The short and tragic life of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) forms the basis of one of the most pervasive myths in the history of art. The story of the impoverished artist who lives in obscurity is an archetypal one. What magnifies its power—and poignancy —is that the artist’s genius is “discovered” by society only after his untimely death. That this was the actual tale of Vincent van Gogh should not stop us from being leery of the haze such a story can generate. And in the case of van Gogh, the haze is dense. He was, after all, a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and gifted, but psychologically troubled. Add to this mix self-mutilation, illness, suicide, and a revolutionary artistic moment and one has the makings of a saga that not only Hollywood can appreciate, but the rest of us as well.

Van Gogh was a character of uncommon intensity: not simply destitute and gifted, but psychologically troubled.

One irresistible facet of the van Gogh myth concerns the painting Wheatfield with Crows (1890). It has long been rumored to be the last canvas he painted before he shot himself in July 1890. Scholars have their doubts about the veracity of this story, but attempts to make the point otherwise are futile. The “deeply entrenched tradition” (as Richard Kendall has it) of the final painting is too compelling to remedy. Its stark and simple composition, wherein twisting pathways lead to nowhere and crows hover over a strangely welcoming sky, has the makings of an omen. What it also has are the makings of a masterpiece. In Wheatfield with Crows van Gogh achieved a pictorial ferocity that is staggering. The blue of the sky, in particular, is so vivid that one is likely to think it caused by a trick of museum lighting. It isn’t. That blue is van Gogh’s and it is electrifying. Wheatfield with Crows can seem, in its severity, like both the beginning and the end of expressionism. Indeed, the painting’s wallop makes the rest of the artist’s oeuvre pale in comparison. How, one wonders, could van Gogh have topped a picture such as this had he lived longer?

Wheatfield with Crows serves as the finale to “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” an exhibition at the National Gallery of work from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.1 The Dutch museum, currently undergoing renovation and expansion, has allowed seventy of the artist’s paintings to travel to the United States. The artist’s popularity guaranteed the National Gallery a hit, but what does that guarantee the viewer? A wait in line, certainly, and, the day I attended the show, galleries so congested as to make the F train from Queens seem spacious. This is the dilemma of the blockbuster: How does a cultural institution provide access to art without undermining the encounter with overcrowded galleries? Hype has its part to play in this phenomenon, but so does a need on the part of the museum-going public for quality—quality, I would argue, of a distinctly hand-made nature. To question the wisdom behind blockbusters isn’t being unrealistic or snobbish. It’s an attempt to grapple with the complexities of aesthetic experience in a culture that, too often, makes it all but impossible.

“Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” is intermittently exhilarating, often interesting and generally a letdown. The unevenness of the exhibition has its roots in the genesis of the collection itself. Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s supportive and infinitely patient brother, inherited the artist’s paintings after the latter’s death. Theo, however, did not long outlive his brother—he was dead six months later. The paintings then became the responsibility of Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. (The rest of the van Gogh family would have nothing to do with the work.) Convinced of her late brother-in-law’s genius, Johanna set out to advance Vincent’s reputation by mounting exhibitions of the work and making public his correspondence with Theo. Having learned about the business of art from her husband, who worked for the dealers Boussod et Valadon in Paris, Johanna proved adept in the distribution of Vincent’s canvases; she made certain that important pictures were sold to major dealers and museums for (as she had it) “the sake of Vincent’s glory.” Van Gogh-Bonger also knew a thing or two about public relations. A mere two years after Vincent’s death, the painter Richard Roland-Holst griped that van Gogh-Bonger was “blinded by sentimentality” and encouraged the notion that Vincent’s paintings were “the illustration of his sorrowful life-drama.” Long before Kirk Douglas and Irving Stone, the van Gogh legend was in motion.

What the collection of the Van Gogh Museum consists of, then, are the leftovers that came down from van Gogh-Bonger to her son Vincent Willem and, finally, to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. Writing in the catalogue, John Leighton, the director of the museum, proves himself a realist by pondering what the collection might have been had the work not been dispersed. Still, the museum does have its share of pivotal works, including Wheatfield with Crows, Trees and Undergrowth (1887), The Bedroom (1888), Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889), and a half-dozen self-portraits. The collection also gives a good sense of the trajectory of van Gogh’s development: from Millet-influenced realism through impressionist experimentation and, then, to the artist’s signature canvases. What we aren’t given is a consistent case for Vincent’s merits as a painter. While there are some fascinating curios here—like The Courtesan (after Eisen) (1887), wherein van Gogh pays homage to the Japanese prints he loved—too much of the show is given over to pictures like Flying Fox (1885) or Emperor Moth (1889), works of marginal documentary interest and meager aesthetic quality. It is paintings like these that set the tone of the exhibition.

