Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition

The view through the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The light refracts in strange ways and distorts the image of the people and the traffic outside. I was here to see the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Seasons, so the image I captured as I entered the gallery was remarkably appropriate.

Water wall NGV

Life often seems to run in cycles or circles, just as the seasons return in sequence year after year. This exhibition links Van Gogh’s life’s work to the seasons. Nature was something of a preoccupation since the Romantic movement, and the exhibition begins with etchings and prints from other artists showing how they were representing the seasons, nature and farm workers. Then we encounter a series of Japanese prints which seem to be echoed in Van Gogh’s style where he painted with heavy outlines and filled in the forms.

Autumn/Fall

In October 1884, Van Gogh painted Avenue of Poplars in Autumn at Nuenen in the Netherlands. The sombre mood of the autumn trees is reflected by the lone woman walking the otherwise deserted road, dressed in mourning clothes. The shadows of the trees seem to reach for her as she seems about to cross a threshold marking her exit from the farm or village.

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June/July of that year describing his approach to painting the different light of the seasons:

“…I think Summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight…

Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.”

Avenue of poplars in Autumn

His Autumn Landscape at Dusk painted a year later is more nuanced in his treatment of light. He wrote to his brother of his admiration for those who can paint darkness while observing that even in the lowest light there are still hints of things going on to maintain interest in the mystery:

“…it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour.” – Van Gogh letters 21 Apr 1885

I found myself drawn into this painting, led by the path and the leading lines of the trees into the pool of orange and yellow that indicated the last fading light of sunset, following the footsteps of the woman returning to the village. I have learned a lot about photographic composition by noting the devices used by painters through the centuries. Here the horizon is placed about one-third from the bottom, and the path one-third from the left. The subject woman is backlit, providing an outline of her form which helps to draw us on in her direction.

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

These two paintings of Autumn – each with a path through the trees and a lone woman – illustrate that, on revisiting the subject, Van Gogh had developed further in his style, and produced arguably a stronger painting as a result. Here, in the second painting, he tantalises us with hints of things happening in the darkness – darkness that is still colour. And in Van Gogh’s life, even at his darkest hours, there was still some light, some colour.

But the cycles of life, like the seasons, never quite return the same. It is less a like a circle; more like a spiral. Some call this the hermeneutic spiral, in which we seem to return, yet we have moved on in our lives; we are older, we know more, we have more experience. It is one reason that people often return to a place they have travelled to, and in that return, the place is subtly different, or our approach to it is different. And we notice different things from the last time.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus talks about this process when he says that we cannot step into the same river twice – time, like the waters of a river, moves on. Our experience of a place is altered by the very fact of seeing it again – we see it with fresh eyes.

Winter

The 1880s were a time of transition for art, and the growing fashion in the Netherlands – notably the Hague School – was focussed on outdoor painting and capturing a mood rather than bright colour. I loved the simplicity captured in this sketch of a woman digging in the snow. A few lines were sufficient to convey the back-breaking work and the stoic determination to maintain a meagre living in the depths of winter.

Woman with a fork in a Winter landscape

The sketch below is called: Sketch of miners in the snow: Winter and was one of a couple of “small rough sketches” he sent to Theo. It certainly didn’t look too rough to me!

Sketch of miners in the snow

Spring

I loved Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as it depicts a town quite similar to several towns we passed through on our Camino in Spain. The town here is about 50kms from Arles in the south of France – and in those days it was a five-hour horse coach ride to reach it. The town is in the Carmargue region, famous for its marshes and particular breed of horses. The town is on the Mediterranean. This visit served to cement his decision to stay in the south of France. I found the painting interesting for four reasons: Firstly, the bold use of monolithic blocks of colour – and the towns in that area actually do strike you like that. Secondly, the composition with the horizon on the Golden mean. Thirdly the cool-warm contrast between the rooflines and the sky and between the town and the blue-purple of the rows of flax plants and possibly grape vines in the foreground. Fourthly, I looked closely at the brush strokes and found that it appears that Van Gogh was left-handed – although there are no direct references to that, and Cezanne himself depicted Van Gogh with a brush in his right hand. But if you look closely at the brush strokes on the flax rows, they appear to be flicking up from right to left, rather than the other way round. I saw similar right-to-left markings in the way he cross-hatched his trees in other drawings.

View of Saintes Maries de la mer

Summer

In the summer of 1888, when Van Gogh had moved to Arles for one of his most productive periods, he painted a series on wheatfields and haystacks. This Farmhouse in Provence shows something of the intensity of light that he was able to capture. In this period he often mixed the colours straight on the canvas, giving the paint a vibrancy as the pigments are mostly unmixed, so they almost shine with their own light.

Farmhouse in Provence

And yes the local stone actually does have a pinkish hue – it is a volcanic rock used in many of the local buildings in that area. I am constantly amazed by the accuracy of Van Gogh’s eye for light and for accurate drafting. In many cases you can go to the same spot and easily identify the same buildings today – I did a series of ‘then and now’ photos in Arles that I’ll discuss in a later post. Of the flowers, Van Gogh wrote:

“I know very well that not a single flower was drawn, that they’re just little licks of colour, red, yellow, orange, green. blue, violet, but the impression of those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.” – letter Van Gogh to his sister Willemien 31 Jul 1888

One of the most striking paintings is A Wheatfield with Cypresses which contrasts the golden wheat with the deep green of the cypress trees – planted as a wind break against the strong dry Mistral wind that blows off the mountains – and then the blue of the distant hills. This one was painted in September 1889 at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. This painting, so full of life and vigour, was painted just a year before his suicide. Somehow, in the turbulence of the clouds and waving cypress trees he depicts something of the turbulence and violence of the Mistral wind and perhaps reflects something of the turbulence in his mind at that time.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses

So Van Gogh’s life, like our own can be seen like the cycle of the seasons. Travel too, can be seen in this light – and like Heraclitus says – we never truly return to the same place.

