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Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, currently mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new West Wing (the onetime May Company Building on Wilshire) is a chronological overview of the artist’s career as a painter, comprising seventy works from 1882 to 1890. Imposing chestnuts (The Potato Eaters, Vincent’s Bedroom) and masterful achievements (The Harvest (Blue Cart), Blossoming Almond Branch) co-mingle with pictures of modest scale and accomplishment. The unevenness of the offering—in addition to indicating the organizing institution’s reluctance to lend its full arsenal of “masterpieces” documents the artist’s sometimes warring preoccupations and his stubborn struggles to realize his pictorial ambitions.
Virtually every work in the show comes from the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (undergoing renovation/expansion until June 24, 1999)—itself mainly composed of the trove sold to the Dutch state (by way of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation) in 1962 by the artist’s namesake nephew, Vincent Willem van Gogh. The younger Van Gogh inherited the pictures from his mother Johanna, who was married to Vincent’s brother, Theo, in the years just prior to both Van Goghs’ untimely deaths. In the months before and after his marriage, Theo—his brother’s ardent supporter, close confidant, and would-be dealer—regularly received gifts of paintings from Vincent, as well as boxloads of paintings that the artist (living in Provence) considered noteworthy and potentially salable and that he thus wished to see circulated in Paris. Theo also was the custodian of works Vincent had brought to Paris in 1886 and left there when he moved to Arles two years later and of pictures put in storage when he moved from Arles to a mental hospital at St.-Remy and thence to Auvers-sur-Oise. Johanna later recalled the “huge piles of unframed canvases” in the apartment she shared with Theo that were "under the bed, under the sofa, under the cupboards.
Had the artist’s work been more widely dispersed in his lifetime, the notion of “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” might carry more weight. But, while he made several exchanges of work with other artists and gave a number of pictures away to friends, family members, and obliging models, Van Gogh sold just one picture in his lifetime, the vast majority of “Van Goghs” remaining “Van Gogh’s” by default. Actually, the show would be better titled “Van Goghs’ Van Goghs,” since it includes studio remains, works earmarked by the artist for consignment to his brother, and outright gifts to family members—a large body of work that Johanna took over (with her in-laws’ consent) at Theo’s death and selectively pruned by piecemeal “deaccessioning” undertaken to raise money and the artist’s profile in the first decades of his burgeoning notoriety. (A Sunflowers still life, for instance, was sold to the Tate Gallery in 1923—for, in Johanna’s words, “the sake of Vincent’s glory.”) The collection her son inherited (and transferred en masse in 1962) thus includes works retained for their formal power and canonical significance (Wheatfield with Crows), pictures with familial reference and resonance (The Vicarage at Nuenen or the Still Life with Lemons and Quinces, inscribed “mon frere Theo”), and a fair number of duds that—in this century’s first quarter, at least—doubtlessly held little appeal for institutional or private collectors.
Issues surrounding the collection’s origins and subsequent shaping (if briefly addressed in John’s Leighton’s catalogue contribution) are skirted in an exhibition that—despite its come-on title—was obviously conceived as a mass-market crowd-pleaser rather than an assessment of factors that kept certain Van Goghs in the family. The trajectory of the exhibition and the accompanying book by Richard Kendall (serviceable, if occasionally inaccurate) is well-rehearsed: a sobersided Dutchman with a penchant for murky-hued peasant pictures sees the light in Paris, reinvents himself (and Western art) in the hot Provençal sun, falls victim to a mysterious illness (all the better to be routinely rediagnosed by twentieth-century physicians) and veers from anguish to exultation; by the time he shoots himself amid waving wheat, you can almost hear the crows cawing. Well aware that scholarly attempts to discredit the “deeply entrenched tradition that Wheatfield with Crows was the last picture Van Gogh painted . . . have made little headway in the popular imagination” (p. 138), both catalogue and exhibition conclude with this image—unable to resist the flourish of an iconic exclamation point, and willing to give the people what they want.
