Van Gogh retrospective opensDespite eager crowds, the overall mood was quiet and somber earlier this week at “Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth,” an ambitious new exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art.
This was partly because the lighting was kept deliberately low, a special request from the Van Gogh Museum and Kroller-Muller Museum, the artist’s two major Dutch collectors. Dim lighting helps prevent damage, a necessity when displaying van Gogh’s work.
The artist was too poor during his career to buy proper paint and canvas. Many of his paintings were on cardboard or canvas stretched from hand-made fabrics from around his house.
Perhaps the somber mood is only natural. This is after all the first van Gogh retrospective ever held in Korea. An atmosphere of reverence was all pervasive.
The organizers joke that the opening of a van Gogh exhibition is like securing the World Cup Games. This isn’t an idle exaggeration. The show’s organizer paid 1.4 trillion won ($1.5 billion) in insurance.
The irony is that van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime.
The exhibition comprises 45 paintings and 22 drawings and prints from different phases in the artist’s career. Each work projects a sense of the misery and loneliness that haunted van Gogh’s short but prolific life.
The first work in the exhibition is “Sorrow,” a nude etching of the pregnant Sien, an alcoholic prostitute and model the artist lived with in The Hague.
Van Gogh painted few portraits since he couldn’t afford to pay for models. Instead, he mainly painted self-portraits.
Out of the 40 portraits he painted during his lifetime, 35 were completed in Paris. In “Self-Portrait” we see van Gogh’s eyes painted blue and green, though both eyes are thought to have been green.
During van Gogh’s Paris years his paintings were influenced by the Impressionists and Japanese prints. This led to the development of his heavy impasto technique ― thick and rich brushwork.
At the same time, he began to paint more flowers, which were highly popular in the annual Salon, which was representative of mainstream art in 19th century France.
Perhaps one of the most powerful exhibits in this collection should be seen close up. It’s “Irises,” painted in 1890 shortly after the artist committed himself to an asylum in St. Remy. It encapsulates the artist’s palette from the later years: glowing violets against a rich yellow background and the curved silhouettes of the petals.
Another highlight is “Yellow House,” where van Gogh lived with his close friend, the painter Gauguin. Their relationship deteriorated when the two fought over art one night. After the quarrel, van Gogh cut off his left earlobe, wrapped it in newspaper and gave it to a prostitute at a local brothel. The two artists never saw each other again.
“The Garden of the Asylum at Saint Remy” is an impossibly beautiful landscape of the garden at the psychiatric hospital where van Gogh resided.
It’s a poignant reflection of the artist’s desire to revive his career during his final years.
“Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth” runs through March 16, 2008 at the Seoul Museum of Art. The admission fee is 12,000 won. For more information call (02) 1577-2933.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]