As it is, “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” will best be appreciated by specialists: those willing to leave no so-so painting unturned in the cause of scholarly research. There is value to such investigations, but even Vincent groupies must have a hard time stomaching the dour, Dutch genre paintings, up to and including the famous The Potato Eaters (1885). This painting is a keystone of the collection and does evoke (in van Gogh’s words) “bacon, smoke, [and] potato steam.” It also displays the artist at his earnest worst. The image is not only grossly sentimental, but also clumsy in its drawing and murky in its color. The paupers huddled around the dinner table aren’t ennobled so much as stereotyped marionettes of virtue. The leap van Gogh would make between paintings of this type and the work that would follow his journey to Paris in 1886 was nothing short of tremendous. Even so, he would never shake the pictorial awkwardness of the Dutch period and it is this awkwardness that bears closer scrutiny in understanding van Gogh’s art.

The drabness of van Gogh’s early work can make one wonder why he continued painting at all. In this respect he recalls Paul Cézanne, another artist whose early efforts evince no world-shaking talent. Unlike Cézanne, however, the Dutch painter would never fully comprehend painting as a metaphoric medium. For van Gogh, the canvas was a surface to be covered, rather than inhabited or explored. Even in his mature work, objects, spaces, and figures never quite sit comfortably within the painting’s structure. We might suspect that these cramped areas of incident are the conscious distortions of an artist driven to maximize the cathartic timbre of his art. Yet van Gogh’s quirks never integrate into a greater unity; instead, they clunk. This can be seen early on in a painting like Head of a Woman (1885), wherein dabs of paint lie on top of the canvas rather than within the painting. Similarly, in the presumably more advanced The Zouave (1888), the head and neck of the title figure jut out of their surroundings as if they were pasted on the canvas. These are the paintings of an artist whose skill at navigating pictorial space is iffy. To argue otherwise is to give in to the expressionist fallacy that pictorial coherence is an impediment to emotional authenticity. Of course, van Gogh’s authenticity in this respect is irrefutable and does compensate— or, rather, overwhelm—the ricketier aspects of his paintings. Yet rickety they are. I suspect we get a truer conception of van Gogh as an artist if we think of him less as a proto-modernist than as an inspired primitive.

In a letter of 1882, van Gogh wrote that “I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.” This need wasn’t based in aesthetics; it was based on the dictates of van Gogh’s psyche. The reality of expressionism is just that: the imposition of the artist’s mental state of being onto everything he touches. It would be unjust, however, to suggest that van Gogh’s art was nothing more than a vibrantly colored species of navel-gazing. In fact, his art only becomes convincing once it forsakes observational accuracy for self-expression. The National Gallery provides an almost pedantic lesson on this point by hanging, side by side, Self-Portrait as an Artist and Self-Portrait with Felt Hat (both 1887–1888). In the former, van Gogh’s pointillist facture attempts to describe mass, but does so in a fussy and overworked manner. In the latter, however, naturalistic light is discarded for a, shall we say, psychological aura. Here van Gogh’s staccato chunks of paint radiate from the artist’s gaze, giving the canvas an unnerving energy. It’s little wonder that his finest figure paintings are self-portraits: van Gogh was, ultimately, incapable of relating to anyone but himself.

Van Gogh would never shake the pictorial awkwardness of the Dutch period and it is this awkwardness that bears closer scrutiny in understanding van Gogh’s art.

Anyone, it should be noted, but not anything. The paintings that make up van Gogh’s legacy, and it is not a small one, are his landscapes. While he may have been drawn to landscape because it reflected his psychological state—think of the roiling and malevolent force of his wheatfields— van Gogh also found an artistic ballast in, say, the gnarled byways of a tree branch. On a practical level, the absence of the figure, or a figurative focus, was less likely to underscore his failings as a draftsman. The multiplicity of the natural world lent itself to van Gogh’s vision in a way that the particulars of the human form did not. The unstoppable rhythms of his art found their equivalent in the mutability of nature, the latter tempering van Gogh’s excesses without sacrificing their fervor. A painting like Wheatfield with Crows is that of an artist stepping outside of himself for a measure of clarity and connection; it also reaffirmed his own fiery humanity. In his finest landscapes, van Gogh achieved the mastery he so arduously longed and worked for. An exhibition dedicated solely to them would be, one feels, an event of consequence. As for “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs,” let’s just say that it would be wiser to see the collection once it returns to Holland. The lines are apt to be more manageable and the Rijksmuseum is right next door.

  1.  “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington on October 4, 1998 and will be on view until January 3, 1999. The exhibition will reopen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 17, 1999 and remain on view through April 4. A catalogue of the exhibition, by Richard Kendall, has been published by the National Gallery (160 pages, $37.50).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 4, on page 54
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