On Sunday, Paul and I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park to see a lovely exhibit, Van Gogh and Gauguin: Reality and Imagination, which runs until December 18th. The exhibition explores the artistic relationship and influences shared between the two artists, who lived together briefly in Arles, France, in 1888.
I don’t think there’s a single kid in America who hasn’t heard of Van Gogh. In our house is a painting I had to do in elementary school mimicking Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (the fourth Arles version, if I’m remembering correctly), and framed in my bedroom is a print of one of his Olive Orchard series. I’m also familiar with Gauguin, though I didn’t know it for a long time – my dad loves his paintings, and in our living room and bathroom are two prints of his works (heads up! boobs!):
Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women and Contes Barbares (Primitive Tales).
I don’t have any pictures from the exhibits – no cameras allowed and all that – but I’ve found images of my favourite paintings:
Van Gogh, The Old Church Tower at Nuenen (‘The Peasants’ Churchyard’), 1885.
Van Gogh, Montmartre: Behind the Moulin de la Galette, 1887.
Gauguin, Three Tahitians, 1899.
Since we went on a Sunday, the exhibit was very crowded, and we spent a lot of time weaving through the crowd to get close enough to see the details of the paintings. Alongside the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin were other artists of the time: Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Jules Breton, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, just to name a few. Some of the names I hadn’t ever heard before. (Paul remarked, “Wouldn’t it suck to find out that in the future, your work would be used as an example of influence on some other, later, more famous artist’s paintings?”)
It was fun to go through an exhibit again and remember that even though I don’t paint or take photographs like I used to, I can still look at work like this as an artist. And of course, it was especially nice to be with Paul! We had lots of fun discussing the colours we saw, the physicality of oils, the ornate frames, even the museum track lighting…it was good to be at a museum again!
Most of the writing throughout the exhibit was in Japanese, but I didn’t need the explanations to understand the significant influence of this or that painting, or the lasting impact these two artists had on each other in so short a time. Sunflowers on an Armchair was the last painting of the exhibit – a fitting end to a show exploring the relationship between Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Gauguin, Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901.
The thing I think about most when I walk through an exhibit like this is the passage of time between then and now. A painting sitting in a frame, lit by modern LED lights and witnessed by hundreds upon hundreds of people of all walks of life, began its existence in a studio in an utterly different time at the hands of an artist who had no knowledge of the impact his work would have. The flowers we see have long since wilted and died; the shoes have rotted away, the fruit eaten or thrown out; and the subjects of the portraits, though their visages are immortalised on canvas, are long gone. These paintings are akin to the photographs of the time, but of a simultaneously more accurate and imprecise nature – and, I think, infinitely more beautiful: these are expressions of perception; these are the visual interpretations of how these artists saw the world around them.
And what a beautiful world they moved through; and how lucky we are that they were able to share it with us.