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Van Gogh’s moment of clarity

The artist’s formative years in the Borinage, featuring peasants and miners but no sunflowers

Olivia Weinberg | January/February 2015

Mons is a city steeped in history. Located in the east of the Borinage, an area in the Walloon province of Hainaut in Belgium, it was a military camp for the Romans, a thriving hub during the Industrial Revolution and the site of the first major battle fought by the British and the Germans in 1914. Now, 101 years later, it is back in the firing line—as the European Capital of Culture.

Mons won the title on its own merits, and then someone realised that 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the death of Vincent van Gogh. So he kicks off the programme for the year—but don’t expect an explosive blockbuster. “Van Gogh in the Borinage” homes in on the roots of his art, tracing the back-story behind the narrative we know. In 1878, aged 25, Van Gogh moved to Cuesmes, a coal-mining village in the Borinage blackened by a blanket of soot and a smoky haze. He was an evangelical preacher, desperate to become a respected clergyman, but he struggled to connect with the world around him and empathised instead with peasants and miners, some of whom he befriended and began to draw.

To train himself, he copied two artists whose style and subject he admired, Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet. “The Diggers” and “The Sower”, both after Millet, show early signs of raw talent and deep emotional intelligence. Throughout his career, Van Gogh would return to simple, rustic scenes and the daily lives of working people, only with thicker impasto and brighter, more intense colour.

It was at Cuesmes in 1880 that he decided to become an artist. The moment of clarity is captured in a letter to his brother Theo: “at times it seems to me that my blood is more or less ready to start circulating again, which wasn’t the case the last few months. I 
really couldn’t stand it any more.” For Sjraar van Heugten, curator and head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, this “shows a man filled with a new spirit and a new goal”.

There are seven letters on display, all showing the love and support of Van Gogh’s family. “It’s incredible how much he knows and what a clear view he has of the world,” Theo wrote to one of their sisters in 1888. “I’m sure that if he has a certain number of years yet to live he’ll make a name for himself.” He had two.

This is a quiet show with a tight focus and a scholarly touch. The sunflowers are nowhere to be seen—“that’s not what this is about,” says Van Heugten. The emphasis is not on the individual works but on the story that binds them together. It frees the viewer from the clichés, so we are finally able to climb inside the head of the real Van Gogh. ~ Olivia Weinberg

Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist Musée des Beaux-Arts de Mons, Jan 25th to May 17th


EXHIBITIONS AT A GLANCE

Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne (Royal Academy, London, Jan 24th to Apr 10th). Rubens in all his opulent glory—big canvases covered in fleshy nudes and deep alluring reds (“Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt”, 1616), plus masterpieces by Picasso, Rembrandt and Delacroix. You won’t know where to look first.

Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until Sept 13th). In 1948 Gordon Parks became the first African-American photographer to be hired by Life magazine. Fierce but tender, his pictures have grit, authority and bags of style. Just for good measure, he directed the film “Shaft”.

Raoul Dufy. Exterior to Interior (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Feb 17th to May 17th). Dufy’s paintings are full of spirit. His charming scenes pop with colour—they may seem naive at first glance, but look again and you spot great technical ability.

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015 (Whitechapel Gallery, London, until Apr 6th). Abstract art continues to gain momentum, but it’s a tricky subject. This show traces its rise over the last century, from Russia and Europe to Asia and Latin America. Important works by Mondrian, Orozco and Rodchenko should help piece it all together.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector (Barbican, London, Feb 12th to May 25th). A chance to peek into the personal collections of artists from Peter Blake to Damien Hirst and Sol LeWitt. Look out for Andy Warhol’s cookie jars.

The Dream Archive: Degas, Cézanne, Seurat from the Musée d’Orsay (Albertina, Vienna, Jan 30th to May 3rd). Never mind the rather vacant title. This show brings the art of drawing to life, through a broad range of styles and techniques—intimate sketches by Seurat, pastels by Redon and Degas, and gouaches by Moreau.

Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy. Research and Conservation (Guggenheim, Venice, Feb 14th to Apr 6th). “Alchemy,” 1947, is one of Pollock’s first poured paintings. Splattered with 19 colours of commercial paint, it sucks you in like a labyrinth. In 2013 the Guggenheim sent it to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence (read our Authors on Museums, Summer 2010) to be examined, analysed and cleaned. Here is what they discovered. ~ OW

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