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Works show van Gogh’s final days

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MADRID, SPAIN -- When Vincent van Gogh arrived in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise in late May 1890, seeking a new life after a year in a mental asylum, he embarked on an explosion of creativity, producing more than 70 paintings within two months.

It turned out to be a frenzied farewell: He shot himself on July 27 and died two days later at age 37.

Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum brings together 29 of the works in what is billed as the first-ever exhibition to focus on the Dutch artist's final days.

Titled "The Final Landscapes," it features 26 paintings and three drawings gathered from galleries and private collections worldwide. Providing points of comparison are six paintings by Cezanne, Pissarro and Daubigny, who also had found inspiration in Auvers before van Gogh.

"I am working a good deal and quickly these days," van Gogh wrote to his sister on June 13 from Auvers. "By doing this, I seek to find an expression for the desperately swift passing away of things in modern life."

Light and color — predominantly greens, blues and yellows — and van Gogh's trademark rough, brick-shaped brush strokes burst forth from the paintings, with the artist returning to his favorite themes of fields and woods, country paths and farmhouses.

Delights such as "Daubigny's Garden" from the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland; "Undergrowth With Two Figures" from the Cincinnati Art Museum; and "Landscape at Twilight" from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum join the Thyssen's own "Les Vessenots" for a compact exhibit that is a welcome break from the gallery's customary large-scale blockbuster art shows.

Van Gogh went to Auvers on advice from his brother and patron, Theo. Thyssen chief curator Guillermo Solana explains that there he sought health and tranquillity after the asylum and a life of perceived failure.

"Auvers was a liberation. He wanted to start anew. He had all the enthusiasm, hope and illusion of a new beginning," says Mr. Solana, who believes the suicide was "almost an accident."

"There was no indication he was going to take his life," Mr. Solana says. "It wasn't a premeditated suicide but more the result of an acute crisis of anxiety and panic. He had plans and projects. He'd ordered material from Theo to continue painting. He was reinventing himself."

One of the first expressionists, van Gogh produced nearly 1,500 paintings and drawings, all in his last 10 years. Not recognized in his time, he had a history of mental illness, famously cutting off his ear after an argument with Paul Gauging.

"It's not that there's a huge difference in style from other periods," Mr. Solana says of the works in van Gogh's final months. "You could almost call this a baroque epilogue in the sense that there is greater intensity of impasses (thick paint on a canvas); his execution is much more impulsive and passionate."

When van Gogh stopped in Paris on his way to Auvers, he had an experience that would prove crucial to his final phase: For the first time in his life, he saw his entire output, from "The Potato Eaters" to the "The Starry Night" in his brother's house and a friend's studio.

"It was a chance for him to review his work," Mr. Solana says. "The paintings from Auvers are reconsideration, reinterpretations of themes he had painted in the Netherlands, references to the great landscape artists such as Daubigny, Pissarro and Cezanne who preceded him. ... It was like he was paying homage to all that inspired him."

Mr. Solana says unavoidable legal restrictions at the Louvre Museum and availability problems with the Van Gogh Museum made an unabridged Auvers show impossible. The exhibit runs though Sept. 16.

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