Curators at the Metropolitan tell a wonderful story about efforts to attract visitors to an exhibition devoted to the Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau, a celebrated figure in mid-nineteenth-century France, but today not exactly a household name. After a long, unproductive meeting with the marketing department, an exasperated staff member finally burst out, “Why don’t we just call it ‘Van Gogh’”? She had a point. The Dutch-born Post-Impressionist’s name is immediately recognized, even by people who aren’t certain whether it’s “van Go,” “van Gog,” or “van Guh-hch” and who might have trouble identifying any of his paintings unless they had sunflowers in them. The story of van Gogh’s short, troubled life, or at least a version of it that emphasizes his isolation, lack of sales, and instability—and that sliced ear—is so well known that it has become the signature myth of the artist as misunderstood genius. (Not that the basic facts lack drama—born in 1853, Vincent van Gogh dedicated himself to art only in 1880, aged twenty-seven, after failing as an art dealer, a teacher, and a minister; depressed by the lack of attention to his work, and probably suffering from an increasingly debilitating form of epilepsy, he killed himself in 1890.) “The van Gogh’s ear school of art history” is code, among some of my colleagues, for gallery tours led by well-intentioned docents who concentrate on sensational anecdotes instead of aesthetic or historical concerns. A bitter joke among curators is that the show attendance-conscious museum trustees would most like to see at their institutions is “Ancient Gold of the Impressionists from the Royal Collections,” but any exhibition with that guttural Dutch name attached to it runs a close second. Call it “Van Gogh”—however you pronounce it—and record numbers of visitors are virtually guaranteed.

All of which explains why we might be forgiven for greeting something titled “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” with cynical thoughts about box office considerations, even if we know that the exhibition was organized for the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, by such respected scholars as Sjraar van Heugten, Joachim Pissarro, and Christ Stolwijk.1 The very idea of yet another van Gogh show raises eyebrows. The number of exhibitions dedicated to the painter in this country alone, over the past two decades, suggests that no aspect of either his short, turbulent life or his distinctive body of work remains unexamined. The list includes a traveling selection of paintings from the Van Gogh Museum, a major drawing retrospective, a study of his exchanges with his painter friend, Emil Bernard, documented by both letters and pictures, a close look at his portraits of the postman Roulin, definitive surveys of his formative years in Paris and of his last years at Auvers and Saint-Rémy, and an analysis of his relationship with the art-loving Dr. Gachet, who treated him. What could be left?

Call it “Van Gogh”—however you pronounce it—and record numbers of visitors are virtually guaranteed.

To some extent, those cynical thoughts about motives turn out to be justified. It seems clear that “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” is intended to boost MOMA’s attendance in a way that a small, illuminating exhibition focusing on a less recognizable artist—say, the impeccable little survey of Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin streetscapes, on view until early November—almost certainly is not. The van Gogh exhibit is designed to swell the museum’s coffers in other ways, too. While museum members may enter the show at any time, non-members, atypically for MOMA, must obtain a free timed ticket; since the number of timed tickets available per half hour is limited and the total number per day is finite, visitors unwilling to wait or to risk being denied entrance will have strong incentives to join MOMA on the spot. Which is not to say that there aren’t more high-minded and positive aspects of the system. As far as I can judge from several visits, the timed-ticket requirement controls the crowds—no mean achievement with a van Gogh show—making it possible to focus, without too much distraction, on the works on view. Mammon and aesthetics, in this instance, seem equally well served.

And it’s plain that “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” has ambitions and intellectual justifications far beyond any appeal to the gods of marketing and attendance. MOMA’s show, we are told, is the first to concentrate on his nocturnal themes. The subject itself may seem surprising, since the superheated palette of van Gogh’s best known work is often discussed in relation to the blazing, color-intensifying sunlight of the south of France, an association reinforced by the passionate descriptions of the hues he discovered in his surroundings, in his letters from Arles to his brother Theo and his painter friends, and by the equivalents he devised for those perceptions in his paintings. Yet the selection at MOMA not only makes a convincing case for van Gogh’s long fascination with night skies, twilight, and artificially lit interiors, but also suggests that his engagement with these equivocal motifs —that is to say, his search for ways of evoking the absence of light through color, just as he did the presence of light—was a fairly significant element in the evolution of his characteristic approach.

