Van Gogh’s still lifes are never still. Heightened color and visceral drawing wrestle, interweave, and beautifully assault us. We ride the Dutchman’s writhing brushstrokes, which heave us as if on roiling seas, shower us like fireworks. Van Gogh knew the punch his pictures packed. “You will receive a big still life of potatoes,” he wrote to his brother, Theo, in 1885, going on to explain how he tried to get palpable mass, body, “to express the material in such a way that they become heavy, solid lumps—which would hurt you if they were thrown at you, for instance.”
The Museum Barberini’s “Van Gogh: Still Lifes,” the first Van Gogh survey, surprisingly, to tackle this most humble of painting genres, does not include that early still life of potatoes among the 27 paintings in Potsdam. But on view will be other early, earthen-hued pictures, such as Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins, a bountiful, rotund gathering suggesting a battery of cannonballs; the subterranean Birds’ Nests, like tunneling through thickened brambles, crowns of thorns; and his first stab at the genre, 1881’s Still Life with Cabbage and Clogs. These weighty, monochromatic pictures were painted before Van Gogh internalized French Impressionism’s atomized light and the flat patterning of Japanese prints. At the time he was still under the spell of Rembrandt and Jean-François Millet.
We ride the Dutchman’s writhing brushstrokes, which heave us as if on roiling seas.
Also absent are Van Gogh’s celebrated sunflowers—those blazing lions’ manes and Byzantine Madonnas. This show, however, won’t lack for gorgeous and varied flower paintings. Vase with Red Gladioli—its blossoms conjuring flocks of birds, lips, viscera, flames—invokes Rembrandt’s hanging sides of bloody beef and images of the Crucifixion.
Though he produced portraits, interiors, and still lifes, Van Gogh was primarily a landscape painter, albeit one who transformed his subjects. His sitters’ bodies and faces become terrain, starry skies. Ditto, his still lifes. Still Life with a Plate of Onions rushes into the distance, its tilted tabletop suggesting a plowed field. Grapes, Lemons, Pears, and Apples becomes whirlpools, starbursts, a spinning solar system.
For many painters, including Van Gogh, the still life explores metaphors of death, the stage, family, bedroom, harvest, and hunt. Van Gogh was not, however, concerned with conveying the precise qualities of peach fuzz and copper’s glint. An increasingly savage light pierces through particularities. He doesn’t describe but rather transfigures objects. Van Gogh’s transcendent late still lifes express both the tactile pleasures and the angst of grappling with the world. They are not about life’s things but about our ecstasy and anxiety. —Lance Esplund