Abelardo Morell was on a country road outside Arles, in the South of France. Cicadas were buzzing with almost hallucinatory intensity. It was 10 a.m., a hot day at the start of July. Scattered across a field, half a dozen cypress trees stood like shaggy sentinels. Down the road, a field of heavy-headed sunflowers dazzled yellow under a blue sky. Morell had come to Arles to take photographs in the places Vincent van Gogh painted 130 years ago. But, even as he stood amid the painter’s beloved Provençal landscape, he seemed undaunted.
Taking on Van Gogh requires chutzpah. The Dutchman’s life has been so thoroughly co-opted by mass culture (in the form of saccharine pop songs, Hollywood movies and, most recently, several virtual reality exhibits that try to bring his paintings to life) that any serious artist who so much as nods at Van Gogh is flirting dangerously with kitsch.
None of this has deterred Morell, an acclaimed photographer in his 70s. “The fact that most people said it’s a cliche encouraged me,” he told me that day in France. “I like challenges like that.” — Sebatian Smee