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Palazzo Reale in Milan celebrates Van Gogh's relationship with nature and the earth
Vincent van Gogh, Rose e peonie. Olio su tela, cm 59,8 x 72,5, 1886. Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo© Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo.

MILAN.- The exhibition 'Van Gogh. Man and the Earth', held in the Palazzo Reale in Milan from 18 October 2014 to 8 March 2015, explores the celebrated Dutch artist's profound relationship with Nature and the Earth.

The exhibition sets the works on display in relation with the themes of the 2015 Milan Expo – Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, exhibition partner, by showing how the artist's interest in the cycles of the Earth and those of human life deeply influenced his poetics.

Curated by Kathleen Adler with the support of a committee of Van Gogh experts such as Cornelia Homburg, Sjraar van Heugten, Jenny Reynaerts and Stéphane Guégan, the exhibition features 47 works by Van Gogh, including the outstanding masterpieces Self-Portrait (1887), Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889) and Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (1889).

The main corpus of works, divided into six sections, comes from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, with notable contributions from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Soumaya-Fundación Carlos Slim Museum in Mexico City, the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, and important private collections.

The exhibition space, designed by the famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, draws inspiration from Nature in order to bring visitors face to face with Van Gogh's world.

“With this exhibition – Arts and Culture Councillor Filippo Del Corno has stated – Milan confirms its cultural policy of engaging with the most significant contemporary events while at the same time providing opportunities to become better acquainted with leading figures from the world of art. The core of works from the renowned Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo constitutes the centre of the exhibition itinerary and highlights the ancestral, eternal relationship between man and the Earth. The Municipality of Milan wishes to bring this topic to the attention of the city and its visitors through an exhibition which serves as an 'ambassador' for the theme of the 2015 Milan Expo – 'Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life' – by announcing it only a few months away from the inauguration of the world fair.”

Under the High Patronage of the President of the Italian Republic, the exhibition is promoted by the Cultural Department of the Municipality of Milan, and has been produced and organized by the Palazzo Reale of Milan, Arthemisia Group and 24 ORE Cultura – Gruppo 24 ORE, in partnership with the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo.

The show is one of the events organized for the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh's death, which is being celebrated through the grand international programme Van Gogh 2015, curated by the Van Gogh Europe Foundation. This institution is supported by the Dutch government with the aim of protecting and promoting Van Gogh's work; it comprises four main organizations: the Van Gogh Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum, Van Gogh Brabant and Mons 2015 – European Capital of Culture. Under the collective name Van Gogh Europe, these make up the core of the collaborative effort of thirty-odd institutions based in Holland, Belgium, France and Britain, which are actively promoting the great Dutch master's legacy.

Kathleen Adler, the curator of the exhibition – as well as of many others devoted to some of the leading representatives of the Impressionist movement – and the author of some important monographs on the subject, has written with regard to Van Gogh: “In the life of Vincent – ever moving, unstable, restless, incapable of settling anywhere or of conforming to society's norms, and always in conflict with his family – there is but a single constant and indissoluble bond: that with the earth and its toils”. This concept, which the exhibition intends to explore and illustrate to the public at large, became a genuine life philosophy for Van Gogh, as the great art historian Giulio Carlo Argan noted by referring to him as the artist who “stands alongside Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, siding with the disinherited, the peasants whom industry has deprived not just of land and bread, but of human dignity, a sense of ethics and the sacredness of work.

In her enquiry into Van Gogh's peasant world, the curator is supported by a committee that includes internationally acclaimed scholars focusing on all aspects of Van Gogh's art: Cornelia Homburg, one of the world's leading Van Gogh experts, as well as the curator of some of the most important exhibitions devoted to the artist; Sjraar van Heugten, former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; Jenny Reynaerts, senior Curator of 18th and 19th-Century Paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; and Stéphane Guégan, Curator in the Department of Paintings of the Musée d’Orsay.

Finally, the space, designed by the famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma (whose projects include the Hiroshige Museum and the Tokyo Suntory Building), brings visitors face to face with the theme of the exhibition, in compliance with the scientific project and the poetics of the great Dutch painter.

By drawing inspiration for the rural landscape and its neutral colours, Kengo Kuma has chosen to employ a material that evokes the tactile and organic quality of the earth and its smell: jute. He has used it to create an enveloping space reminiscent of the free-flowing, soft lines in Van Gogh's paintings, which almost seem to fluctuate in the light created by Viabizzuno's light designers.

Articulated into six sections, the exhibition focuses on the relation between man and nature that lies at the centre of Van Gogh's work: from the early drawings through which the artist gradually developed his technique to the bright, lively outburst of colours in his later landscapes; from his portraits – often not of individuals but of human types, such as “the peasant” – to his still-lifes, which increasingly came to reflect the rustic simplicity of the country life unfolding before the painter's eyes. The Self-Portrait which opens the exhibition is one of the many paintings which Van Gogh executed by carefully gazing at himself in the mirror: a work that will give the viewer the impression of having met the artist in person. Van Gogh's personality is revealed in his own words through the famous letters quoted in the captions, some of which are featured as part of the exhibition itinerary. The aim here is to illustrate the content of Van Gogh's oeuvre, poetics and art through the things Vincent tells Theo and other correspondents.

Throughout the six sections (Man and the Earth; Life in the Fields; The Modern Portrait; Still-Lifes; Letters; Colour and Life), visitors will have the opportunity to observe and identify with country life and labour, especially through Van Gogh's drawings – such as Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves (as well as those such as Gleaning and Digging). Drawing was a technique which Van Gogh was very fond of: the artist claimed that it enabled him to “study and sketch everything in peasant life... Now I am no longer as powerless before nature as I was in the past.” This process led Van Gogh to completely immerse himself in the the oil-painting of landscapes, a sort of revelation he first experienced on his arrival in Provence (“The Mediterranean has the colour of mackerel, changeable I mean. You don't always know if it is green or violet, you can't even say it's blue, because the next moment the changing reflection has taken on a tint of rose or grey”). These landscapes are illustrated in the exhibition by works such as View of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, Olive Grove with Two Olive Pickers and The Green Vineyard.

Then there are the portraits: as the artist himself wrote in 1890, “there are modern faces that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later.” Faces such as those in the Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux and the Portrait of Joseph Roulin.

Van Gogh searched for the meaning of life and things in the peasant world, in simple and pure creatures – such as the postman who used to visit him at the madhouse everyday and sing him La Marseillaise – and in the toil and hard work, of the sort performed by the farmers and fishermen he portrayed. The artist wrote to his brother, his favourite correspondent: “We should grow old by working hard – this is why we get depressed when things don't run smoothly.”

Van Gogh's work was largely unacknowledged in his own day because of its original manner and style, despite the influences from – and links with – contemporary novelists (as illustrated by Stéphane Guégan's essay in the catalogue), not to mention the Impressionists and the much-beloved Millet and Daumier – who were also too far ahead of their time.

In conjunction with the exhibition, in the month of December 2014 the Cineteca Italiana Foundation will be presenting a series of films entitled Van Gogh. L’uomo e la terra: i film. Screening will be held at the Spazio Oberdan in Milan.

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