Artnews_ What makes a blockbuster art exhibition: size or quality? Back in 1990, when the Van Gogh Museum lured nearly 140 Vincent van Gogh paintings and drawings to Amsterdam, it seemed that the appeal of a big, expensive survey hinged on the length of its decorated checklist. No surprise, then, that 1.2 million people saw that retrospective, with some even camping out in the summer heat to make it into the show.
More than 30 years on, here comes the Met’s “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” which suggests something very different about blockbusters today. Even though it includes just 44 works, the show, which opens to the public on Monday, is likely to attract big crowds all the same. Perhaps quantity is no longer as important as it once was.
Among those 44 works, there are some bona fide masterpieces. The Starry Night (1889), van Gogh’s famed image of a swirling night sky with a dominating cypress tree, has made the short trip from the Museum of Modern Art, journeying 25 blocks north. It’s been a decade since that painting left MoMA, and it’s a joy to see it share space with gems that have traveled much farther, from locales as distant as São Paulo, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen.
Sure, “Van Gogh’s Cypresses” is modest, occupying just three galleries in a museum that spans four blocks. And sure, it’s not a retrospective either. But you simply cannot beat the spark felt when this many paintings of this high a caliber are assembled in one space.
nstallation view of “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” 2023, at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The show is organized around van Gogh’s depictions of trees he saw throughout Arles and Saint-Rémy, the Provençal communes where he spent his time between 1888 and his death in 1890. Susan Alyson Stein, the show’s curator, passionately stumps for the importance of these conifers to van Gogh’s oeuvre, going so far as to write in the catalogue that they have gone sorely “unrecognized.”
Stein’s fascination with van Gogh’s arboreal obsession is totally understandable. Almost always, the cypresses are the real stars of the paintings here, trumping the warping wheat fields, flowerbeds, and people beneath. Take Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889), a gem of the Met’s collection, in which a tree shoots upward, spearing wispy clouds that roll across the sky like waves. Van Gogh has applied his pine-colored paint so thickly, the tree’s leaves take on a sculptural quality.
The version of this painting that van Gogh termed the “definitive” one, on loan from London’s National Gallery and also from 1889, is boring by comparison, his violent handling of paint dulled by the decision to render it relatively flat. It’s a sharp composition that’s impossible to deaden entirely, however. It’s been well over a century since these two paintings have been reunited, and let’s hope we don’t have to wait another for them to come together once more.
Van Gogh, whose mental health continued to waver as he painted these works, once said that he had rendered the trees “as I see them.” That’s telling: he painted them tall and firm amid landscapes that roil with intense, curlicuing strokes, as though they were the only things he could count on to remain largely unchanged in a world exceeding his grip.
Vincent van Gogh, Cypresses, 1889.
More often than not, van Gogh’s trees even appear to come alive. One gorgeous 1889 drawing in this show features a cypress whose leaves, rendered using a reed pen, slither upward like licking flames. Even the cypresses pushed to the background of the Seurat-like Orchard with Peach Trees and Cypresses (1888) shudder with life, threatening to distract from the gorgeous pops of apricot and baby blue that can be found throughout.
What, exactly, did van Gogh see in his cypresses? It’s hard to say. He explained so many things in his letters to his brother Theo, but not the symbolism of these evergreens. As a result, the show resorts mainly to context clues for possible interpretations.
“Van Gogh’s Cypresses” starts with his arrival in Arles in 1888, and notes that the artist initially painted these French trees with ones seen in the Netherlands, his home country, in mind. Based solely on what’s in the galleries, this is an obscure point, since the exhibition includes nothing painted before his time in Provence, but it is true that a work like Landscape with Path and Pollard Willows(1888), with its trunks zagging diagonally away from a road, features the same kinds of trees seen in works from van Gogh’s Dutch era. That there is a connection at all implies a search for fixity in a fluid world.
Within a year, his compositions had undergone a significant change. His skies and fields, once neatly balanced, were thrown out of alignment, as they are in Landscape under Turbulent Skies (1889), in which gloomy clouds descend above trees that may not withstand the storm they augur. The clouds are far larger than anything else in the canvas—with the exception of some cypresses toward the right whose pointy tips seem to ward them off, like a knife pointed at a potential assailant.
Vincent van Gogh, Country Road in Provence by Night, 1890.
Van Gogh painted that work in April 1889. The next month, having already sliced off his ear and experienced hallucinations, he checked himself into an asylum in Saint-Rémy. His palette turned darker; deep greens, slathered on so heavily that they approach blackness, prevail in the subsequent works.
Not all hope is lost, however. A Walk at Twilight (1890), a stunning image of a couple traversing a landscape sparsely populated by bushes, has at its top a vermilion sunset. The day may be disappearing, but light isn’t entirely gone. Some cypresses stand watch, ready to weather the long night.
Van Gogh’s cypresses don’t evolve much as presented in this show—it’s tough to understand how, or even if, he thought differently of them in the months leading up to his death by suicide in July 1890. As curatorial endeavors go, the exhibition isn’t exactly the most rigorous exercise. But it’s also tough to complain when the Met has managed to wrangle rarely seen masterpieces from private collections, if only temporarily.
Vincent van Gogh, Trees in the Garden of the Asylum, 1889.
Trees in the Garden of the Asylum (1889), one of those works typically kept out of public view, may just be one of the most beautiful van Gogh paintings I’ve encountered. It depicts a view from the window of the Saint-Rémy institution where van Gogh stayed, although unlike another painting nearby in this show, it does not portray the pane’s borders. Instead, what we get is a cypress above a grassy garden, along with two kinked trees pressed into the foreground that obstruct our view of Edenic nature.
This is a very strange compositional choice, and a richly rewarding one, too. It’s a work that suggests that nature is unyielding—we may gaze upon it, searching for meaning, as van Gogh himself did, but it exists according to its own rules. Van Gogh accepted as much.
The Starry Night is likely to steal the spotlight in “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” but the true stars ought to be Trees in the Garden of the Asylumand the other remarkable pieces from private collections. They’re works that encourage slow, patient viewing, and when crowds bottleneck before MoMA’s masterwork, those pieces will likely go largely unseen. Herein lies the beauty of a small but potent blockbuster like this show: there are still treasures for everyone.