Unlike the two competing Van Gogh immersive experiences running in Dallas and Arlington, the exhibition at the DMA features true Van Gogh works painted by the artist. The immersive experiences only offer Van Gogh reproductions, animated and projected on walls.
The DMA’s Van Gogh and the Olive Groves is an exhibition 10 years in the making. While working at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Nicole R. Myers, the DMA’s interim chief curator and Barbara Thomas Lemmon senior curator of European art, began studying the painting "Olive Trees," part of the Kansas City museum's permanent collection.
“When I went to conduct research, I was surprised to find there was actually very little written about the painting,” said Myers at a DMA press preview in October. “Even more surprising, in spite of having worked on Van Gogh for most of my career, I had never heard of an olive grove series. They had never before been the subject of a serious study, publication or exhibition.”
“I realized I had stumbled upon something truly rare,” Myers added.
This discovery led Myers to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where she connected with Nienke Bakker, senior curator of paintings at the Van Gogh Museum.
“I was going in to secure a few loans, just to gauge if there was interest, and ended up walking out with the partnership of a lifetime,” Myers said.
Bakker joined as co-curator of the DMA exhibition in 2015. Myers relocated to Dallas the following year and the partnership between the DMA and Van Gogh Museum began.
Van Gogh and the Olive Groves follows the artist’s journey with this subject, comprising 15 paintings that capture olive trees at different times of day and in different seasons.
The exhibition begins with Van Gogh’s first experimentation painting olive trees in June 1889 while he was a self-admitted patient at the asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
When he was first in the asylum, Van Gogh was prohibited from leaving the building and could only experience the outdoors from the window in his room, which provided a view of olive groves.
In June, Van Gogh received permission to explore the outdoors and went directly to the olive grove, to immerse himself in the subject he'd been observing from afar for a month.
Olive groves were an unusual subject for the painter. Van Gogh was generally drawn to the shifting colors of landscapes from season to season, while olive groves are evergreen and don't change as the months pass. There isn't one “typical” shape or color that denotes olive trees.
They were also an unconventional subject at the time, as they were not considered a traditionally picturesque subject matter.
The exhibition traces Van Gogh’s shifting approach in depicting the olive groves.
“Across the olive grove series, Van Gogh experimented with his style, investigating the expressive power of line, color and form in a quest to unlock the tree’s quintessential features,” Myers said at the press preview.
The paintings are presented in chronological order, with the first phase in the series representing the olive groves in summer.
Van Gogh uses short, thick brushstrokes in these more abstract pieces and an intense, bright and light palette to convey the heat and blinding sun of Provence in summer.
The next room in the exhibition is dedicated to Van Gogh’s friends, Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who painted their own takes on the subject in their modern works, such as Gaugin's "Christ in the Garden of Olives."
“Van Gogh saw what Bernard and Gauguin had done and he was absolutely shocked … in a bad way,” Myers said. “He still wanted to draw on what you could see in the natural world and he thought it was a big mistake to recreate biblical narratives in their paintings. He called it a ‘dangerous setback.’”
Within two weeks of seeing what his friends were doing, Van Gogh started his second series of olive grove paintings. He re-immersed himself in the olive groves in the fall, at dawn and dusk, and employed Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist techniques in the remaining olive grove works.
These later paintings have a more earthy, ochre palette and employ more precise brushstroke, using small, adjacent dabs of color.
With these paintings, Van Gogh returns to observed realism in contrast to — and as a reaction to — Bernard and Gauguin’s abstractions of the olive groves.
This was the first comprehensive study on the olive grove series and an entire section of the exhibition is dedicated to the scientific research that occurred as Van Gogh and the Olive Groves was put together.
“Our exhibition debuts groundbreaking research from an unprecedented interdisciplinary multi-year research project,” Myers said.
At the onset of their study, curators and conservators had vital questions surrounding this series. The sequence and chronology of the olive grove series wasn’t known. They didn’t know which works were painted indoors or outdoors. And a letter from Van Gogh to his brother prompted questions as to the original palette of the paintings.
Had the paintings’ colors potentially shifted over time? In a letter from the summer of 1889 describing one of his olive grove paintings, Van Gogh specifically mentions “shadows cast violet over the sand,” but none of the paintings from June have violet shadows.
To tackle these questions, Kathrin Pilz, paintings conservator at the Van Gogh Museum, oversaw a collaborative technical study of all the works in the series.
“Incredibly, we were able to resolve all of our original research queries, and we made many exciting discoveries that make their debut in this exhibition,” Myers said.
As they studied Van Gogh’s use of unstable pigments, conservators gained insight into what these paintings looked like when they were originally created, before certain colors faded. Laura Hartman, associate paintings conservator at the DMA, created two hypothetical reconstructions of olive trees, one inspired by Van Gogh’s summer palette and one of his fall palette, in order to give a sense of what Van Gogh’s original color schemes might have looked like.
“Being Van Gogh is not easy, I found out,” said Hartman at the press preview. “We started in a very scientific place … it wasn’t until we put paint to canvas that it really made sense how much control Van Gogh was using himself in the painting process, how accurate his understanding of color theory really was, his absolute mastery of brushwork and the sheer control he had to use to accomplish these bold, big colorful paintings. It was a fun challenge.”
The research is displayed in the middle of the exhibition and provides deeper context into the artistic process as well as the extent of the analysis that goes into the conservation process.
The original works would stand alone as an impressive exhibition. Since the works had never before been exhibited as a whole, they allow the viewer to see a shift in Van Gogh's style from the beginning to end of the series, and it gives new insight into his work late in his life.
But what makes Van Gogh and the Olive Groves remarkable is the scientific discoveries it lays out, presented in a thorough, yet accessible manner. After its run in Dallas, the exhibition will travel to Amsterdam.
The exhibition, co-presented by Texas Instruments and PNC Bank, runs through Feb. 6 at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 N. Harwood St.)