Repetition. Nature repeats itself endlessly. Atoms and molecules bind in patterns of elements and minerals. Cells divide, replicating themselves. Plants produce dozens, hundreds and thousands of seed, each carrying the genetic codes to the next generation. Invertebrates and vertebrates grow bones, muscles, organs, and neurologic tissues over days and years and decades: atoms, molecules, and cells combining for each function. An eye looks at the landscape and figures, and the hand touches the brush to canvas to re-create all those images which repeat the colors and forms of nature, changing in the cycle of seasons. Repetition.
The Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C. has gathered a series of Van Gogh’s paintings, Van Gogh, Repetitions. Weavers, post masters, mothers and children, trees. While we might easily conjure these images from our visits to museums, art books, and post cards, rarely do we see, or even realize, that we might have encountered different versions of the same images in several locations.
Artists rarely do one masterpiece after another without borrowing and revisiting a theme. Vivaldi and Hayden wrote hundreds of concertos and symphonies, for their patrons. While they invented an amazing range of melodies and chord progressions, they also pulled out a line or phrase from this one to place into that one. Prior to the 19th century, many painters and sculptors crafted their pieces in workshops, under the name of a master. Each craftsmen would specialize in some aspect of the work, repeating his part in preparing the workspace, roughing out the composition, completing some detail, and adding a finish. Working thus, multiple commissions could be completed for the churches, palaces, and mansions. Biblical, historical, and mythological stories were illustrated over and over.
To develop observation skills and technical proficiency, artists sketched, made cartoons, used quick medium, such as chalk, pastels, watercolors, wax and clay, and eventually worked to more involved and expense materials, painting with oils and sculpting in stone. Our images of Van Gogh are probably from is late period, where rapid, thick strokes of color swirl in wind-blown trees and starry nights. Yet, as with most artists, his preparation work and earlier paintings build more on repeating the genetic codes of prior artists whom he admired. Van Gogh, Repetitions, presents the progression of familiar master pieces from those sketches through more naturalistic styles to those images that we label, “A Van Gogh”.
Some of these images were completed over years, as Van Gogh returned to his sketch books for inspiration. Others were completed over a series of days or months. Some were painted on location initially, then repeated in the studio. Others were from separate sittings, with the subject placed before different backgrounds, creating variations between the subject and setting. We may marvel at the mature product that artist create. An exhibition such as Van Gogh, Repetitions give us an opportunity to see the progression from initial awareness to a developed composition.