When the director of the Bremen Kunsthalle proposed that his museum buy van Gogh's Poppies in a Field at St-Remy in 1911, local artists rose up in fury. Why waste money on inferior French art when there was the echt German kind to be had right there? Standing in front of the picture, currently on loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, you suppress a little shudder. Three years after this outburst, German nationalism would take on an altogether bloodier tinge. So, too, would poppies in French fields.
The really odd thing about this story, though, is how untypical it was of Van Gogh's reception in Germany. In 1937, the spirit of the burghers of Bremen would find voice in Goebbels's Degenerate Art programme. Dozens of Van Goghs were removed from public collections and sold at auction. (Not all, though: Reichsmarschall Goering kept one for himself.) But in the 20 years before Hitler declared "sunny realism" the proper mode for German art, Vincent was the hero of the country's avant garde, of those movements we now know collectively as German Expressionism.
Actually, it may be that our idea of Van Gogh as a suffering artist is itself a German invention. His story bears an uncanny resemblance to Goethe's sorrowing Werther, right down to the choice of suicide weapon. The section on Vincent in Julius Meier- Graefe's euphoniously-named Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst of 1904 is the first to cast him as romantically mad rather than merely unfortunate. Without Meier-Graefe's German emotionalism, there might have been no Lust for Life, no Athena posters of sunflowers, no "Starry, Starry Night"; and without them, no queue of visitors long enough to justify a museum devoted to the works of Van Gogh.
Which wouldn't be the sharpest irony in that museum's excellent new show, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism. One of the joys of art history is the way artworks vary and mutate, shifting their value and meaning with time and place. To young artists in Dresden in 1905, a show of Van Gogh's work came as a thunderbolt. Before seeing it, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a lacklustre Art Nouveau painter with a nice line in Dorer-ish woodcuts. After, he was the wild mark- maker of Die Brocke. Munich was also swept by Vincent fever. …