Van Gogh exhibition to open at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Two Art Museum visitors look at Vincent van Gogh's "Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies" at a preview. It is one of 46 paintings in the exhibition.
Two Art Museum visitors look at Vincent van Gogh's "Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies" at a preview. It is one of 46 paintings in the exhibition. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 31, 2012

That the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting a major van Gogh exhibition - it opens Wednesday - would be no mystery to the devoted Japanese pilgrims who bear ancestral ashes halfway across the world to commingle them with the earth of Vincent van Gogh's grave north of Paris.

Nor would it be difficult to understand for the Russians who pour vodka onto the dark red soil of the same spot.

The thousands from all over the world who travel to Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh is buried next to his brother Theo, would understand. About half a million a year make the pilgrimage, says a van Gogh biographer.

No matter how many van Gogh exhibitions there are - and they average at least one major show a year; no matter how many books are written (Amazon pulls up more than 7,000 titles in a simple search); no matter how much is known about the 37-year life of this painter (and a lot is known), there always seems to be more to find out, more to see, more to understand, more to absorb and feel and question.

"I think these big guys just have the ability to reengage you," said Joseph J. Rishel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's senior curator of European art before 1900. Rishel cocurated "Van Gogh Up Close" with Jennifer A. Thompson, associate curator of pre-1900 European art; independent curator Cornelia Homburg; and Anabelle Kienle, assistant curator of European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The show, consisting of 46 paintings from various sources and about 30 prints and photographs, travels to Ottawa after it closes here May 6.

"How many times have you seen Hamlet? How many times have you seen Cosi fan tutte? They still engage," Rishel continued. "These things can be reinvented and reinvented and reinvented. There are always new ports of entry."

This seems particularly true with van Gogh, whose celebrity is of a magnitude that far outstrips virtually every other cultural figure outside of an elite group of dead pop stars.

What is the allure?

Some of it may be found in the Myth of the Tortured Artist, which now shrouds van Gogh almost to the point of mummification. Some may lie in the visceral recognizability of his imagery.

For curators such as Rishel and Thompson, it is the artistry and intellect of the paintings. Their work on this exhibition has focused on the extraordinary burst of creativity and experimentation during the last four years of van Gogh's life. He died in 1890 from a gunshot wound.

"We're not doing this as a blockbuster," Thompson said. "What's striking to us, as the paintings come in . . . so many more questions arise. There is so much we don't understand. How is he working? What is he doing? What is that blue streak in the corner? Is it water? Is it wind? What is he painting? It's not always logical."

The focus of this exhibition - van Gogh's time in Paris, his encounters with landscape, and the extreme close-up views he explored - suggests the pivotal role the artist played in bringing art into the modernist world.

That has curatorial appeal. It has appeal for artists, too.

Zoe Strauss, a photographer of contemporary American street life who has a show at the museum now, finds van Gogh's work compelling. She yearns to see the actual brushstrokes, the evidence of van Gogh's living hand moving across the canvas.

In Rain, painted in the year before his death (and part of the museum's collection and the exhibition), Strauss pointed to the "movement of the rain," "the barrier or structure" of the fence around the wheat, the tilted and flattened perspective - all coming together in one painting.

"There are so many different compositions in that," she said. "It's very musical. . . . I'm very moved by it."

So van Gogh continues to intrigue scholars and generations of artists. But what about the population at large? How to account for the grave-site treks? The record-breaking museum attendance figures?

Here it is essential to return to the myth. Perhaps more than any other figure, van Gogh has come to embody the idea of the tormented artist laboring in isolation, verging into madness, dying by his own hand in utter obscurity, only to be "discovered" after death and elevated to the pantheon.

While there are glimmers of fact in this myth, largely it is a fantasy, the result of shrewd marketing beginning almost immediately upon van Gogh's (widely mourned) death, then cemented in popular consciousness by Irving Stone, author of the hugely successful 1934 novel Lust for Life.

Stone's book, based loosely on van Gogh's vivid letters, is still in print and was made into an Oscar-winning 1956 movie starring Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as his highly competitive pal Paul Gauguin.

"Lust for Life has been hugely popular," says Steven Naifeh, coauthor with Gregory White Smith of Van Gogh: The Life, recently published by Random House. "But all you have to know is the ear incident. Every 5-year-old knows it."

At the end of 1888, in the midst of a prolonged spasm of despair, van Gogh sliced off a portion of his left ear when he believed Gauguin was abandoning their friendship.

The incident, like van Gogh's mysterious bouts with psychosis and melancholia, certainly brought notoriety. But it came during the spectacular efflorescence of his art, which brought him to the very center of the art world before his death. Van Gogh was hardly isolated; everyone, from Monet to Toulouse-Lautrec, knew his work.

Naifeh, who with his coauthor will lecture and sign books at the museum Feb. 12, also suggests that the "sadness of the portraits" plays a major role in van Gogh's broad popularity. "The average person has the sense that he's the iconic tortured artist who, despite the sadness of the life, is able to create exuberantly joyful pictures," said Naifeh.

Right before van Gogh's death, which Naifeh and coauthor White argue was not a suicide, van Gogh's work was hailed as the very best in the Salon des Ind├ępendants in Paris. And after his death, his brother's widow shrewdly allowed canvases to be sold slowly and carefully, helping prices build as van Gogh's artistic reputation mushroomed.

She also eloquently translated and published a selection of van Gogh's extraordinary letters. Her translations are still in print.

In fact, for more than a century, van Gogh has been a superstar - quite a run for a tortured misfit.

"It is so filled with life," said Strauss, speaking of van Gogh's work. "I find it striking. I find it compelling. I find it very moving."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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