Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science
by Maarten van Bommel, Ella Hendriks, Marije Vellekoop, Muriel Geldof, Editors

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2019
256 pp., illus. 90 col. Trade, € 55
ISBN: 9789463725323.

Reviewed by
Judith Cetti
February 2020

In the introduction to this impressive and beautifully illustrated volume Nienke Bakker, Senior Curator at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and Christopher Riopelle state that the book reports on the investigation of 11 paintings of sunflowers produced by Van Gogh while he was living in Arles between 1887 and 1899. Bakker and Riopelle sketch out the genesis of this series and focus in particular on the two sunflower paintings that are now held in the Van Gogh Museum and the National Gallery, London. They discuss the intriguing connections between these two paintings in relation to Van Gogh’s turbulent friendship with fellow artist, Paul Gaugin. The first chapter is essential reading to understand the cohesion of the rest of the book which is a mixture of art historical and scientifically informed texts. It places the two paintings in context that allows the rest of this heterogeneous collection of chapters, written by a large team of well-regarded scientists, conservators and art historians, to be grounded in a unified enquiry.

In her Foreword Marije Vellekoop, Head of Collections and Research and Editor-In-Chief of Van Gogh Museum Studies, declares that this volume is the first in a series in which the interdisciplinary approach to art historical and technical research is put before a wider public whilst at the same time contributing to the scholarly debate that surrounds these iconic images. Certainly, the book shows only too well how essential it is for there to be international collaboration between academics, historians, conservators, and scientists from many different disciplines in order to complete a survey as thorough as this. Without a doubt, as the book shows this is an extraordinary enterprise that at first sight can be daunting as technical scientific analysis and cultural analysis are presented side by side. Its strategy thickens the understanding of the artist, his way of working and the two paintings by presenting a very complex and multifaceted account that links the production of the image and its material degradation inherent in the life of paintings. However, in this book the question that emerges is not if preservation is desirable but how this can be done in the least invasive way to artworks recognized as significant cultural icons of Western European achievement. Consistent with this theme of arresting degradation as the uncontested norm, previous restorations of these paintings are also subject to close analysis.

At this point artists reading the book may feel that the paintings themselves are becoming eclipsed by the cultural constructions that has accrued around them. From the pop culture of celebrity status with its many copied versions and artefacts, to scientific advances, provenance, and even a narrative concerning the history of its restoration, the paintings appear to recede under the weight of the commentary. However, as the chapters take us through the various diagnostic techniques that use specifically designed instruments for in-situ analysis along with new methods of chemical sampling they may warm to the book as it brings to the fore the paintings as living entities. The book is lavishly illustrated, and each chapter is constructed around diagrams and illustration that map the scientific information onto the two paintings under discussion. With this pictorial strategy the scientific analysis of the paintings bring the reader into close contact with the originals. For example, the revelation of the wooden extensions that Van Gogh added to the original support to give the image more space can bring us closer to his aesthetic choices. The processes of thinking and painting also become clearer as close analysis reveals that some impasto passages were enhanced with pencil lines under the darker edges. Similarly, the overlaying and heightening of colour becomes visible under the technical advances made to date as the painting is scientifically explored. Paradoxically this systematic approach gives a new immediacy and freshness to Van Gogh’s symbolic use of the material to engage with the sacred and profound in nature.

Apart from the initial contextualization, this book need not be read sequentially because each chapter has an autonomy and logic. It is a rewarding volume to explore led by the images, to engage with the text. The book has a broad constituency for Leonardo readers; for the artist the paintings are renewed and for the scientist the insights into processes of analysis and restoration  are always suggestive of discovery in progress. There is something of a mirror here in the work of the restorer and the work of the reader as both try to solve problems that are posed by a very well know series of paintings that, on the face of it, are simplicity itself. As the first of a series this book heralds promising future reading for artists and scientists fascinated by creativity at work.