Van Gogh exhibits: memories for life

October 27, 1998|By Bennard B. Perlman

THIS IS the decade for recycling the arts. A look at the marquees on Broadway reveals that such shows from yesteryear as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Cabaret," "Chicago," "On the Town" and "The Sound of Music" are playing there once again. Many of the same paintings by Picasso have been reshuffled to appear in multiple exhibitions, most recently "Picasso and the Weeping Women" (1994) and "Picasso and Portraiture" (1996).

The latest art blockbuster, "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Jan. 3, is a partial encore of similar shows held at the Baltimore Museum of Art and other venues in 1961 and 1970. Works appearing in all three exhibitions were selected from the vast holdings of the Van Gogh Foundation in Amsterdam, which has preserved the drawings and paintings, unsold during the artist's lifetime, as a priceless national treasure.

Previously housed in Amsterdam's Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum, the trove was placed in a structure specifically built to contain it in 1973 (the National Gallery exhibit was made possible because the Van Gogh Museum has been closed for renovations).

An intimate show

The Washington exhibition is the smallest of the three shows, containing only 70 works (10 percent of the Van Gogh Museum's holdings), compared with 142 examples in the 1961 event and 118 in 1970. Yet all three of them have brought forth some of the same canvases, including "The Potato Eaters," "A Pair of Shoes," "The Cottage" and "Self-Portrait With Felt Hat."

In this exhibit, as in the others, the gallery visitor can witness the changes in Van Gogh's art according to his locale and the seasons. The earliest oils of reed-roofed houses and peasant portraits are somber, sunless and earthy.

A move to Paris prompted a lighter palette, impressionistic vistas, joyful dabs of pigment. Spring in Arles suggested sunny skies, budding blossoms, his and nature's renewal. And his last, troubled year in Saint-Remy produced impassioned brush strokes, agitated forms, a predilection for black.

What the National Gallery has accomplished by allocating 10 galleries to accommodate just 70 works of art is an openness, an ease of viewing. In one case, a single canvas stands alone on a 20-foot-long wall. Better for the hordes queuing up daily in front of the gallery's Constitution Avenue entrance.

What the present Van Gogh exhibit lacks is a selection from among the 500 drawings in the Amsterdam Museum, some of which accompanied the two earlier exhibitions. Van Gogh embodied an almost infinite variety of lines through the use of parallel strokes, dots and curvilinear delineations. His drawings exist in pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, even watercolor and gouache. They pulsate with energy. Every square inch of surface is covered with calligraphic markings, which seemingly dance their way across the paper.

Van Gogh thought of some of his drawings as finished works of art. Yet even among the sketches, many relate to his oils. How revealing it would have been to position a smattering of them alongside the painted versions of the same subjects.

But the real missing component from the current Washington offering, compared with the 1961 Van Gogh exhibit, is the presence of Dr. Vincent Willem Van Gogh, a mechanical engineer and the artist's nephew. The doctor was president of the Van Gogh Foundation until his death in 1978; he appeared at the BMA on Oct. 18, 1961, the opening day of the exhibit. Being present on that occasion was akin to being in the stands when Mark McGwire hit number 70.

Dr. Van Gogh was introduced by Director Adelyn Breeskin on the stage of the auditorium. Here stood a direct link, possibly a sad one, to history. For the decade of the 1880s was the period of Van Gogh's career when he depended upon his brother Theo for financial support for food, lodging and art supplies.

When his brother became engaged in 1888, Van Gogh felt threatened by the prospect of losing his financial aid. This proved to be a major cause of the artist's breakdown. Imagine how Van Gogh was affected by the birth of his nephew on Jan. 31, 1890, at which point Theo had one more mouth to feed. Six months later, Van Gogh committed suicide.

A Van Gogh on Van Gogh

These thoughts raced through my mind as I gazed upon Dr. Van Gogh. I wondered how he felt about the endless tributes, the soaring prices paid for his uncle's long-unsold work. Dr. Van Gogh spoke of various canvases and directed those present to view them in the museum galleries. "You will soon go upstairs to see my uncle's work," he said, "but I would urge you to buy the work of Baltimore artists."

As an artist myself, I began to rise to my feet to applaud, but that would have proven embarrassing, like isolated clapping at the wrong moment of a symphony concert. What a generous remark for this man to bring to his American audience, I thought. But then the implication suddenly hit me: Had the art collectors of Paris and Arles purchased Van Gogh's work during his lifetime, such encouragement might have sustained him for additional months or even years.

That would have made him very happy. And the world would have been blessed by an additional cache of masterpieces.

Bennard B. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and writer.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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