Van Gogh's Van Goghs
Naves, Mario, New Criterion
The short and tragic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) forms the basis of one of the most pervasive myths in the history of art. The story of the impoverished artist who lives in obscurity is an archetypal one. What magnifies its power--and poignancy --is that the artist's genius is "discovered" by society only after his untimely death. That this was the actual tale of Vincent van Gogh should not stop us from being leery of the haze such a story can generate. And in the case of van Gogh, the haze is dense. He was, after all, a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and gifted, but psychologically troubled. Add to this mix self-mutilation, illness, suicide, and a revolutionary artistic moment and one has the makings of a saga that not only Hollywood can appreciate, but the rest of us as well.
One irresistible facet of the van Gogh myth concerns the painting Wheatfield with Crows (1890). It has long been rumored to be the last canvas he painted before he shot himself in July 1890. Scholars have their doubts about the veracity of this story, but attempts to make the point otherwise are futile. The "deeply entrenched tradition" (as Richard Kendall has it) of the final painting is too compelling to remedy. Its stark and simple composition, wherein twisting pathways lead to nowhere and crows hover over a strangely welcoming sky, has the makings of an omen. What it also has are the makings of a masterpiece. In Wheatfield with Crows van Gogh achieved a pictorial ferocity that is staggering. The blue of the sky, in particular, is so vivid that one is likely to think it caused by a trick of museum lighting. It isn't. That blue is van Gogh's and it is electrifying. Wheatfield with Crows can seem, in its severity, like both the beginning and the end of expressionism. Indeed, the painting's wallop makes the rest of the artist's oeuvre pale in comparison. How, one wonders, could van Gogh have topped a picture such as this had he lived longer?
Wheatfield with Crows serves as the finale to "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" an exhibition at the National Gallery of work from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.(1) The Dutch museum, currently undergoing renovation and expansion, has allowed seventy of the artist's paintings to travel to the United States. The artist's popularity guaranteed the National Gallery a hit, but what does that guarantee the viewer? A wait in line, certainly, and, the day I attended the show, galleries so congested as to make the F train from Queens seem spacious. This is the dilemma of the blockbuster: How does a cultural institution provide access to art without undermining the encounter with overcrowded galleries? Hype has its part to play in this phenomenon, but so does a need on the part of the museum-going public for quality--quality, I would argue, of a distinctly hand-made nature. To question the wisdom behind blockbusters isn't being unrealistic or snobbish. It's an attempt to grapple with the complexities of aesthetic experience in a culture that, too often, makes it all but impossible.
"Van Gogh's Van Goghs" is intermittently exhilarating, often interesting and generally a letdown. The unevenness of the exhibition has its roots in the genesis of the collection itself. Theo van Gogh, Vincent's supportive and infinitely patient brother, inherited the artist's paintings after the latter's death. Theo, however, did not long outlive his brother--he was dead six months later. The paintings then became the responsibility of Theo's wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. (The rest of the van Gogh family would have nothing to do with the work.) Convinced of her late brother-in-law's genius, Johanna set out to advance Vincent's reputation by mounting exhibitions of the work and making public his correspondence with Theo. Having learned about the business of art from her husband, who worked for the dealers Boussod et Valadon in Paris, Johanna proved adept in the distribution of Vincent's canvases; she made certain that important pictures were sold to major dealers and museums for (as she had it) "the sake of Vincent's glory. …