Today, I decided to take a pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I was a man with a mission. I wanted to witness a Van Gogh in person.
The museum is lodged on a beautiful campus not far from downtown Indy. Admission is free. Their website indicated a charge for parking, but I found a spot that wasn’t in the main lot (don’t tell anyone).
The signs were promoting an exhibition of Ai Weiwei dubbed “the most controversial artist in the world”. I wasn’t enticed. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate controversy as much as the next fellow, but not when it costs me $12 to see. I like my controversy for free.
On arrival, I went to the information desk and was told I would need to place my backpack and water bottle in a locker. Not a problem. The lockers cost only a 25-cent deposit. I asked about Van Gogh and they directed me upstairs to the European collection.
After checking in at another desk, I entered a very spacious area with winding rooms. The walls were filled with paintings of various sizes. I recognized Gaugin, Pissaro, El Greco. But I couldn’t find Van Gogh. I asked a guard. A young boy with a clipboard. A middle-aged woman with a fake tan. They all pointed me in different directions.
Finally, I saw it. “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”.
While it didn’t take my breath away, I was definitely captivated by this living example of Van Gogh’s work. It clearly stood out from the other pieces – not just for the thick brush strokes (as if the paint were applied with a putty knife), but for the delicate blending of colors. The blue sky was seamlessly woven into the grey-ish hills which joined the yellow-green fields harmoniously.
The small figures of a tree and a man are subtly hidden into the landscape, but as you examine it deeper, they come alive. They tell a story of survival – the tree is barely more than a paltry collection of limbs with a splash of greenery. The man in blue is bent over carrying large bundles of hay almost bigger than he is.
A sign near the painting suggested that in this work Van Gogh reveals his “pantheistic beliefs”, but I certainly don’t think the piece commands such an interpretation. Whatever Van Gogh in fact believed, the painting conveys a sense of man’s insignificance in the scheme of Creation as well as the hard labor required for survival.
Overall, as I reflected on the painting, I gained a measure of peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
The note beside the piece also gave s0me context, that it was painted –
in the provincial town of Saint-Remy, as Van Gogh recuperated from a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve during Gaugin’s fateful visit.
The painting suggests that Van Gogh, at least for a time, was well into his recovery as the “Landscape” conveys a peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.