monet's journey, on the other hand, is round the sheltered enclosure of the garden at Giverny and in water lilies blooming like wreaths. His journey is inside the light that touches the eye and reveals colours and so sanctions their dissolution.
Lastly, the mental journey of Wassily Kandinsky, in everyday contact with an eventful, at times even morbid vision, shaped out forms generating dreams and enchantments, trepidation and memories. His journey is patently bound to European culture in the first half of the 20th century and by the mid-century that culture in a kind of epic and also tragic parallel to Rothko saw Nicolas de Staël set off on a tormented journey from the whitewashed walls of Agrigento to the sheer cliffs of Antibes soaring up into a sky pierced by gulls.
But at the center, monumental and tragic, tormented and splendid, Van Gogh is still an immensely inspiring figure with his cornfields haunted by flapping crows or his gentle gardens in bloom. He is the heart and soul of this extraordinary exhibition, which naturally includes a large group of his paintings.
Genoa is thus the stage for an incredible, superb exhibition of Van Gogh masterpieces. Not to mention the momentous loan of Gauguin's Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? and even more masterpieces by great artists from Hopper to Kandinsky.