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Even Success Can't Spoil Van Gogh


IN some ways it is almost in spite of itself that the great Vincent Van Gogh exhibition here - organized by the Netherlands to mark the 100th anniversary of the artist's death - is astonishing, revealing, and refreshing. In fact, it's everything one ought to expect from a gathering-together of works by a painter of incomparable stature and vision. In spite of itself because of several factors:

The first is the phenomenal exposure of Van Gogh and his art - to which this show, however intelligently put together, inevitably adds. Over-simplification has been the result, a popular concentration on a few dramatic details of his life instead of the whole complicated story. There has also been extensive reproduction - to the point of saturation and clich'e - of a number of his paintings.

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Add to this the notoriously high auction prices paid in recent years for some of his works (in contrast to the lack of value even his friends gave to his work during his short career), and there is enough to produce the kind of myth that makes an artist into a popular icon, rather than that upsetting, unexpected, unfathomable thing this one certainly was.

Another factor - in some ways just as invidious - is an understandable counter-action to the popular myth-making. It is something art historians do: subjecting an artist's work to various kinds of detailed analysis - of motivation, style, subject matter, historical context.

But sometimes this laudable - and often informative - attempt at greater comprehension also involves a subtle kind of disenchantment. It can cut down a ``giant'' to ordinary human size - sometimes making the wisdom and subtlety of the art historian seem superior to the artist's vision itself. And it can disregard such imponderables as ``inspiration'' and ``genius'' and even such wonderful mainsprings of artistic inventiveness as the ``happy accident.'' In short, art historians sometimes make artists seem very dull, or worse, very ordinary and unexceptional.

FORTUNATELY the works themselves counter any such assessment of Van Gogh. The exhibition here is presented in two sections, roughly 60 miles apart. Some 130 of Van Gogh's paintings are on view at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh here in Amsterdam, and about 250 of his drawings, including many in color are on display at the Rijksmuseum Kr"oller-M"uller in Otterlo. The dual exhibition continues through July 29, with admission by ticket only, purchased in advance through Ticketron in America and the Netherlands Board of Tourism in other countries.

Underlying the exhibition is an art-historical thesis: that Van Gogh himself had ambitious plans to create an ``oeuvre,'' a body of finished works selected by him, by which he hoped to be recognized in the future, if not during his life.

The argument, as expressed in the catalog, is that the best way to ``provide a true picture of Van Gogh's own view of his oeuvre'' is by ``classifying it according to traditional genres'' - still life, landscape, townscape and, above all, portraits and figures pieces. There are also, however, what the organizers call ``strongly associative paintings,'' such as ``The Night Caf'e'' and ``The Bedroom'' and landscapes with working people - Millet modernized.

It isn't pointed out, however, that in these works, alone, Van Gogh broke the mold with an originality way beyond any kind of traditional genre classification. Or that his own assessment of such works shows that he instinctively knew this.

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Van Gogh's contribution really can't be assessed in terms of conventional categories or even of his own value judgments. He is, in many ways, a classic example of an artist whose work frequently surged away from the expected, the planned. He could even believe that a painting - ``The Sower'' of June 1888, for example, in which he aimed to express his subject through color - had been a failure, only to reassess it later on.

As far as possible, the exhibition has aimed to display ``successful'' works and to emphasize their classification. The works shown are not just sketches or preparations, but the pictures - both on paper and canvas - the artist himself felt were his ``best,'' as indicated in his letters.

Not only was Vincent often extremely critical of his own work; he was also quite conventional in his idea of the ``masterpiece'' as an artist's highest aim. He wrote once, ``I regard making studies as sowing, and making paintings as reaping.''

WHAT emerges from an essay by Louis Van Tilborgh and Evert van Uitert in the catalog for the paintings portion of the exhibition is a picture of an artist whose ambitions to be exhibited and achieve critical acclaim and sales, as well as artistic mastery, were frustrated. The authors conclude: ``While he apparently failed to accomplish the oeuvre he had envisaged, his later fame did not suffer as a result. After Van Gogh's letters were published in the 20th century, his work was evaluated predominantly in the light of the details of his biography. His own intentions and the nucleus of his work were thus lost from view, overshadowed by the tragic course of his 10-year career.'' But this is at least an over-simplification. In fact, it's just not true.

What it overlooks is that ``fame'' and ``evaluation'' are different things. There has been a great deal of serious evaluation of Van Gogh's art and written ideas by art historians and other artists. They may not have looked with precise care at Van Gogh's intentions. But they have looked, long, hard, and appreciatively at his work.

What he achieved mattered far more to later artists - people like Munch, Kokoschka, Picasso, Nolde, Kirchner, Derain, Matisse - than what he planned to do or how he may have categorized his achievements and failures.

They looked at his work - incomplete and unsuccessful, maybe, but never tentative - and instinctively they felt its freedom, its originality. They understood the breakthroughs of its color and graphic brushwork, its astounding energy and expressiveness. They saw that - whether through a sort of ecstasy or an abandonment born of despair, a naivet'e either deliberate or unintentional (did it matter?) - here was a painter who shattered academic conventions. This was because his sense of reality was so potent and direct that his way of painting and drawing had to measure up to that reality.

By contrast, the organizers of this show talk intriguingly of Van Gogh's pursuit of ``style.'' He is vulnerable to misunderstanding on this score. Self-taught, he was very humble about his technical ability. It was five years before he even attempted a ``masterpiece'' - the ``Potato Eaters.'' And his ambition as a draftsman was to attain ``speed'' - such confidence that his drawing would have the fluency of mature handwriting: there would be no gap, in other words, between looking at and drawing a subject.

BUT, as an essay by E.B.F. Pey in the catalog for the Otterlo portion of the exhibition shows, he was not after ``style'' in the sense of mindless facility, that kind of slick dexterity that makes so much academic painting of the 19th century polished and expressionless. He liked roughness. He used a carpenter's pencil in preference to art-store pencils, and remarked to a friend that ``very fine pens, like very elegant people, are sometimes surprisingly useless.''

Perhaps, in modern terms, what he was after was not so much ``style'' - certainly not in any academic sense - but spontaneity, because spontaneity was part of the urgency and directness of his character, part of the vigor of art in his eyes. Pey writes: ``He wanted to gain an absolute mastery of drawing technique, without any tricks, so that `the beauty should [not] come through my material, but through me.'''

The point at which the ``thesis'' for this exhibition falls apart, is in the last paintings, done in Auvers. With these, academic categorization becomes impossible. They were not, apparently, any longer part of the artist's plan for his oeuvre. Perhaps they were symptomatic of his despair. And yet grandly displayed here in Amsterdam, they look like a rounding off, as well as a pushing beyond, of all his previous achievements. Everything but direct expression and experience is thrown to the winds. He is himself as never before - and at the same time he is thinking back to his early work.

To compare these consummate, purposeful, highly individual works with even the ``best'' of his work, say, two years before (``The Harvest'' of June 1888, for instance) is to witness an amazing change. To the art historians who organized this exhibition, ``The Harvest'' is ``a superb example of Van Gogh's mature competence.''

``The Harvest'' is, indeed, a wonderful, balanced, lucid painting - a deserved favorite, Van Gogh's translation at last of the lessons of Parisian Impressionism into his own terms.

But if ``mature competence'' was to have been the summit of Van Gogh's achievement as an artist, his significance for later artists, and even for the rest of us, would have been quite minor.

There's more to art than ``mature competence.''

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