At MOMA, we are allowed to follow the entire trajectory of that evolution, from little known early works in which Van Gogh struggles to find a visual language adequate to his intense feelings to iconic mature paintings in which his individualized touch and his distinctive palette become at once the carriers of raw emotion and declarations of original pictorial conceptions. The paintings that illustrate this journey include some pretty spectacular examples, beginning with the ferocious interior of peasants at dinner, The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), and culminating with MOMA’s radiant vision, The Starry Night (1889). The show is also enriched by powerful drawings that both advance the narrative and enter into a dialogue with the canvases, along with a selection of van Gogh’s illustrated letters—dense sheets of surprisingly legible script punctuated by vigorous little drawings that distill his paintings of the moment into a vital shorthand of calligraphic lines.

Perhaps most importantly, “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” is not a bombastic, crowd-pleasing blockbuster, but a modestly scaled, rather sparsely installed, intimate exhibition that encourages viewers to look hard and think about what is before them. Divided into thematic sections and arranged chronologically, the show presents us with small groupings of closely related works that make clear both van Gogh’s devotion to certain motifs and his willingness to experiment with how he embodied those motifs. We begin with sections entitled “Early Landscapes” and “Peasant Life”: drawings and paintings that were mostly executed before van Gogh left Holland definitively, first for Paris and then for the South of France. Collectively, they are testimony to his initial, strikingly unsuccessful efforts to subjugate his bold touch and expressionist longings to the conventional ways of representing rural life that he was taught during his brief encounters with more or less formal art instruction. The earliest paintings are pretty tame. Twilight, Old Farm Houses in Loosduinen (1883, Central Museum, Utrecht), with its deep, soft shadows and its band of low-lying roofs, could be described as a rather hamfisted, painterly version of a Rembrandt drawing with aspirations of being a standard, pellucid evocation of the flat Dutch landscape. The subject may be a specific time of day, but like all of van Gogh’s paintings of this period, its grayed tonalities suggest cold and damp more than they do light and atmosphere. But soon after, in Lane of Poplars at Sunset (1884, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo) or Evening Landscape (1885, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), we can watch van Gogh find justification for intensified, exaggerated color and heightened contrasts in dramatic sunset scenes. The compositions are still fairly pedestrian, but the nominal subject allows him to play lurid skies against thickly brushed pools of darkness and schematic silhouettes of vaguely threatening trees.

Peasant Life” introduces a theme that will preoccupy van Gogh for the rest of his life. The centerpiece of this section is, of course, The Potato Eaters, demonstrably his most achieved and most ambitious early painting. Van Gogh’s first-hand knowledge of the squalid, brutal existence of his neighbors in the southern Dutch province of Brabant precluded any sentimentality or romanticism in his images of laborers—his insistence on living as his parishioners did, as a novice pastor in the region, led to his dismissal from the ministry. The cast of characters in The Potato Eaters is notably grotesque, with rough-hewn, irregular faces and gnarled hands. Every contour moves in contradictory directions, every fold and form is accounted for with disjunctive strokes that keep changing their course, heightening the prevailing sense of awkwardness and discomfort. The lamp-lit interior is rendered in cold, muddy grays and dull ochres, a palette of gloom and dirt whose exaggerated contrasts tend definitely more towards scuro than chiaro. Van Gogh, we are told, believed that laborers and rural people were closer to the elemental aspects of life and, therefore, somehow nobler than effete urbanites, a conviction that perhaps accounts for the sense that the frugal meal in the dim, cramped, low-ceilinged interior is, in fact, a solemn ritual. The harsh light of the lamp transfigures the thickset, unlovely figures crammed into the rectangle of the canvas by the interrupted diamond of the table. Admittedly, this interpretation may owe something to our seeing the picture through the filter of later images in which a source of artificial light, placed high and center, is made to seem both sinister and sanctifying—the jagged electric lamp in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, for example, or the bare light bulbs in Philip Guston’s late works—but it’s also true that these examples may owe something to van Gogh’s precedent.