The same is also true of our return home after we have travelled. Suddenly, we see our own place in a new light, we notice new things about it, and perhaps question or seek to change things in light of our travel. There may be no place like home, but there is especially no place like home when we have informed our experience of it through mindful travel.

I travelled to Melbourne quite specifically to see this exhibition – and was not disappointed – even having seen the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and several of his works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of the paintings displayed were from private collections and this would be one of the very few public showings. With around 60 works it is well worth seeing. The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, runs until 9 July this year.

[NB: I was fortunate that since most of the paintings had come from French museums, hand-held non-commercial photography was permitted – so the photos I’ve included here are ones I’ve taken at the exhibition.]

 

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Balladonia and the space station

On to Balladonia.

We passed the Western end of the Nullarbor Plain and celebrated with a photo and a happy dance before heading on to Balladonia 🙂

Nullarbor sign

And neared the end of the Ninety Mile Straight.

straight road

Balladonia at the Western end of the 90-mile straight seems an unlikely place to host a well set up museum including several large pieces of the SkyLab space station which de-orbited over the Nullarbor in 1979. The roadhouse looks much like many others, with a restaurant, fuel pumps and ablution facilities and of course a bar. But the surprise comes when you go inside.

Redex Trials

The concise, neat museum is well laid out, with serious thought given to the displays. Amidst the old tools and wool press, a car seems to be caught in the act of crashing through the wall into the museum. This marks the REDEX Trials display. In the 1950s an endurance round-Australia car rally was staged, sponsored by the manufacturer of Redex oils. The cars were unmodified standard street cars – which everyone could relate to – and the event attracted some big-name racing drivers of the time.

Redex car at Balladonia

The Nullarbor road at that time was unsealed and presented significant challenge to the cars of the day. You can still see remnants of the original road near the modern sealed highway – a daunting prospect!

Original Nullarbor Highway

Skylab

And so to the space station. Balladonia seems an unlikely place to be associated with a piece of space history, but such is the case! Skylab, America’s first purpose-built space station was launched in 1973. The space station included a workshop, a solar observatory, and other systems necessary for crew survival and scientific experiments.

Skylab’s useful life concluded in 1974 after three manned missions, but it remained in orbit until 1979 with plans for the forthcoming Space Shuttle to boost it into a higher orbit to enable operations to be extended. But delays to the shuttle program sealed Skylab’s fate. So NASA decided to bring it down in a controlled de-orbit rather than let it decay and fall randomly. It was set tumbling in the hope that it would break up as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.

But it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t breaking up as planned and this meant the intended splashdown into the ocean would not happen. It finally came down in a spectacular display over Australia with debris spread between Esperance and Balladonia and further afield. Miraculously,  no-one was hurt despite several large pieces weighing several tonnes reaching the ground. Two large pieces are on display at Balladonia.

Skylab fragment

 

Balladonia, like Eucla, was settled in 1879. Balladonia was one of the repeater stations on the Perth-Adelaide telegraph line. As with Eucla, the telegraph station operated from 1897 to 1929, when the line was relocated further north along the railway line. It was said that the coastal line was being short-circuited by salt spray from the Southern Ocean.

The supply of fresh water is still limited, providing a stark reminder that this is an arid country.

drought sign

At the museum, we read newspaper accounts of the Redex Trials – which included an account of one of the cars having an extra passenger – the driver of an abandoned burnt out citroën. Fortunately, on today’s road, our citroën was behaving faultlessly and was taking the distance in its stride.

Citroen

 

 
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Caiguna – start of a long straight

It’s easy to romanticise the truckers – ‘knights of the road’ – as they carry the nation’s goods from east to west and back again. There is no doubt they are skilful drivers and their job is a tough one. While these days they have power steering and air conditioning and CCTV to see behind them, it is still a very physical job. I watched one driver in a roadhouse literally jumping on the end of a two-metre-long wheel wrench to ensure everything was still tight after the vibrations on the road.

truck

But the real strength is in their mental stamina – being able to keep awake and alert on long boring stretches of road.

Caiguna roadhouse and motel were built to service people travelling to the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962. It is a good place to stop and stretch before setting out on the 90 mile straight.

Caiguna roadhouse

The 90 Mile Straight (roughly 146.6km) between Caiguna and Balladonia is one of the longest straight stretches of road in the world. And this is where you will test your mental stamina. Many times we saw vehicles – including trucks – gradually veering to the edge of the road then straightening up at the last moment, only to repeat the sequence. It is a bit scary driving a small hatchback and watching three-trailer road-trains doing this!

90 mile straight sign

We talked a lot about our forthcoming trip to Europe and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. A lot of time and words about why do a pilgrimage, and reviewing and previewing our life together over the past 36 years. And of course we stopped periodically to stretch our legs and take another photo of the straight road 🙂

90 mile straight

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