Building a bridge from van Gogh to Sun Ra

A curator draws unexpected associations in an enthralling ten-artist show at the Vincent van Gogh Foundation centering on the sun

Van Gogh's Field With Stacks of Grain (1890) Courtesy of Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles

Van Gogh's Field With Stacks of Grain (1890) Courtesy of Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles

Vincent van Gogh didn’t go to the south of France for his health. He was hoping to meet Adolphe Monticelli of Marseille, whose painting style and technique would have a pronounced influence on the mature work of the beleaguered younger genius.

Adolphe, who?

“He’s absolutely unknown outside the region,” said the Van Gogh Foundation’s artistic director, Bice Curiger, as we began a tour of her enthralling ten-artist exhibition with the seven canvases by Monticelli that introduce it. They segue into a group of rarely lent works by Van Gogh that lead directly to Paysage, painted by a nearly 90-year-old Picasso in 1970, the fulcrum of Curiger’s seesaw between then and now.

Since her 20-year curatorial stint at Kunsthaus Zurich, Curiger’s invariably successful curatorial gambit has been to root out previously unrecognised connections between artists of entirely different periods and connect them to contemporary sensibilities and forms. The unexpected associations result in a new and multidimensional historical narrative. Who else would have built so sturdy a bridge from Van Gogh and Picasso to the outer-planetary jazz artist Sun Ra, while making pit stops at Giorgio di Chirico and Alexander Calder, Sigmar Polke, Joan Mitchell and Etel Adnan?

Trust me: in this bastion of fevered Expressionism, Curiger’s succession of opposites totally works to free the mind, and the usual canon, for extended exploration and meaning. The pivotal figure actually is the Mediterranean sun, an evocation of which occurs in every work on view—rising, setting, blazing overhead or as an abstraction of energy. And Monticelli is not the only artist ripe for discovery here. Curiger also positions the unsung Dada-flavoured sculpture of the Provençal Modernist Germaine Richier as a missing link between Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois. (Recently reintroduced to New Yorkers by the Perrotin and Lévy Gorvy galleries, Richier seems destined for new market status as well.)

For my money, the pièce de résistance of this show was its closing moment: the projection of a filmed 1970 concert that the elaborately costumed Sun Ra and his Arkestra performed live at an arts festival on the Côte d’Azur. (Curiger describes the Sun Ra look as “a cross between flea-market Tutankhamun and 2001: A Space Odyssey".) It’s remarkable, as is the display of record albums and posters that accompany the film.

“I do not come to you as the reality,” Sun Ra told one audience, speaking perhaps of what we love about art and what makes this show so delightful. “I come to you as the myth.”

Hot Sun, Late Sun: Untamed Modernism, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Arles, France, until 28 October.