In the grip of Van Gogh's dazzling genius His breathtaking evolution from novice to masterful artist is the focus of the National Gallery's new exhibition of 70 seminal works.

October 04, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

What I want and aim at is confoundedly difficult, and yet I do not think I aim too high," wrote 28-year-old Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882. "I want to do drawings which touch people."

At the time, Van Gogh had virtually no training as an artist and had been a failure at nearly everything he tried - art dealer, schoolteacher, book-shop assistant, theology student and lay preacher to the poor. For months, he lived as a common tramp.

Yet within a very few years, this solitary, tormented man would emerge as the greatest Dutch master since Rembrandt, a largely self-taught genius whose astounding natural gifts only revealed themselves during the last years of his tragically short life.

This extraordinary evolution from impassioned novice to one of the most original artists of his time forms the narrative underlying "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," the National Gallery of Art's long-awaited exhibition of 70 seminal works from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The show opens today in Washington and runs through Jan. 3.

The Van Gogh Museum was founded to house the collection of paintings the artist left to Theo at his death. They constitute a chronological record of the artist's development from his early days in Holland to his final years in France.

To walk through the National's Van Gogh show is to be touched by the artist, to experience what seems like a personal revelation of his innermost thoughts and feelings - a panorama of ideas and emotions that range from deep melancholy and anguished self-doubt to giddy exhilaration and Olympian calm.

It is Van Gogh's heart-on-the-sleeve directness, the sense of his utter sincerity, humility and profound personal integrity, that shines through these paintings of surpassing beauty. It is their sheer beauty, which viewers need no instruction to appreciate, that has made Van Gogh one of the world's most beloved artists.

The National's show is likely to win even more converts. More than most retrospectives, it aims at bringing out the intimate relationship between the artist's development as a painter and the famously tragic events of his life, which ended in suicide at the age of 37 in 1890.

But though his career as an artist spanned less than a decade, during this brief span, Van Gogh produced some 800 paintings, 850 drawings and more than 700 letters that provide an unsurpassed record of his artistic aims and his often troubled interior life.

The National show is arranged in roughly chronological order, starting with the brooding, dark palette of his early landscapes, still lifes and studies of Dutch peasant life.

This formative period, during which he first discovered his unique powers of self-expression, culminated in 1885 with the completion of one of his most famous paintings, "The Potato Eaters."

Inspired by the social realism of French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), this powerful group portrait of a peasant family sharing a simple meal around a rough-hewn table was Van Gogh's first masterpiece.

Aware that by conventional standards some of his contemporaries would find its depiction of peasant life brutal, even repulsive, Van Gogh wrote an impassioned defense of the work to Theo in April of that year:

"It would be wrong, I think, to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness," he argued.

"If a peasant picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam - all right, that's not unhealthy: if a stable smells of dung - all right, that belongs to a stable: if the field has the odor of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano or manure - that's healthy, especially for city people ... such pictures may teach them something."

Already, Van Gogh was determined to avoid what he saw as the artificiality and affectation of much of the art around him.

In "The Potato Eaters," he explained, he had tried his best "to instill by this painting the idea that the people it depicts at their meal have dug the earth with the hands they are dipping into the dish. ... I really would not wish everyone to admire it or think it beautiful straightaway."

Van Gogh was also aware of his limitations as an artist. For a while he attended the art academy in Antwerp, but dropped out after a few months and moved to Paris, where his real education began.

In France, his art underwent a radical transformation as a result of his contact with the impressionists and postimpressionists, then the cutting-edge movements of the Parisian art world.

Van Gogh's friends included such artists as Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat. Their influence led him increasingly to experiment with bold, harmonious color effects and simple, powerful compositions.

This period in the artist's life is represented in the National Gallery show by such canvases as "Self-Portrait with Felt Hat," "The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry" and "Banks of the Seine," all of which show a progressive lightening of the painter's palette and an ever-greater willingness to exploit color as a means of expression.

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