Ready, Get Set: Van Gogh Goes West

Article excerpt

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. …