Five Van Gogh Sunflowers on three continents virtually united for the first time

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The Sunflowers series dates from 1888, when Van Gogh left Paris to paint in the brilliant sunshine of the South of France. He rented a house in Arles – ‘The Yellow House’ – and invited Paul Gauguin to come and join him so the two artists could paint together. Waiting for Gauguin to arrive, Van Gogh painted a series of pictures of sunflowers to decorate his friend’s bedroom. They were meant as a sign of friendship and welcome, but also of Van Gogh’s allegiance to Gauguin as his artistic leader.

Today five Sunflowers paintings are located in museums across the globe and have never been united. Until now that is. On 14 August 2017, in a world first, all those Sunflowers will come together in a ‘virtual exhibition’ bringing the paintings together in a way the artist could never have imagined. The inspiration for this world first collaboration came from the UK, where the National Gallery’s highly successful Sunflowers display in 2014 reunited the London and Amsterdam versions of the painting for the first time in 65-years.

Over 95-minutes on that evening, The National Gallery (London), Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Neue Pinakothek (Munich) and the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art (Tokyo) will link up in a unique and unprecedented global collaboration to explore the Sunflowers series, live on Facebook.

Starting at 5.50pm (UK time) in London, there will be a consecutive relay of five, 15-minute Facebook Live broadcasts. Each will take place in front of a different Sunflowers painting, all will celebrate and explore Vincent van Gogh’s life and work.

This is the first time ever there has been a live Facebook ‘relay’ of this type between different institutions worldwide.

To further unite the paintings, and in such a way that would be totally impossible in the physical space of a gallery, the five galleries have worked with Facebook to create a fully immersive digital exhibition, Sunflowers 360.

Entering the gallery in VR, people can rotate around a 360 degree environment to view each of the paintings, or go on a guided tour of each painting. Willem van Gogh – the great-grandson of Van Gogh’s brother Theo – narrates the experience, sharing personal memories of the paintings. Sunflowers 360 is released today (10 August 2017) on the Facebook pages of each museum and through the Oculus store.

Willem van Gogh said: “Rather like the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Night Watch’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ are works of art that continue to intrigue and inspire, perhaps into eternity. Indeed, each generation forges a fresh, highly personal bind with them. The virtual gallery and live stream now provide a novel way for art lovers, young and old, to admire these magnificent masterpieces, from all corners of the globe. I think this is fantastic!”

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in August 1888: “I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly. I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers…it gives a singular effect.”

Van Gogh had been deeply influenced by Japanese art – the simplicity of the design and the bright, flat colours with bold contour lines were things that he sought in his own work. Colour itself came to have special symbolic meanings – yellow, in particular, referred to warmth and friendship. The dying flowers are built up with thick brushstrokes (impasto), which evokes the texture of the seed-heads. Where there are petals, they are often painted with a single, soft, yellow brushstroke.

Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together throughout autumn 1888 – but it ended very badly at the close of the year when Vincent seemed to have a nervous breakdown, famously cut off part of his ear and entered an asylum.

Early the following year, following this nervous collapse, he returned to the subject of Sunflowers once again.