A new show will hit New York Metropolitan this October, entitled ‘Van Gogh draughtsman: The masterpiece’. The exhibition features over 100 drawings by the artist, some of which are series that have never been shown in their entirety before. Even though they are mostly pen and pencil drawings, viewing them you can sense they’ve been made by a painter bursting with color.
Among the highlights of the show are the drawings produced at Arles where Van Gogh lived in 1888. There’s a series of landscape drawings in reed pen, studies which culminated in the so-called second Montmajour series of six large views of the countryside in Provence. The drawings, made over three months, reveal a countryside that’s shimmering from the pages even though there’s no paint involved. Van Gogh drew these when he was staying in an asylum and it is the first time that the series is on show in its entirety.
Being an artist that strongly contributed to people’s idea of agony and passion that characterizes the modern art movement of which he was an early member, this show is a must for anyone wishing to take in the experience first hand. A total of 24 out of the just over 100 prints on show were made in April and early May 1888 when Van Gogh had decided to quit painting altogether. Some of the drawings turned out almost as paintings. The art world also goes berserk over Van Gogh’s drawings because they generally highlight such distinct phases in his work and life. Later that month, he drew a special series of seven views of the Abbey of Montmajour, also on show.
Van Gogh, who trained himself in the art of painting by starting out drawing landscapes, domestic scenes, people and portraits, tended to study objects intensely. He hardly ever commented on his drawings, and never gave value judgements, but it is said that he himself also agreed that although his later drawings substituted his paintings, he never blurred the line between painting and drawing. Critics say that even during his last days, the motifs of paintings and drawings were not mixed ever. Van Gogh experimented in his drawings with vantage points and the size of his paper. Each production is also said to have been made with sharply distinct ideas often illustrative of his innovative drive.
The just over 100 drawings exhibited are usually kept in safe vaults, away from daylight that would destroy them. Some of the works are on loan from the Paul Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest as well as from some private collections.
Vincent van Gogh is not only hugely popular for the obvious reason that he wasn’t exactly colour blind, it is also as if you can read into them whatever you want to see without being punished for limiting the art or yourself. The complexity of the artist’s personality is communicating to spectators of all times through his art. He is positioned in the post-impressionism era, which represented the frontier between two huge cycles in the history of world art culture, i. e. modern and contemporary art. “Van Gogh was one of the last representatives of the previous art cycle, and the first among those who the future belonged to", says art critic Alla Narovskaya from Belarus.
Perhaps Van Gogh is most famous for cutting off his left ear lobe however. The debate around this drama is testimony to just how divided everyone in the art world is about him. Entire bookshelves can be lined with works written about the incident. Every theory reads as if there’s too much material to choose from, in search of explainations.
One of the most attractive theories about the artist’s life ‘culminating’ (what else?) into the self inflicted wound is that was a result of his trying to please his mother’s insane ideas surrounding a baby that had died one year before the artist was born and who had also been named Vincent. One school of thought believes that the ear cutting was something Vincent did to mock his mother’s pervasive sentiment on this issue. Vincent’s characteristic curves and his overly rounded yet contrived handwriting is to some extent in stark contrast to the edginess of some drawings depicting early life scenes, especially of people’s hands and of domestic scenes. But then, this could be reading into a situation details that really are just coincidental. Vincent was quite a serious young man who would call everybody around him a genius but failed to feel much self worth. If mockery was part of his personality, it will not have been immediately obvious.
Similar sentiments do shine through in his art however. Aside from their value, the artist’s work is also highly prized in terms of kudos, must have, obscenity value. Perhaps quite indicative is both the stolen Geisha print and the attitude displayed by the previous owner of another work that’s mysteriously gone missing, the painting of his beloved doctor in Arles, dr Paul Ferdinand Gachet. The Japanese Ryoei Saito, an industrialist, boasted –shortly before his business went bust- that he was going to have the picture cremated with him when he died. The entire arts world was in shock and outrage, but Saito soon said he’d been joking. Let’s hope he has been, because there’s still no clue as to what happened to the painting after the man, who paid a total of USD82.5 million for it at Christies in New York in 1990, died.
The ‘cool’ value of Vincent’s works today is something that is beyond any doubt. Rather, the works themselves are a trustworthy indicator of the state of play in the art market. Saito’s way of dealing with the painting perhaps illustrates this best. Having safely stored the picture away from the public eye, the industrialist died, having first gone through financial ruin. No one really knows what happened to the work afterwards. The fact that it isn’t available to the public means pretty much that it has an empty status of being merely a luxury commodity. The painting is either in the hands of creditors, Saito’s children or has been sold to another private individual. Museum curators and auction houses that tried to make sure that it was in safe hands have said they were obstructed in their efforts to locate the piece. Experts say that it is most likey someone else has purchased it.
The missing painting is very much a disaster, all the more because it showed a new direction that van Gogh was heading for. Van Gogh’s portraits are said to be at once highly accessible and showing his depth of vision. Gaugain even confessed he would not be portrayed by the painter because he had made self portraits that he wanted to be associated with, rather than with a perhaps more insightful portrait made by Van Gogh. Van Gogh also undoubtedly did discuss his ear cutting incident with Dr Gachet at length. Van Gogh himself said he had successfully displayed the “the heartbroken expression of our time" in the painting. Critics say he tried to for the first time also instill a kind of immortality into his subject.
Incidentally, the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery reports that a print that Vincent once owned of Japanese Geishas and which he painted on the famous self portrait showing his bandaged ear has been stolen from its collection. The picture, which originally was printed by the printing house of Sato Torakiyo around 1870 and which portrays two women in the foreground of mount Fuji was one of many Japanese prints that covered his studio walls. Apart from featuring them in the background of his 1988 painted self portrait, Van Gogh also began to incorporate Japanese motifs in the structure of his paintings. The print is believed to have been very important to Van Gogh, but there is no real direct evidence as to the exact nature of his love for the Geishas. It adds to its mystery as well as to the controversy surrounding the artist’s ear cutting.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She runs http://www.contentclix.com , a copywriting agency focusing on article writing, news coverage, research and website content.