How to Become an Expert on Van Gogh in an Afternoon

Jen is a fourth year art history student, though this is her first year at Unimelb (she’s from NZ, don’t hold it against her). When she’s not at uni, Jen will be out getting to know Melbourne and all it has to offer.

van gogh
Image source: Jen Newton

As I’m sure you know (because there are banners, signs, billboards and even trains covered in advertisements), the NGV has an exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings on right now. And before you roll your eyes and say, ‘ugh another Arts student trying to make me go to some art thing I won’t be interested in’, read on, because the NGV has gone fully out of its way to help those without Art History degrees appreciate the art in front of them. You’ll see these works through completely different eyes and maybe finally understand why we Arts students rave on about this sort of stuff.

Before you even enter the exhibition, you’ll watch a 9-minute video about Van Gogh’s life, giving you a bit of a background into who he was. You’ll be told about where his love of nature came from and why he liked painting fields so much. You’ll also find out some great facts, like why Van Gogh actually chopped off his ear (and no, I’m not going to tell you – you’ll have to go to the exhibition to find out).

Van Gogh meme
Image source: Meme Center

After that you’ll walk through a whole timeline of information explaining what he got up to and why his style changed a bit over time. There are even interactive screens so you can find out as much as you want to about Van Gogh’s life before you see his paintings. Throughout the exhibition several quotes by Van Gogh can be found all over the place, telling you his inner thoughts about painting, nature and life itself.

Van Gogh quote
Image source: Jen Newton

Then you’ll find yourself amongst a collection of the prints Van Gogh owned and used as sources for his own works. You’ll see examples of peasant and landscape scenes, and once you see the actual Van Gogh paintings, you’ll see how he was influenced by these prints, notably through their depictions of the seasons and nature.

Van Gogh exhibition
Image source: Jen Newton

Next you’ll see some Japanese woodblock prints: they may seem out of place, but these were all the rage in Europe in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh was one of many artists to be influenced by their focus on nature, thick use of line and flat style.

And now you’re ready to experience the overwhelmingly entrancing greatness that is Van Gogh!

Nigel Van Gogh
Image source: Meme Center

The exhibition takes you through each of the seasons, beginning with Autumn, then Winter, then Spring and finally Summer. Each painting hangs alone on a wall, allowing you to take each one in individually and fully appreciate them all. The paintings in each of the seasons are displayed chronologically so you can see Van Gogh’s development. Because of the film at the beginning and all the information provided on the walls as you go through the exhibition, you’ll know why he started painting with brighter colours and in a thicker and more expressive style.

Van Gogh exhibition
Image source: Mel Hot or Not

It’s incredible to have all of the seasons shown together like this because it shows us just how dedicated Van Gogh was to producing these paintings. Just look at his Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow from 1890 (below). You can imagine Van Gogh freezing his arse off in the snow but staying out there just to find the exact blue to match the tones of the snow on each of the different surfaces. With this work and countless others in the exhibition, the paint is so thick that the canvas still looks wet, as if Van Gogh has only just walked away after finishing it.

Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet)
Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet), 1890.
Image source: Jen Newton

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the reason why you need to go to this exhibition. Nothing compares to seeing a Van Gogh up close. Of all the art in the world, his is the most intriguing to see in person. You can’t even begin to comprehend the physical presence of the paint just from photographs or the effect that standing in front of one of these paintings will have on you.

Van Gogh painting
Close up of Roses and Peonies, 1886.
Image source: Jen Newton

The exhibition is on until the 9th of July, so you have lots of time to decide to go and give art a chance. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you can learn about Van Gogh’s art through this exhibition and how it will help you appreciate him as one of history’s greatest painters.

Side note: While I was writing this, my non–Arts student flatmate said, ‘weren’t you disappointed because The Starry Night wasn’t there?’ Please don’t be a fool and think that New York’s MoMA is going to hand over that masterpiece to anyone, let alone Australia. However, this exhibition does include Wheat Field with Cypresses, which is also very famous and depicts the same peculiar tree as The Starry Night.

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