Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Becoming van Gogh"

"Self-Portrait with Straw Hat" by Vincent van Gogh, 1887
Last weekend, Nan and I were in Denver to celebrate her birthday by attending the "Becoming van Gogh" exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Curator Timothy Standring had brought together seventy different works by Vincent van Gogh, along with twenty works by his inspirational contemporaries, to chronicle van Gogh's rapid artistic development over his brief ten-year career, before his untimely death at age thirty-seven. The works were displayed in roughly chronological order, with van Gogh's hanging next to those of his post-impressionist associates. The differences were startling.

Early in his career, following a failed stint as a missionary in Belgium, van Gogh's efforts to depict the people and places of that region look crude and dark compared to the beautifully detailed and brightly colored work created by other artists of that time. Apparently, van Gogh recognized his shortcomings and undertook a nineteenth-century do-it-yourself drawing course, copying the illustrations in his course book over and over again until he was satisfied. What he lacked in early talent, he made up in devotion to his craft and clear-eyed self-evaluation, aided through his frequent correspondence with his older brother Theo, a Paris art dealer.

As Nan and I shuffled slowly through the over-crowded exhibit hall, dutifully listening to our audio players in front of painting after painting, we witnessed a remarkable transformation. Van Gogh was experimenting with every style he encountered, from Seurat's pointillistic brushwork to Japanese solid-color backgrounds, trying them on for size and then incorporating the best of what he discovered into his own artistic sensibility. He began to use "vibrating" complementary colors with varied brush strokes and achieved stunning results from subjects as simple as a bowl of oranges against a blue background.

At this point in the exhibit, the works hanging next to van Gogh's began to lose their luster compared to what he was able to achieve. I stood looking at his 1887 painting, "Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples", for several minutes, wondering at the shadow effects which give the impression of the fruit lifting off its abstract white background. I couldn't help but think, this is not how a normal person would paint this still-life. The effect of the concentric brushstrokes and the liberal use of white highlighting were almost psychedelic. Vincent was losing it, I thought.

But just two years later, he would paint "The Starry Night", which many, myself included, consider one of the greatest paintings of all time. Whatever mental or emotional troubles he may have had, van Gogh was able to command his faculties to channel his vision of the world into works we will love and admire forever.

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