Van Gogh's Dilemma: Caught between Mythology and Art

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Van Gogh's Dilemma: Caught between Mythology and Art


Carol Zemel. Van Gogh's Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late-Nineteenth-Century Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 324 pp.; 14 color ills., 146 b/w. $45.00

Jan Hulsker. The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1996. 504 pp.; 31 color ills., 2158 b/w. $145.00

Ronald de Leeuw, ed. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. Trans. Arnold Pomerans. New York: Penguin, 1996. 560 pp. $32.95

Tsukasa Kodera. Vincent van Gogh: Christianity versus Nature. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990. 192 pp.; 8 color ills., 119 b/w. $76.00

Vincent van Gogh is as famous in 1998 as he was unknown in 1898. Much of the first century of van Gogh studies has been concerned with rescuing this now renowned artist from obscurity and finding his place in history. One of the first van Gogh scholars, Julius Meier-Graefe, wrote in 1900, "It is improbable that the time will ever come that his pictures will be appreciated by the layman; it is more conceivable that pictures should cease to be produced altogether than that van Gogh's should become popular."' Hell has frozen over, conceptual art has made pictures afterthoughts, and van Gogh's fame is blinding.

Today, Japanese tourists leave family ashes on van Gogh's grave in Auvers. In the October 1997 issue of National Geographic, Joel Swerdlow describes the artist's status as an enduring cultural celebrity: "His paintings sell for the most money; his exhibitions attract the highest number of visitors; reproductions of his work-on socks, sheets, party napkins, coffee cups-permeate homes and offices; the song 'Vincent' [by Don McClean] has sold more than ten million copies since 1971; movies mythologize his life. Controversy about the authenticity of some of his most famous paintings have recently been making the headlines. No other artist, at any time, in any culture, has been more popular."2

The question today is not whether we can "appreciate" van Gogh's art but whether we can move beyond admiration to understanding. The challenges facing van Gogh scholars are many, but the most significant obstacle to clarity about his work is demystifying his martyr-cult fame. This is in part because van Gogh studies have too often been caught in the trap of focusing on the drama of the artist's "mad/genius" persona. The continuation of van Gogh studies depends, in part, on the availability of primary materials, some of which have been inaccessible or poorly organized. Few have shown greater dedication to furthering our understanding of the artist than Jan Hulsker, former director general of cultural affairs of the Ministry of Culture of the Netherlands. He has undertaken the enormous task of organizing and dating the artist's correspondence and artistic production. His catalogue raisonne The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches continues this process of ordering works attributed to van Gogh. Beyond simply being more current, the principal superiority of Hulsker's catalogue over J.-B. de la Faille's earlier catalogue raisonne from the 1960s is that de la Faille organizes van Gogh's oeuvre by medium whereas Hulsker presents it chronologically. Hulsker envisions van Gogh's life and work developing in tandem, including a biographical guide printed alongside images of the works with identifying captions. With this recent updating, Hulsker's revised catalogue remains the most useful source both for those casually interested in van Gogh and those dedicated to studying his art.

The assembling and dating of van Gogh's letters is an ongoing process, just as it is with his artistic production. Ronald de Leeuw, former director of the Van Gogh Museum and now director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, edited The Letters of Vincent van Gogh for an English-speaking audience. This collection is based on the fully-revised, four-volume Dutch edition published in 1990. …