In high school I took an art history class in which we studied the art movements of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. When we were introduced to the work of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, I was fascinated. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my family home staring at an image of Monet’s haystacks in an art history book overcome with emotion. It was a stirring in myself that I can best describe as “aliveness,” a sort of joyful and excited energy. Looking at the image, I understood that a scene we often think of as ordinary could be seen by an artist and communicated broadly, and across time, as extraordinary. There was a sense of joy, gratitude, generosity, and possibility in this. Wanting to understand these strong responses to works of art led me to study art history, art theory, and earn a doctorate for a project on art criticism.
Due to the global pandemic, it’s been quite awhile since I last visited a museum. With ample time at home, I’ve found myself wandering over to the bookshelf, turning over titles I’ve read, rearranging, and taking stock. Making my way to the larger coffee table books, my eyes rested on my collection of exhibition catalogues. I haven’t collected many, but I do have the catalogues of the top three exhibitions that have meant the most to me in recent years. These are:
Au-delà des étoiles: Le paysage mystique de Monet à Kandinsky. Paris: RMN, 2017.
Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street. Amsterdam: Mercatorfonds, 2017.
Hockney—van Gogh : The Joy of Nature. Amsterdam: Thames & Hudson, 2019.
These exhibitions had a focus on the period that first fascinated me in art history: the last decades of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. During this period, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Symbolism were art movements that explored the changing effects of light in the natural world, the science of colour perception, and the spiritual and mythic aspects of nature and life, respectively. I was drawn to these studies of light, the variety and combinations of colour, and the bold renderings of these movements and their artists.
In Au-delà des étoiles: Le paysage mystique de Monet à Kandinsky—first shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and then at Musée D’Orsay in Paris, where I saw it—the way in which the represented artists related to nature communicates a variety of spiritual investigations. In particular, I was moved by the variety of depictions of trees. Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, Gustave Klimt, Maurice Denis, Emile Bernard, members of The Group of Seven, Emily Carr, and many others, painted trees in all colours from a realistic brown to a vibrant yellow. In the works displayed, the trunks and branches were sometimes as solid and stable as marble pillars or they twisted and contorted in an ornamental fashion. Walking through the many exhibition spaces and seeing many masterpieces, including a couple of Monet’s haystacks, I was aware that I felt that same sense of joyful excited energy as when I was just discovering the treasures of art history years earlier.
2017 was a good year for exhibitions. The prints of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec were the big draw for me to visit the Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street exhibition in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh Museum. What I love about Lautrec’s artwork is the combination of his striking illustration technique—characterised by bold outlines and colour blocking—and the sketch-like and transparent quality of his drawing that emphasizes the movement of the dancers he often depicted. The boldness and movement displayed in Lautrec’s works, and those of other printmakers around the turn of the century, portray the excitement and energy of new technologies that brought artworks to the masses in poster and advertising form. They portray the feeling of the time but that feeling of aliveness can still be felt by the viewer today.
In the Spring of 2019, I visited the exhibition, Hockney—van Gogh : The Joy of Nature in Amsterdam, also at the Van Gogh Museum. This exhibition marks a personal shift for me. In the first room, the visitor is presented with a video interview with David Hockney, who is talking about the influence of van Gogh on his own work. It is not an exaggeration to say that this short video brought tears to my eyes. The large group gathered around the projector was silent, and as I peered around the room, many people had a soft smile on their faces listening to the artist speak of his love of nature, a love shared by van Gogh.
Looking at the large bright paneled paintings by David Hockney alongside the works of van Gogh, I realised that I had, over the years and in my art studies, come to consider landscape painting a bit limited—perhaps too representational—even though my favourite works were mostly landscapes, and the scenes I tended to paint myself were landscapes. I realised that I had let my love of landscape painting fade, unsure of where it could take me in theory or practice. Looking around at what I consider some of the most moving artworks out there, I felt that I needed to give myself permission to go back to my own love of exploring the pull of nature in artworks. I whole-heartedly agree with Hockney’s statement that nature is “endlessly fascinating.”
Can’t wait to get to another art exhibition when possible!
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