The show’s vaguely chronological but decidedly chaotic LACMA hang might be charitably construed as a formalist critique of the academic’s obsession with reasoned groupings that use pictures to plot the artist’s biography and stylistic development; more cynical viewers might see mere carelessness at the root of disconnects like the Flying Fox, made at Antwerp, amid a wall of completed unrelated Paris pictures. Equally baffling is the distancing of allied works, like Trees and Undergrowth and A Park in Spring (or the Japanese-print-inspired Courtesan [after Eisen] and the Still Life with Quinces and Lemons, its painted frame a riff on Japanese calligraphy), placed at opposite ends of the catch-all (and then some) “Paris” room, or, in the Arles sector, the separation by several pictures (read: dozens of bobbing heads) of the exterior view of The Yellow House and Van Gogh’s equally luminous rendering of its inner sanctum, Vincent’s Bedroom.
One pertinent pairing seems unduly marred by heedless display, since the mere flip-flopping of two versions of Undergrowth made at St.-Remy, so that the smaller and less focused version was to the left of—hence implied to precede—the larger and obviously more considered and “finished” take on the same scene, would make a difference, in effect, and posit a more probable scenario. As it is, having been riveted by the centeredness the larger work (despite its initial effect of randomness) and the darkly dazzling color plays of its thick but controlled impasto, one moves on to view the sketchy first take with a sense of let-down rather than anticipation. The ungainliness of the LACMA hang is underscored by comparison to the National Gallery’s version of the show (mounted in Washington last fall), which was divided into ten sections—some, like LACMA’s, determined by place of production, others constituting thematic subgroups. The Washington room dedicated to “Japanese influence” included a glass case containing the cover of Paris illustré that inspired Van Gogh’s painted translation of a print by Eisen, and his squared-off tracing of the image (both from the collection of the Van Gogh Museum)—an informed and informative addition sadly lacking in the West Coast incarnation.
Perhaps to encourage purchase of $5 audio tours (narrated by Earl Powell III), wall-mounted commentary is in short supply in the Los Angeles show. Though curators’ discursive labels don’t always merit the traffic jams they cause, Van Gogh’s collected letters (numbering in the hundreds) offer unmatched opportunities to illuminate an artist’s work with his own self-criticisms and justifications, and, given this show’s prevailing conceit, it’s remarkable that just a smattering of the artist’s prose made it onto the walls of Van Gogh’s Van Goghs. The featured citations are so few and far between that the decision to include them seems half-baked—as does the fact that they’re not always as apt as they could be. The artist’s specific assessment of The Harvest (“It kills everything else I have, except a still life”) serves it better than the chosen remarks on painting in sun-baked fields, and it’s something of a stretch to apply a statement Van Gogh made in 1890 about his portrait aims to various self-portraits made in Paris in 1886 and 1887.
Those familiar with the collection from which Van Gogh’s Van Goghs is drawn will undoubtedly lament the absence of particular favorites (give me, for instance, Gauguin’s Chair and the expressionist double-square canvas made at Auvers, Roots and Tree Trunks); the most glaring lacuna, however, is the absence of drawings, the exclusive concern of Van Gogh’s first years as an artist. He considered drawing “the backbone of painting, the skeleton that supports all the rest,” and works on paper constituted a significant portion of his oeuvre, even after he took the belated plunge into oil with which this exhibition opens. Van Gogh’s ongoing efforts to perfect his draftsmanship and bring out the textural and tonal possibilities of varied “black and white” media is made manifest in the way he wields a brush: many of his canvases are as much drawn as painted, and his mature repertoire of brushmarks is as distinctive as it is inclusive. Though the decision to exclude drawings from this loan show is—in light of conservation and display issues—predictable and reasonable, a Van Gogh show without drawings seems like a story half told.
This little blockbuster is undoubtedly the sort of success its organizers intended: a money-maker (at $17.50 a head) that reinscribes (if somewhat clumsily) cherished myth. It may appeal to specialists as a manageable dose of undisputed Van Gogh and an opportunity to see some little-known works, but it probably will not obviate the art historian’s need and desire to travel to Amsterdam once the dust settles.
Professor of Art History, Queens College & The Graduate Center, City University of New York