AMSTERDAM — Entering Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is like walking into a painted fantasy forest. Tree trunks are rendered in red, blue, pink, purple, yellow, electric green; leaves are hinted at with quick brushstrokes, or cartoonishly outlined. In the galleries upstairs, we come out of the trees into a countryside idyll, with blue-boundaried fields, waving corn and the occasional electricity pylon or hay wagon.
This exhibition brings together works by David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh that focus on rural scenes, and the two painters’ shared themes and approaches are made immediately apparent, at least on a surface level. The line of influence is clear: van Gogh’s use of color, brushwork and spatial construction evidently left a deep impression on Hockney, from his very first encounter with van Gogh as a teenager through to some of his most recent pieces.
“The world is colorful,” Hockney is quoted as saying. “It is beautiful, I think. Nature is great. Van Gogh worshipped nature. He might have been miserable, but that doesn’t show in his work. There are always things that will try to pull you down. But we should be joyful in looking at the world.” This is the “joy” reflected in the title of the exhibition. However, the curation of works creates an illuminating tension, as the juxtaposition of Hockney and van Gogh serves to show that the latter’s paintings are not as “joyful” as many would automatically assume
Perhaps for both artists, nature offers an alternative to the mundane realities of the world, in addition to offering a means for exploring vision, perspective and the materiality of paint. However, what we see in this exhibit isn’t nature as wilderness, nor as dramatic grand vista. This is well-ordered, agricultural, post-industrial nature. Hockney’s woods are presented as plantations, not as ancient woodland — the trees are uniform, and there are neatly stacked felled logs piled by the roads and tracks that run through the forest. Similarly, van Gogh’s “nature” is the agricultural landscape of Provence, with its workers, crops, hedges and wagons. Alternatively, the natural world is seen in the form of the gardens of the institution where he had been incarcerated — well-ordered nature intended to cultivate a well-ordered mind.