Sunday, March 4, 2012

Up Close with Van Gogh

Van Gogh is not everyone's favorite artist, though, from the long lines to see the 'Van Gogh Up Close' show at the Philadelphia Museum, you might think so. The wait (even with my member's ticket) gave me a chance to think about several things. First - the idea of 'favorite.' I certainly understand 'not favorite' - in fact, to be honest, I think the choice of Van Gogh as a favorite artist is a bit naive. But I've also heard 'I don't like Van Gogh.' That's harder to understand. What don't you like? His impeccable sense of color harmonies? His astounding inventiveness with line and composition? And, of course, there's his dramatic, heart-wrenching life story. I can't imagine not 'liking' Van Gogh - he's too earnest and eager to please, like a child, albeit one who was supremely gifted and very brave. The PMA exhibit is titled 'Up Close' because it focuses on his attention to nature, including still lifes and studies of flowers and plants. The title is a bit misleading. There are plenty of broader landscapes as well, just not much in the way of portraits or people. Like many exhibits the organization is by date, earlier to late, but with Van Gogh that isn't terribly significant because almost all of his great works erupted from him in the last three to five years of his life. Even so, the progression is interesting - a few floral studies, startlingly conventional, begin the journey. You can see him struggling to square the set images in his mind - traditional Dutch still life paintings of big bouquets in vases, centered in a darkened space - with new ideas from the Impressionists he'd just met in Paris. If he'd stopped with the ones on view no one would know his name. Within a year or two he'd burst through and reinvented the idiom - the glowing golden 'Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase' is a stunning testament. Also at the beginning is the small canvas with a pair of used boots he bought at a flea market (and wore), included as an example of his 'study' approach and also for his particular way of putting animas into inanimate objects, turning everything into a self-portrait. And for Van Gogh everything really is a self-portrait; his tender-hearted, vulnerable life trails across canvases and boards in streaks of color. I have a particular love of Van Gogh's vocabulary of line, one of the most extraordinary, extensive expressions of mark-making of any artist or period. In paintings like Vineyards at Auvers and Tree Trunks in the Grass, you see him stroking, slashing, dotting, dragging, squiggling, chopping and wisping his color onto the surface, weaving an endlessly inventive visual fabric. One of the most moving paintings in the show is Landscape with Plowed Field, a serene scene of man and nature working together to produce a world of order; a huge sun, a close cousin to the moon in Starry Night, hovers like a benevolent god over neatly plowed fields, a tidy stone fence, and a pleasing range of moderate hills. But, cutting across the lower third, a rough messy diagonal upsets the calm - it turns out to be the path trod by Van Gogh's fellow inmates in the asylum at St. Remy - the view is out through the bars of his room. Another thought as I waited in line - Van Gogh would have loved this show, the crowds, the gift shop with all the sunflower tchotchkes - if you read his letters (very recommended, especially if you think he was just a looney as some people seem to - he was a lucid, intelligent, articulate writer with a deep knowledge of art) you find that his mission in life was to do something good for people, something that would make a difference in their lives. He may not have seen much success or money while he was alive, but he sure accomplished that.

No comments: