An orgy of colour and brushstrokes

The new Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibit at the MMFA is pretty sexy.

Vincent van Gogh – Pollard Willows at Sunset (1888)

A pretty impressive exhibit opens this week at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Expressionism in France and Germany, 1900-1914. The exhibit brings together a collection of early 20th century European avant-garde masterpieces by big name artists such as Gauguin, Kirchner, Picasso, Braque, Nolde, Matisse, Rousseau and Klee from over 60 international lenders. The museum claims it’s the most valuable collection they’ve ever assembled.

Here’s a little refresher on Expressionism: the art movement emerged at the start of the 20th century, giving priority to the inner feelings and emotions of the artist articulated by intensely expressive colours and brushstrokes. This was a revolutionary idea, breaking from the past emphasis on realism. The Expressionists also wanted to distance themselves from the Impressionist movement of the late 1800s, which saw artists such as Claude Monet obsessively exploring light above all other considerations. While historians have claimed that Expressionism was a purely German movement, this exhibit illustrates that there was extensive cross-pollination between artists in France and Germany, scrapping any neat and tidy nationalistic claim to the movement. Sadly, the fantastic parade of colour and freedom comes to an abrupt halt in 1914 with the beginning of the dismal abyss that was World War One.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Street, Berlin (1913)

Though this premise may be less than exciting to people who aren’t art-history nerds, this collection is certainly sexy.

More than a decade after Vincent Van Gogh’s tragic suicide in 1890, an exhibit of 71 of his Neo-Impressionist paintings was mounted in Paris, quickly followed by a similar show in Berlin. Van Gogh’s daring use of colour and bold brushstrokes blew the minds of artists in both countries and was pretty much a game changer. As one observer stated, “Van Gogh struck modern art like lightning.”

It’s no exaggeration to say in our media-saturated lives that we can easily see thousands of images daily. If you can imagine life back in 1900, the impact of seeing a huge exhibit of the then unknown Van Gogh’s paintings must have been akin to being massive. It seems bananas now, but it was not uncommon in those days for riots and protests to break out over avant-garde art with its “crazy”  non-naturalistic representations and wild use of colour. An awareness of this social-historical context is what curator Timothy O. Benson from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hoping we will approach the paintings with.

Alexei Jawlensky – Girl with Purple Blouse (1912)

The exhibit begins briefly with photos of historical Paris, the undisputed centre of the art world at the turn of the last century. It then dives into some Post-Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist works of artists such as Matisse, Bonnard and a particularly impressive assortment of Paul Gauguin paintings. Gauguin’s “Haystacks in Brittany” and “The House of Pan-Du” are particularly mesmerizing with their sensual, bold colours and striking compositions.

This leads us to Van Gogh’s vibratory paintings and drawings from the prolific period just before his death and face to face with the visionary himself in the form of a selfie from 1887. The pulsating, other-dimensional “Wheat Field With Reaper” and “Pollard Willows at Sunset” gives us a glimpse into the mind of the artist and his distinct synesthetic style. In retrospect, Van Gogh was pretty punk rock. The Expressionists were his bastard children.

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Lyonel Feininger – The White Man (1907)

In 1905, two Expressionist art groups emerged simultaneously. One group were the Fauves, aka the Wild Beasts, a group of French artists which included Matisse, Braque and Derain who set out to use bright, non-naturalistic brush strokes. At the same moment in Dresden, Germany, a group of architects such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Hecke formed the artist group known as Die Brücke (the Bridge) with a mandate to create a more authentic art that conveyed the inner experience.  The two groups set out to create artworks in this modern and exciting terrain with new found freedom of colour, form and expression.

Another pillar of modernism, Cubism and the influence of Cezanne are touched upon briefly. This segues to the final blast of masterpieces that considers the other major German Expressionist group known as Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider), so named for the frequent blue horses found in the works of Wassily Kandinsky. Formed in 1911 after an abstract painting of his was rejected from an exhibition, the group was created along with Gabrielle Münter and Franz Marc. Their thrust was a belief in art’s spiritual dimension and they sought to explore this through their work. You can see some fine examples of Kandinsky’s quest for the spiritual with his fusion of Expressionism and Abstraction. ■

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Expressionism in France and Germany, 1900-1914 opens on Saturday, Oct. 11, and runs through Jan. 25, 2015 at the MMFA (1380 Sherbrooke W.). $20/$12 13-31/$10 Wednesday evenings after 5 p.m./free for kids under 12