The next section, “Sowers and Wheatfields,” documents van Gogh’s further explorations of peasant themes, after his move to the south of France in 1888. These images, inspired by the agricultural workers in the fields surrounding Arles and informed by his memories of the Brabant, are unabashed recapitulations of Jean-François Millet’s classic depictions of farm laborers, totally absorbed in their repetitive, exhausting tasks—works that van Gogh revered and knew intimately from engravings. Millet’s well-known images, “translated” first into black and white reproductions, are translated once again into van Gogh’s own language of insistent strokes and uninhibited color, with an admixture of the clarity and economy he had learned from the Japanese prints he studied in Paris. The sludgy, near-monochromatic palette that the Brabant peasants and their dwellings elicited has been replaced by a full spectrum of hot, saturated chroma. Space tips. The close-valued hues call to each other across the flat plane of the canvas, rather than suggesting depth, further compressing and warping the space. Any lingering possibility of illusionism is denied by van Gogh’s relentlessly physical, vigorous touch, which turns the painting into a kind of emblem of effort. In many of these paintings, huge, blazing suns hang low on the horizons, sometimes turning the sowers into brooding silhouettes, but it’s impossible to decide whether the time is sunrise or sunset. Van Gogh’s desire to encapsulate the ravishing, constantly changing Provençal light is evident but the question remains as to whether these paintings are tributes to the hardworking laborer, close to nature, whose day begins with dawn, or homage to the exhausted peasant whose toil doesn’t end until the last rays of the sun have disappeared. The unmodulated brilliance of the van Gogh’s palette gives no clue. Even “shadows” are full of color and light.

Van Gogh, we are told, believed that laborers and rural people were closer to the elemental aspects of life.

These pastoral improvisations are followed by interiors and exteriors, painted between 1888 and 1890, grouped under the rubric “Poetry of the Night: The Town” and “Poetry of the Night: The Country.” If van Gogh at the beginning of his life as a painter strove to capture the literal and metaphorical darkness of the peasant dwellings of the Brabant, both inside and out, his aims appear to have been very different by the time he reached Arles. He was no less responsive to the particulars of his surroundings and the feelings they aroused in him, but the places he chose to paint are bathed in harsh, artificial illumination that provokes some of his most audacious forays into minimally inflected hues. Some of his themes are classic Impressionist motifs of spectacle and entertainment—a crowded dance hall, a café—along with more idiosyncratic themes—nocturnal townscapes seen from a distance, across the river, with street lights and stars reflected in the water. The last sections include some of van Gogh’s most celebrated works, such as The Night Café (1888, Yale University Gallery), with its vertiginous golden floor and dull green billiard table, its red walls and deep green ceiling, and its blazing lamps. The light is pitiless, brutal. I defy anyone who has ever read van Gogh’s letters to look at this picture without remembering that he described The Night Café as a place where “you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes.” “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green,” Vincent wrote to Theo. The equivalent image of a café exterior, with its overhanging awnings and a pool of light from a wall-mounted street lamp, is represented by a powerful reed pen drawing, Café Terrace at Night (1888, Dallas Museum of Art). Here, dazzling light is invoked not by chromatic contrasts of dark and light, but by energetic strokes of a blunt pen and untouched paper.

