May 12th-August 16th 2015
Van Gogh, perhaps the father of Impressionism, is being honored with a new exhibition at the infamous Metropolitan Museum of Art. Van Gogh: Irises and Roses features four canvases that the artist painted a month before his death after his exit from asylum Saint-Rémy.
Before his suicide, Van Gogh was focused on a series of vibrant bouquets featuring spring flowers: two paintings with irises and two with roses, in contrasting formulas and color schemes.
The paintings can be viewed as symbols of optimism that Van Gogh felt after his time in isolation, which was further conveyed in his letters to his family as he readied himself for his departure. On the other hand, those who believe that he was already dallying with the idea of suicide interpret the works as his last attempt to leave a beautiful, calming and lasting impact.
This exhibition at The Met reunites the paintings for the first time since the artist’s death, and is timed to coincide with the blooming of the flowers that initially caught his attention.
The paintings are self-assured in their strength, and executed in such a deeply methodical manner. Each canvas is anchored slightly by an off-center vase and unified by a common horizontal line. As a result of this, there is an undeniable power of contrasts, giving full reign to the pairing of opposites (including color, format and floral motif). They compliment and enhance one another with their juxtapositions.
The strokes are wider in the background and foreground, meanwhile narrower when delineating the flowers– these small, angular brush strokes practically pulse with energy and reverberate through the canvas fibers.
Interestingly, Van Gogh incorporated the red lake pigment within this painting, a synthetic dye that he was drawn to due to its initial brilliance. He blended the red with the blue to make vibrant violet irises, and additionally used the red to add shards and bursts of red to the white roses.
Unfortunately, the paintings today are not as they were. The red lake pigment has faded over the years, mostly disappearing when mixed with anything else and otherwise completely washed out when undiluted. Consequently, the irises are now more blue than violet, and the roses almost completely white.
Knowing of the untimely way in which Van Gogh ended his life, it does not seem hyperbolic to ascribe a somewhat suicidal quality to the synthetic red lake. The pigment did indeed self-destruct, which resonates with the suicide.
The Met has allowed access to digital technology to examine their findings by two sleek slideshows, using X-ray fluorescence mapping to examine the canvases. The monitors face the paintings, with the respective digital images taking us beneath the surface, magnifying molecules of color. While moving back and forth between the digital images and the real life paintings, we are given greater clarity, understanding and appreciation.
Van Gogh will be eternally known for his exuberant use of color– faded or not, the flowers are undeniably gorgeous.