Van Gogh: A stroke of genius

A revelatory new Van Gogh exhibition in Amsterdam might just be the best ever staged

I had thought I had the fair measure of Van Gogh through a series of shows from the centenary of his death. That was before I saw the exhibition Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night, now settled in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until early June. Quite simply it is a revelation, a stunning array of pictures but also one of those rare shows that, by concentrating on a theme, brings you that much closer to the painter. By the end of it, it is impossible not to feel uplifted by the sheer energy of his vision and acutely aware that, in reaching for it, he got so burned by its heat. It might just be the best Van Gogh exhibition ever.

The combination of Van Gogh and night might seem grim, a Bergmanesque vision of gloom. The opposite is the case. Van Gogh didn't drift listlessly into the night. He positively embraced it as an almost joyous state of cosmic being. Not for him the shadowed figures of the Barbizon school he so admired, the fascination of his Impressionist contemporaries with the effect of light on form or even the moodiness of the Symbolists.

This most physical of all painters took people and places, trees, roads, houses, steeples and made them more real still under the light of the setting sun, the mystery of twilight or the brightness of the moon. One of the earliest pictures in the show is a drawing of cottages, done in a precise solid style. The striking thing is that he barely changed that depiction from beginning to end. The brush becomes more fluid, the colours more subtle, but there is nothing in the concrete presence of place or person that yields to the darkness.

He had an early worship of Jean-François Millet, whose ennoblement of the ordinary man doing his diurnal tasks provided a model he used throughout his career. He meticulously copied Rembrandt's application of chiaroscuro, as we see in the his famous, almost cartoon-like picture of the potato eaters from his beginning in Holland. But in the end it is to the master colourist, Eugène Delacroix, that he really turned to develop his palette. Even with the potato eaters, the figures project themselves out of the confines of the light of the lamp, twisted, brutal but there. Once you get to the pictures of sun and moonlight, colour becomes form and composition deliberately dramatic. Not for nothing was Van Gogh bowled over by Japanese prints with colour blocks and sliced perspective.

By concentrating on the theme of night, the exhibition is able to show not just how the artist developed his pictures from the derivative to the blindingly original but also illustrate what he was trying to do. Night was special to the Dutch painter, a time of contemplation and spiritual refreshment and calm. He seized on the world around him with almost extreme physicality and sought to express that physicality in terms of colour. "It often seems to me," he wrote, "that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day."

Although the exhibition tries to make something of his pictures of artificial light, the dance hall and café lit by gaslight, Van Gogh was never really a man of his urban time. The best of his interiors are really studies of figures done with a Japanese sense of block colour. As far as night was concerned it was the sky itself and form against the sky that stirred him.

There is a wonderful picture called Recollections of Brabant painted when Van Gogh was in St-Rémy and feeling rather sorry for himself. You might have expected him to paint a memory of the dark-hued paintings he did in imitation of Millet and Rembrandt. Not a bit of it. The picture is suffused with the warm colours of France, a recollection of sunset in a sky crowded with clouds of soft and swirling greens and browns.

What the Dutchman did retain from Brabant even in Provence was the near idolisation of peasantry and the dignity of labour. His sunsets explode with yellows and greens and blacks. But always at the heart of them are humanity and place. Alongside the famous Sower from Zurich, the museum hangs a smaller version from its own collection. At first it was thought that the latter was a study for the bigger version; now they think it followed it. Having worked and reworked his ideas, the painter celebrated with a totally confident final work with virtually no reworking, all on a blue base. It seems right.

After sunset came night and here Van Gogh goes into full flight. Night becomes a positive presence in its own right, a great field of saturated colour sparkling with stars, pulsating with the moon. The bright lights of the café glow against it; the stilled lights of the town are charged with it. If the exhibition has been unable to get the Kröller-Müller Museum's pair of paintings of the cafés by night, it has gained their fabulous Country Road in Provence by Night, the Thyssen-Bornemisza's Stevedores in Arles and MoMA's truly magnificent The Starry Night. Here the sky is ablaze with silver light and swirling stars. Nothing of the morose here. Just passionate energy. Taking his easel out into the night, he painted en plein air. And it shows. The scenes are alive, real and present.

The last floor of the show seems almost an afterthought, a globe of the heavens surrounded by books. It seems easy to skip, yet it shouldn't be. In the cabinets are poetry books: Longfellow, Sainte-Beuve, Whitman, Rückert and Victor Hugo are all there. It's easy to forget how literary was his inspiration and how wide his reading. Intellectually, and spiritually, he was very much a man of his age. And yet his paintings are quite beyond them. Round the walls of the final room are Van Gogh's words in a letter written when he started painting: "Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star." By the end of this exhibition you feel he had achieved it in his painting and hope, in a rather personal way, that he realised it in his tragic end.

Thanks to Holland's decision to close the main Rijksmuseum building and the Stedelijk for refurbishment, the Van Gogh is the only major museum left open in Amsterdam and it can be crowded. But the pictures are spaciously displayed. Take your time and you are in for a rare journey.

Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night, Van Gogh Museum until 7 June

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