Between 1890 and 1891 Claude Monet (1840-1926), the famous Impressionist artist, painted his haystack series in the environs of his home at Giverney which resulted in 25 canvases with the haystack as it’s motif. However, it was not the mundane haystack that interested Monet so much as the effect of climatic change and light on it. Two paintings from this series, ‘Haystack, Sunset’, 1891, Boston Museum of Fine Art and ‘Stacks of Wheat, Sunset, Snow Effect’, 1890-1891, Art Institute of Chicago open the current exhibition at the Musée D’Orsay and hanging side by side, the viewer can marvel at the light created in these stunning paintings.
As the viewer continues to gaze at these works, the haystack fades more and more into the background with the effect of the light dominating the scene. These paintings can almost be viewed as abstract works and are considered by some as precursors to Abstract Expressionism.
The exhibition entitled ‘Beyond the Stars : The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky’ looks at how mysticism influenced landscape painting at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. The exhibition is divided into seven rooms aiming to show how different artists conveyed their spiritual quests in response to or through nature using a wide variety of artistic styles.
For example, in the room ‘The Divine in Nature’ hang two paintings by Paul Gauguin dealing with religious subjects in natural settings. The first ‘Vision after the Sermon’, 1888, National Gallery of Scotland, is one of the most famous paintings by Gauguin. The canvas is split in two by a slanting tree placed diagonally through the centre of the painting. In the foreground are a crowd of woman dressed in traditional Breton costumes and they face the upper right hand corner of the painting where their vision of the biblical scene of Jacob wrestling with an angel is taking place.
The second painting ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ is Gauguin’s interpretation of another biblical scene depicting a red haired Christ in the Agony in the Garden on the eve of his arrest and although some of his disciples are in the background, Christ’s sense of loneliness and pain is evident. In this painting Gauguin interprets a religious subject matter in a highly personal way as it is in fact a self portrait with Gauguin as Christ.
Vincent Van Gogh also features in the exhibition with his masterpiece ‘Starry Night’, 1888 taking centre stage in Room 5 ‘Night’ . Van Gogh was brought up in a religious household, his father being a Minister, and Vincent himself became quite religious even wanting for a time to follow in his father’s footsteps.
In 1888, two years before his suicide, and while living in Arles, Van Gogh while referring to ‘Starry Night’ wrote to his brother Theo saying ‘ it does not prevent me from having a terrible need of…religion…then I go outside in the night to paint the stars’.
Given that the exhibition was organised in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, it is no surprise that it features a significant body of work from Canadian artists. At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of artists known as the Group of Seven believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed by direct contact with nature and devoid of human presence. Lawrence S Harris was a member of the group and his seminal work The Isolation Peak, 1930, Hart House Art Collection, Toronto is an example of this ideal featuring a mountain as a simple triangle. It is a powerful almost surreal painting.
There are so many other wonderful works on display at this exhibition such as ‘The Sower’, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Madeline in the Bois d’Amour’, 1888 by Émile Bernard, ‘Dance on a Beach’, 1899-199 by Edvard Munch, and ‘Black Cross with Stars and Blue’,1929, Georgia O’Keeffe, just to mention a few and images of which are below.
However, being Irish my final mention goes to a work on loan from the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane called ‘Evening, Achill’, 1912 by Grace Henry. Although Grace Henry was born in Aberdeen, she married an Irish artist, Paul Henry, and as a result spent most of her career painting in Ireland. Grace and Paul Henry visited Achill, an island off the west coast of Ireland for a two week holiday in 1910 but ended up living there until 1919. During her stay here, Grace painted numerous night scenes and the painting displayed at the exhibition is one of these.