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Ready, get set: Van Gogh goes West

Just a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House another house has been vying for attention recently - the yellow one lived in and painted by Vincent van Gogh. To view this masterpiece as well as 71 others by the 19th-century Dutch artist, admirers have lined up at sunrise outside Washington's National Gallery of Art every day for three months. But the buzz about "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," a monumental exhibition of paintings on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has just shifted coasts, and the National Gallery is a little quieter these days. Now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is gearing up for its turn at crowd control when the exhibit opens there Sunday. Earlier this week, Adam Coyne, spokesman for LACMA, called his workplace "hectic central." Already, 250,000 tickets have been sold. But, he says, the museum is ready: Staff and security have been beefed up, and doors will be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week to avoid overcrowding. Van Gogh's stardom is nothing new. For the past century, the public has been keenly interested in his works. At auction, his paintings fetch multimillions: "Irises" sold for $53.9 million in 1987 and "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" for $82.5 million in 1990. For an artist who struggled in isolation, was unrecognized, and sold only a few works during his lifetime (1853-1890), such phenomenal success after his death strikes many as paradoxical. Why is Van Gogh so popular today? "That question could fill an entire book!" says Louis van Tilborgh, curator of paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh created extraordinary works of art, Mr. Van Tilborgh explains in a telephone interview, and the subjects Van Gogh painted are easy to understand and appreciate. What's more, his 750 letters to his brother, Theo, reveal so much about Vincent's complexity and depth of emotion that people feel close to him. "We don't know as much about the inner life of any other 19th-century artist," Van Tilborgh says. "There is something very human about those letters. It's charming to us that he wanted to be a popular artist but never became one." In the exhibition catalog, Van Gogh scholar Richard Kendall adds: "Van Gogh left a record of lucid self-examination as both painter and human being that is among the most moving testimonies of its kind." Excerpts of these letters to Theo appear on walls throughout the show. One, dated July 21, 1882, reads: "I want to get to the point where people say of my work: That man feels deeply." And above "Wheatfield With Crows," one of Van Gogh's last works, are the artist's poignant words: "I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness." "The letters give us all the right ingredients for a good story, and for confirming the myth of the misunderstood artist," Van Tilborgh says. It is a myth, though, because "historically, this is incorrect. Van Gogh died too young. He could have gained success had he lived longer." In addition to being charmed by Van Gogh's vulnerability and fascinated with his tragic life, Van Tilborgh says, Americans identify with his desire to make a difference, and they respect his single-minded ambition. "He wanted to become someone in this world. People recognize that in themselves," he says. "Like Van Gogh, they also want to have a goal in life, one they follow passionately." It's this aspect of Van Gogh that seems to attract a steady stream of young viewers to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Tilborgh says. They admire his lofty ideals: They, too, want to do something important. Van Gogh's father was a pastor. Before deciding to pursue an art career at age 27, Vincent attempted to follow this same path. He was told, however, that he was too zealous in the pulpit. His desire to convey a meaningful message with his art grew out of this upbringing, Van Tilborgh says. Oftentimes, however, Van Gogh's legacy is overshadowed by his reputation for instability, restlessness, and acts of rage, such as when he cut off his ear lobe after an argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. In the catalog, Mr. Kendall puts this behavior in perspective: "Far from being the impetuous, mentally unstable painter of myth, for all but a few months of his working life, Van Gogh could be numbered among the most industrious artists of his generation, as well as the most articulate." 'Van Gogh's Van Goghs' will be on view in Los Angeles from Jan. 17 to May 16. For tickets, call Ticketmaster or visit the museum box office. A review of the exhibit appeared in the Monitor Oct. 2.

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