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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The van Gogh Show

The 1972 Vincent van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam, before expansion and
renovations in 1998-99.
The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is now under renovation. In the meantime, a significant part of the collection, including some 76 paintings, has been transferred to Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum. When the van Gogh Museum closed for renovation in 1999, they shipped some 72 paintings off to Washington's National Gallery of Art--a traveling show which went on to Los Angeles. Some called it "van Gogh to Go." The line each day in Washington stretched around the block--men, women, children of all ages, each one waiting and hoping for a pass to get in. Those who didn't get one of the 600 tickets handed out each day had to come back the next day (perhaps a little earlier). As the line formed daily, in Amsterdam, the van Gogh museum more than doubled in size from it's original, 1973 incarnation when it handled some 60,000 visitors a year (not exactly a trickle) to more than a million (check my blog for 7-23-12 for more on the van Gogh Museum").

Vincent as portrayed by Kirk Douglas in
the 1956 film, Lust for Life.

It's difficult to account for the popularity of Vincent van Gogh today. There are a lot of theories. His paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars. He's perhaps one of the most tragically romantic figures in the history of art, though the bit about cutting off his ear is grossly exaggerated (it was only his ear lobe). However he did live with a prostitute for a short time, threatened Gauguin with a razor, suffered from a (then) incurable mental illness, committed himself to an asylum, and later committed suicide. Even the barest outline of the facts of his life make for great historic fiction, such as Irving Stone's Lust for Life, and great material for a movie by the same name starring Kirk Douglas (right) as the deranged genius. But this alone cannot account for the love people have for this man and his work.

If his fame relied solely upon his brief, tragic, 37 years of existence, we would do the artist and his work a gross injustice. A van Gogh painting "sparkles" as the artist never could. It invites contemplation. It evokes awe. It soars above anything done by any other artist in the 19th century with the possible exception of Monet. Camille Pissarro, late in his long life, recognized van Gogh's genius. "I thought he would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I didn't know he would do both." The 72 paintings in the 1999 National Gallery show were family heirlooms. They all passed directly from Vincent, to his brother, Theo, then to Theo's wife, and later to his son, who founded the Van Gogh Museum in the 1920s. And while the authenticity of some of Van Gogh's work has been questioned from time to time (including his immortal The Sunflowers), the works in the National Gallery Show were not. And likewise, neither has the authenticity of Vincent van Gogh himself, the troubled painting genius who left "far behind" an entire generation of artists.

The 1999 van Gogh Museum Exhibition Wing, Kisho Kurokawa, architect.

His museum in Amsterdam is expected to reopen in late March 2013.


  1. I didn't know that he threatened Gauguin with a razor. I suspect a lot of people thought of doing that.

    1. Gauguin was a rascal, that's for sure, and from what I've been able to gather, their discontent during the short time they tried to work together could mostly be laid at his feet. Undoubtedly Vincent was no "charming Charlie" to live with, but it would seem that all through his life he tended to bend over backward to be accommodating to those with whom he was attached. Unless provoked, violence seemed not to be part of his nature. But of course, mental illness, and the degree he suffered from it, present a multitude of uncertainties regarding this poor, troubled soul. Despite all his letters to Theo, still today, we do not truly have an adequate grasp of the depth of his disease. Even his violent death was apparently something of a half-hearted undertaking.