The other Van Gogh, the one of the last, is on display in Milan

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By John

There is something that is repeated in the exhibitions dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890): the surprise (which is obviously not such, rather the reopening of a window of visual memory) at the great emotion that the Dutch painter’s first works arouse, those in which dark tones surround and interpenetrate characters from the countryside and of the poorest cities, when the initial uncertain style is already transformed and becomes an interpreter of fatigue, pain and rural and working-class life. Surprise which then regularly slows down and almost vanishes when the very personal chromaticism and the sign that transmutes reality – while maintaining it in its evident physicality – of the great masterpieces then painted in France, make us leave everything else in the background, even though it had so much to do with it. interested. Lhe exhibition «Vincent Van Gogh. Cultured Painter», held at the Mudec in Milan until January 28, seems to block this phenomenon of “non-memory” because this time the “two Van Goghs” coexist on equal terms in our post-visit imagination.

It is a particular phenomenon because this is not the main purpose of the original exhibition itinerary, but becomes a direct consequence of it. Let’s go in order. The exhibition, curated by Francesco Poli with Mariella Guazzoni and Aurora Canepari, is produced by 24 Ore Cultura – Gruppo 24 Ore, promoted by the Municipality of Milan-Cultura, and is made possible thanks to the collaboration with the Röller-Müller Museum of Otterlo, which owns the largest collection of paintings and drawings by the Dutch painter, second only to that of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and allows you to also admire lesser-known works. Its aim, clearly stated by the title, is to break away from the stereotypes of madness, of the self-taught and solitary artist, to re-establish a little-researched truth: Van Gogh was also a very cultured intellectual.

As Poli explains, we want to “focus on the richness and depth of the cultural interests that underlie Van Gogh’s vision of life and art”, developing two themes: the great and constant interest in books and the fascination for Japan. This is why all the works on display, with a chronological and thematic path, are set up in constant dialogue with the books, which the artist himself writes about in his numerous letters. What happens, going back to our beginning? That is the literary motivation that leads Van Gogh to believe in the need to paint reality in the same way in which the authors told it – Zola, for example, but even before that Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), Dickens and Shakespeare – with the feeling of authentic compassion (developed during the period in which he was a preacher), he tempers the attention that the works dedicated to the most humble people arouse, leaving a trail within us even when «Pines at sunset» or «Sheaf under a cloudy sky” lead us towards that sky-earth union which, albeit in different measures, is part of our soul, in whatever way it is understood.

Among these works with colorless tones, apart from «The Potato Eaters», already considered an early masterpiece compared to the great period of his special use of colors, or even the better known «Woman on her deathbed», I would like to point out the little-known «Carpenter’s workshop and laundry» and «Fish drying room in Scheveningen», created with mixed techniques in 1882. In the sign, apparently objective, there is rather an evident movement of empathy towards the world of the least: a closer observation suffices conscious (and the connection with books stimulates her) so that this time those images remain standing out in our visual and emotional memory.

For the rest, the theses of the exhibition are widely demonstrated and can be shared. The quotation of some passages from Van Gogh’s letters act as a significant introduction to the main topics. The first, contained in a letter to his brother Teo, says: «I have a more or less irresistible passion for books and I need to continuously educate myself, to study, if you want, just as I need to eat my piece of bread ». A passion that he carried on until his last days, with an ever-present interest in literary innovations: much important and contemporary fiction, but also non-fiction, especially that dedicated to the developments of art. The second quote, taken from a letter to his sister Wil, refers to the East: «As for me, I don’t need Japanese prints because I always tell myself that here (in Provence, ed.) I am in Japan. And consequently I just have to open my eyes and paint what is in front of me and what strikes me.”
Having overcome but not forgotten the declared admiration for the realism of his elective master Jean-François Millet, the interest in Japanese prints, born with a commercial intent, is transformed into a way of painting that “simplifies” reality, according to lessons of Hiroshige first and of the great Hokusai later, who, with his “floating world”, became an important source of inspiration for Van Gogh, until his tragic end.