Van Gogh’s Calvinism in new light at exhibit of ‘mystical’ masterpieces

Until January 29, 2017, a new exhibit of Post-Impressionist painting is open at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto entitled Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and more. The show is, as Murray Whyte, Toronto Star art critic suggests, a “blockbuster” – a truly ambitious offering of works by some of the most famous artists of the period whose iconic names are sure to draw in the public.

But Whyte thinks you should go not only for that reason, but because the exhibit breaks the mold of the traditional blockbuster, a mold which, he observes, has fallen out of fashion in recent years among museum curators. Curators don’t do blockbusters anymore, he says, because they wrongly buy into the dominant narrative for the progress of Western art history – that “all important art in the 20th century exists along a straight line drawn from France to America.”

I, too, think you should make a point of going to this exhibition because it presents a challenge to the way the history of art in the modern period has been told. However, I have a very different picture of the revisionist history the show accomplishes – a picture that includes the profound importance of religion for all the artists represented, be they French, Dutch, Scandinavian or even Canadian.

Now this isn’t a hidden feature of the exhibition to be teased out of the show by an art critic such as Whyte. The exhibition is called Mystical Landscapes and it aims not just to suggest, but also to declare, that the paintings brought together in the show are united by a mutual focus on representing the sacred in art. More specifically, the artists represented in this exhibit were all deeply involved with the idea of presenting their own mystical experiences of the divine through the medium of landscape broadly conceived.

Though their focus on landscape might strike us from our contemporary, post abstraction perspective as an unnecessary limitation to place on such a project, the depiction of landscape as a distinct mode of presenting supernatural meaning had been on the table since the time of the Romantics in the early nineteenth century. Purposefully reacting to Enlightenment materialism, Romantic poets, philosophers and artists all hoped to reinvest nature and its depiction in art with religious consequence.

Given this history, one might well ask what made the connection between landscape and religious meaning remarkable at the end of the nineteenth century, indeed remarkable enough to warrant the construction of this particular “blockbuster” with its specific chronological parameters, the 1870s to the 1930s.

The answer to this question can be found on one level in the realm of art history. In the Realist and Impressionist movements that followed Romanticism, art redefined itself once again as primarily about the “real” or material world – the world of ordinary experience.

But, on a much deeper level, this re-concentration on the material order of things reflected vast changes in the social ordering of nineteenth-century society and its governing ideas that had worked to produce a demystification of the world far more wrenching than Enlightenment Deism. Socially, with the steady rise of industrialization and unfettered capitalism, the divide between rich and labouring poor had never been greater. Ideologically, science, technological advance and the belief systems that supported them trumped every other kind of knowing. And religiously, both Marx and Nietzsche had already had their say on the foolishness of faith. A period not unlike our own where materialism reigns as the default position in all matters of belief, the late nineteenth century tended to be culturally deaf to reflection beyond the here and now.

This was the context out of which the artists whose works make up Mystical Landscapes emerged with a renewed desire to have art reflect once again something more than the science of how we see or the ephemeral pleasures of the bourgeoisie. Picking up where the Romantics left off, these artists again turned to landscape as their general subject matter since it still carried the promise of directly delivering religious experience. Supported in this by the Symbolist movement in literature (a collection of writers equally interested in the capacity of art to address the universal) and a growing interest in the nature of religious experience among philosophers such as William James, they found themselves released to artistically pursue in the world around them the incontestable traces of divine presence.

Retrieving the sacred in art
What this means in practice is readily evident in the art of one of the most iconic figures in this exhibition – Vincent van Gogh. Two of his works that rarely travel, Olive Trees and Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles, are on display at the exhibition. As a Protestant, van Gogh’s recourse to natural subjects had a long history of support in Calvinism. In recognition of God’s revelation of himself to us in the natural world, Calvin recommended that artists should paint only that which can be seen – a point that was in no way lost on van Gogh. From his letters we know that he loved the Dutch masters and their focus on everyday subjects for precisely this reason. In his view, these artists were unique in the history of art for their ability to express the ineffable without recourse to mythological figures or literary texts.

As plain as van Gogh was on this point, however, his Calvinist outlook is not what has won him his place as a major figure in the history of Western art. Reflect for a moment and the clichés will abound – an emotionally unstable, ear-slicing, recovering Calvinist with a near genius gift for evocative colour and swirling line. That he should be reconceived as part of a general movement towards retrieving the sacred in art re-imagines conventional wisdom about the progress of modern art in a truly groundbreaking way since a positive view of religion has rarely been factored into that progress. That Whyte is only lukewarm on the idea in the rest of his Star review confirms just how entrenched this reading is. Try as he may, the most credence he is able to give the idea that these artists might have experienced God in creation is that this was an illusive, but comforting, notion.

But I invite you to test this for yourself. Go to the exhibit, stand in front of the Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles and see if you think comfort is what van Gogh had in mind. Then go on to test whether knowing that he made the following statement doesn’t change how you see the work and how you understand art at the turn of the twentieth century:

“That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night and paint the stars. . . .”

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  • Rebekah Smick is Associate Professor, Philosophy of Arts and Culture at the Institute for Christian Studies.

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