2008年10月22日 星期三

Daubigny's Garden

Daubigny's Garden

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Daubigny's Garden
Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Oil on canvas
56 × 101 cm
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Daubigny's Garden
Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Oil on canvas
53 × 103 cm
Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima

Daubigny's Garden is one of the last works of Vincent van Gogh. It depicts the garden of the late Charles-François Daubigny, a painter Van Gogh admired all of his life-time.

There are two versions of this Double-square

  • the initial study, on extended loan in Kunstmuseum Basel from the Rudolf Staechelin Family Foundation, with the black cat in the foreground towards the left
  • the slightly later repetition, on extended loan in the Hiroshima Museum of Art, "without" the black cat: still visible in the earliest reproduction of the painting, published in 1900, and painted over at a later time




Intriguing tale of two paintings and two cats

2008/10/20


Autumn being a good season for the appreciation of fine arts, I recently went to the Hiroshima Museum of Art to look at "Daubigny's Garden" by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).

The work was completed shortly before his suicide, but the atmosphere is anything but somber. A beautiful summer garden fills the 103-centimeter-wide, 53-cm-high canvas.

This painting, however, baffled art critics for years.

In fact, there actually exist two almost identical versions of this painting--one in Hiroshima and the other owned by a museum in Switzerland. The latter version shows a black cat crossing the garden, whereas there is no cat in the one I saw in Hiroshima.

People had wondered if there was no cat in the first place. Did van Gogh first put the cat there only for it to be painted over later? If so, why? Was it because the cat was black? Speculation persisted in the art community that it somehow tied in with the artist's decision to take his own life.

According to a recent news report, X-ray examinations of the painting in Hiroshima revealed that van Gogh had indeed painted the black cat in exactly the same place as in the Swiss version, but the cat was later painted over. It appears that a third party, who was perhaps superstitious and thought the black cat would bring bad luck, altered the painting after the artist's death.

I was reminded of "The Black Cat," a short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Instead of being painted over, this unfortunate feline was walled in alive and plastered over by its deranged owner. Come to think of it, van Gogh and Poe shared something in common--they both lived self-destructive lives.

I understand that the Hiroshima Museum of Art spent three years examining the painting and its provenance. According to the findings, it was branded "decadent art" in Nazi Germany, but narrowly escaped destruction by being taken to the United States. Thus, the black cat survived, too, albeit hidden under layers of paint.

At the Hiroshima museum, I saw a computer graphics reproduction of the original work displayed next to the painting as is. Reappearing after a century, the cat, with its long tail, traipses coolly across the lawn.

Every painting has its own story of its birth and how it has fared since. If we "listen" on a tranquil autumn day, I am sure we will hear the fascinating tale.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 12(IHT/Asahi: October 20,2008)

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