Some of the inclusions in these last sections do double duty, serving as documents of van Gogh’s rapid evolution as a painter and as reminders of important events in his biography. His voluntary commitment to a private asylum in Saint-Rémy, for example, is documented by a sunset image of The Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital (1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Painted only five years after Lane of Poplars at Sunset at the beginning of the show, The Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital announces an entirely different conception of what a painting can be. In the earlier work, drama and the suggestion of a specific time of day depend on abrupt contrasts of ochre, blue-black, and nearly pure cadmium orange. Darkness dominates, with the dully glowing sky turning trees into silhouettes. We are pulled into the canvas by the perspectival rendering of the allée of poplars, stopped only by the descending disc of the blazing sun. The later painting conjures up fading light with a minimum of tonal inflection. Light, not shadow, rules the picture. Van Gogh plays a fragment of orange and blue sky, made luminous by a broad plane of brick red and flickers of lavender, against the neutral hues of writhing tree trunks that lace the painting together. In contrast to the symmetrical, graphic structure of the stylized Lane of Poplars, the view of the asylum garden seems casual and artless, an improvisational response to nature in the language of touch and color.

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”

Paul Gauguin’s tempestuous sojourn with van Gogh in Arles is invoked here by Gauguin’s Chair (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), a surrogate portrait in which a splay-legged, strangely animated, curiously anthropomorphic wooden armchair, its arching limbs barely contained by the rectangle of the canvas, suggests the imminent return of the absent painter. Only a blazing oil lamp on the wall and a candle on the seat of the chair signal that this demonstration of the powers of red and green (sharpened by carefully deployed notes of violet and yellow) is a night interior. Similarly, a portrait of a Belgian writer, Eugene Bloch (The Poet) (1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), qualifies as a night painting because the high-cheekboned, narrow face, with its blonde beard and moustache, is set against a background of deep blue, punctuated with star-like touches. In a much-quoted letter to Theo in 1888, van Gogh wrote of wishing “to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature.” To express his affection and admiration, van Gogh added, “I am going to be the arbitrary colorist. I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I come even to orange tones, chromes, and pale lemon yellow. Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.” Was the “artist friend” Bloch?

The implications of the portrait are fully realized in the best-known work in the show, MOMA’s Starry Night, which essentially concludes the exhibition. (There’s some contextual material at the very end, but it’s rather anticlimactic.) Since van Gogh was committed to working directly from the motif, he was both fascinated and exasperated by the challenge of painting at night, striving to encapsulate his perceptions when perception was difficult. He’d complained of the difficulty of working in the Brabant peasants’ dark hovel, where he could barely see his palette. In Arles, he seems to have found the solution to painting night skies and nocturnal views by finding a viewpoint from which lightspill from the town provided some illumination. The remarkable results of this method can be seen in one of the exhibition’s less familiar, but most potent canvases, The Starry Night over the Rhone (1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). This urgently stroked little picture seems a more straightforward precursor to the turbo-charged The Starry Night, painted a year later, at the asylum at Saint-Rémy. But the earlier painting is hardly literal. The stars radiate, even if they fail to whirl or create eddies in the sky and the streetlights become pulsing wedges of intensity. An inexorable rhythm of choppy horizontal strokes knits the picture together, a disciplined foil for the golden bursts and rockets of stars and streetlights against the expanse of deep blue.

We leave the show wondering about its title, which, given the variety of the inclusions, can seem rather expedient. Then we remember that that it’s not “Van Gogh and the Night” but “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night,” a nice distinction that gave the curators a great deal of freedom. I’m not sure I will look at van Gogh very differently because of this show, but I applaud the curators’ efforts to consider this all too familiar painter in new ways. I’m grateful for their attempt to replace the over-exposed, over-reproduced cliché van Gogh with the serious painter he really was, and to help people see him from a fresh point of view, perhaps even with fresh eyes. And if MOMA profits substantially from the enterprise, as they obviously intend to do, we can hope that profits will be used to mount more small, intelligent exhibitions like this one.

  1.  “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on September 21, 2008 and remains on view through January 5, 2009.

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