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Ploughing his canvases: a large and ambitious exhibition in Basel is the first to provide a full survey of one of the key aspects of Van Gogh's work, his paintings of landscapes.


Vincent van Gogh: Between Earth and Heaven', at the Kunstmuseum Basel, focuses on the artist's landscapes, with 70 paintings. Covering the artist's full career, the exhibition emphasises how the earth tones of his early Dutch works were transformed into the intense colours of his Provence scenes. As the Kunstmuseum curator Nina Zimmer points out, 'through the landscapes, it is possible to trace, step-by-step, the development of Van Gogh's distinctive idiom, which ultimately led to a radically new kind of freedom in painting'. Surprisingly, this is the first exhibition to cover the flail spectrum of Van Gogh's landscape painting, although two recent shows have dealt with specific aspects ('Fields' at Bremen's Kunsthalle in 2002 and the late landscapes of Auvers at the Thyssen Museum, Madrid, in 2007).

The Basel show is well presented, in a simple but effective display that provides reasonable space around the works (which is essential, as over 500,000 visitors are expected before it closes on 27 September). Part of the Kunstmuseum's permanent collection has been cleared from the upper floor, with one suite of galleries being devoted to Van Gogh's Dutch and Paris periods (1883-87; Fig. 1) and the parallel suite with paintings from Provence and Auvers (1888-90). The floor below has a separate display of 40 landscapes by the artist's contemporaries from the collection of the Kunstmuseum.

With 70 works, this is one of the largest exhibitions of Van Gogh's paintings in recent years. Unusually, we can give the exhibits' total insurance value, which is over two billion Swiss francs (1.1bn [pounds sterling]). No works on paper are shown, although arguably it would have been appropriate to include some that were drawn on the spot (rather than those done after paintings).

Basel has done well in getting the loans, rightfully helped by the fact that the exhibition sets out to examine an important genre in Van Gogh's oeuvre. Among the masterpieces that may be fresh to a European audience are two works done in Saint-Remy, Olive Orchard (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City) and the iconic Cypresses from the Metropolitan Museum, New York (Fig. 3). Both demonstrate that Van Gogh was quite capable of painting at his very best during his period in the asylum, despite his medical problems. In terms of a group of works, the most powerful room in the exhibition includes six wheatfield scenes from Aries, the golden yellow of the fields contrasting with dramatic blue skies. Van Gogh specialists will be particularly interested in Apricot Trees in Blossom, dating from April 1888, soon after the artist's arrival in Provence. For many years it was owned by a Johannesburg collector (it is still in a private collection), and was last lent to a temporary exhibition in 1928.


Two pictures that have been questioned as fakes are shown. The Fourteenth of July Celebrations in Pads was painted in the summer of 1886. In 2002, when it was owned by the Hahnloser-Buhler family and exhibited at their Villa Flora, in Winterthur, it was 'ascribed' to Van Gogh, since it had long been questioned by some specialists, mainly because of its Impressionistic brushwork. However, the Zurich dealer and scholar Walter Feilchenfeldt, who is an advisor to this exhibition, is convinced that the painting is authentic, and he points out that it was exhibited as early as 1901, which adds to its credibility. The other reinstated work is Group of Houses and Church, an Auvers scene of July 1890, owned by the Rhode Island School of Design. In its 1991 collection catalogue, the curator Dan Rosenfeld dismissed it as a 'pastiche by an unknown hand', partly because of its unrealistic topography and colouring. The painting was sent to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for examination just before the Basel show, and although their technical analysis remains to be completed, initial results point towards it being authentic.

One particularly interesting issue raised by the exhibition is whether Van Gogh conceived a series of 'triptychs', in which groups of three paintings should be displayed together. Based on Feilchenfeldt's research, the Basel catalogue identifies three such groupings from the Paris period: 'Riverbanks in Asnieres', 'Riverbanks in Clichy' and 'La Grande Jatte'.

As the individual pictures have long since been dispersed, reassembling the three triptychs proved challenging, but the Clichy triptych (including Figure 2) has been brought together. However, it has to be said that, as presented in the exhibition, visually it is not entirely convincing as an ensemble. Two of the three Asnieres works have come to Basel, the third having eluded the organisers. One of the two shown is the Ashmolean's Restaurant de la Sirene, and further research adds weight to the theory that it was indeed part of a triptych. Quite a number of the paintings intended to be part of Van Gogh's triptychs have a thin red painted border around their edges, added by Van Gogh. In the case of the Oxford picture, this had apparently not been previously noted, but following our inquiries, the Ashmolean produced photographs of the strip of canvas on the side of the wooden stretcher, which appears to show evidence of a red border.

Although the Basel catalogue (available in an English edition) has useful essays, it does not provide a comprehensive survey of Van Gogh as a landscape artist. Space may have precluded it, but an analysis or possibly even a listing of Van Gogh's landscape paintings by period would have been helpful (landscapes may account for around a third of his surviving 860 works). Catalogue entries on individual paintings in the show would have been welcome, partly to record exactly where the landscapes were painted (a question that has been relatively neglected in much Van Gogh research). Coinciding with the show (although as a separate initiative), Feilchenfeldt has published a book recording the provenances of all Van Gogh's French paintings. (1) The book is in German, but the 360 pictures are all illustrated and it is simple to use, so it represents an important resource.

In summary, the Basel exhibition is a visual treat, allowing visitors and specialists alike the opportunity to explore the theme of landscapes in the artist's work. As I left the show, I recalled the words that Van Gogh wrote from the St-Remy asylum in October 1889, comparing his artistic endeavours with the work of the peasants: 'I am ploughing on my canvasses as they do on their fields.'


(1) Walter Feilchenfeldt, Vincent van Gogh: Die Gemalde 1886-90, Nimbus Publications, ISBN 9783907142 387.

Martin Bailey is a Van Gogh specialist and a correspondent of The Art Newspaper.

"Vincent van Gogh--Zwischen Erde und Himmel: Die Landschaften', Kunstmuseum, Basel, 26 April-27 September (+ 41 61 206 6262). Catalogue by Carel Blotkamp, et al., ISBN 9783720401852 (English edition), CHF59 (Hatje Cantz).
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS; Basel, Switzerland; Vincent Van Gogh
Author:Bailey, Martin
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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