Poetry of the Ordinary

Poetry of the Ordinary

Poetry of the Ordinary

The big picture.
Oct. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Poetry of the Ordinary

Van Gogh is less strange than you think. And more so.

"Van Gogh's Van Goghs"
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Oct. 4, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Jan. 17-April 4, 1999

"I always feel I am a traveler," Vincent van Gogh wrote from Arles, France, in 1888, "going somewhere and to some destination." Van Gogh wandered around Europe more rootlessly than his friend and sometime roommate Paul Gauguin, who could make a nifty domestic nest for himself even in the South Seas. Van Gogh the preacher's son, born in a dismal town in Holland in 1853 and dead of a self-inflicted pistol shot to the chest 37 years later, never stayed put. He ran through several careers during his 20s--art dealer in the Hague, schoolteacher in London, missionary to coal miners in southern Belgium--before settling on the least secure one of painter. This restlessness helps explain his obsessive and often hallucinatory depictions, from his first pictures to his last, of houses and rooms. "Looking at the picture ought to rest the brain," he told his younger brother and dealer, Theo, referring to his famous painting of his bedroom at Arles (The Bedroom, 1888). The picture, a perennial favorite on dorm-room walls, may look like a refuge, but van Gogh had lost faith in such earthly habitations. The gorgeous golden bed with its heavy white pillow squeezed right from the tube already feels elegiac. Empty bed, empty chairs, no Vincent, no Paul.


While the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam gets a facelift and a new wing, the heart of its collection (including The Bedroom) is on display, like the Dutch crown jewels, in Washington. Seventy paintings have been culled from the roughly 200 in the Amsterdam treasure trove--the van Gogh family collection, passed on from Vincent to Theo and eventually housed in an extraordinarily popular museum in 1973. The National Gallery has opted for the kind of bank-vault presentation, one or two pictures per plush wall, that worked so well for its Vermeer show three years ago. This devotional approach seemed right for Vermeer: so few paintings, scattered far and wide, gathered here for once in a lifetime. Van Gogh calls for a different treatment, it seems to me, one that places him more firmly in his time and place and acknowledges his spirited engagement with literature and popular culture.

But "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" is an old-fashioned show that surveys the artist's chronological development as a painter, grouping the pictures according to where and when in van Gogh's nomadic life they were painted. The show advances no bold new perspective on van Gogh, nor does it seek to synthesize recent thinking on him, of which, it should be said, there isn't much. (Van Gogh is not a hot commodity in academic art criticism right now.) The modest aim of the exhibition and the catalog is to refocus our attention on the paintings as paintings, directing our attention to how van Gogh made changes in color, brushstroke, and the dimensions of his pictures over time. The Washington curators have understandably shied away from the Lust for Life myth of the tormented, one-eared artist triumphing in art but failing in life. They give van Gogh's madness a shorthand dismissal worthy of an HMO: "several seizures, probably caused by a form of epilepsy." But van Gogh's unsteady temperament comes through anyway. A roomful of self-portraits, with changing identities worthy of Cindy Sherman (van Gogh as citified dandy in pink fedora; van Gogh as country yokel in straw hat), implies a sort of plural van Gogh, a chameleon personality hard to pin down. And the late paintings retain their unsettling power. When Meyer Schapiro looked at Wheatfield With Crows (July 1890), he saw it as van Gogh's "deepest avowal," the tortured artist's "defense against disintegration" painted a few days before his death. The oncoming zigzag crows, swarming like the black choppers in Apocalypse Now, are for Schapiro "figures of death." Once you've read Schapiro's classic and deeply felt essay, it's hard to see this picture as anything other than van Gogh's farewell to the world, his scrawled suicide note. But Richard Kendall, in his dispassionate exhibition catalog essay, points out that maybe this wasn't (as tradition has it) van Gogh's last painting, and that the picture looks pretty cheerful anyway. He concludes that it "might ... be seen as a celebration of the love for 'art and life' professed by the painter in one of his final letters to Theo." Maybe, but what about those crows?

By 1890, van Gogh had pretty much banished black from his palette. Those crows have escaped from an earlier phase of his career, the sepulchral, black-coffee interior of his first major picture, The Potato Eaters (1885). We dutifully note (as the wall panel instructs us to) "the somber colors and thick application of paint" and van Gogh's remark that "these people ... have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish." And yet, what a weird painting. Seeing the picture in Washington brings out something I've always felt about this image: that the figures, especially the young man to the left wearing what appears to be a Union Army hat, look like caricatures of African-Americans.

Strangely enough, van Gogh was a passionate reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin; we find him in 1880 reading Shakespeare and Dickens and "Beecher Stowe." A year later he is still mulling over the book, in which "the most beautiful passage" is where "the poor slave, knowing that he must die, and sitting for the last time with his wife, remembers the words 'Let Cares like a wild deluge come/ And storms of sorrow fall,/ May I but safely reach my home,/ My God, my Heaven, my all.' " "This is far from theology," van Gogh concludes, "simply a fact that the poorest little wood-cutter or peasant on the heath or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration which give him a feeling of an eternal home to which he is near." Here van Gogh explicitly links the plight of European peasants and American slaves, and pictures such as The Potato Eaters may have meant to suggest that equation.

For this painter who once claimed to be "daffy with piety," our earthly habitation, slave cabin, or peasant hovel is merely temporary. That's the message of The Potato Eaters, with its little glinting lamp illuminating the darkness and its loaded juxtaposition on the background wall of ticking clock and Crucifixion, time and eternity. The early A Pair of Shoes (1885) reeks of some of that same piety. This painting inspired several paragraphs of purple prose from Martin Heidegger, when the old Nazi was holed up in his thatched cottage in the Black Forest after the war, thinking about "The Origin of the Work of Art." "From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. ... Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field." I think van Gogh would have loved this peasant chic. But this picture too has a secret strangeness, which has to do with scale. The background of the painting suggests a clearing in a landscape, with trees in the distance. One suddenly has the illusion that the shoes are huge, monumental. They reach out to each other like a couple lost in the wilderness, one upright and confident, the other one slouched down in despair. A whole poetry of the ordinary came out of such images, from Walker Evans' frontal portraits of sharecroppers' beds to Jasper Johns' deadpan brace of ale cans.

The one moment in the Washington installation that departs from the chaste array of paintings suggests what this show might have been, in the hands of curators more interested in social context. There are only two works on paper in the show: an image of a geisha derived from a Japanese woodblock print on the cover of Paris Illustré of 1886, and van Gogh's virtuoso tracing of its outlines. To produce his bizarre painting The Courtesan (1887), van Gogh enlarged the traced image, replaced the subdued blacks and grays of the kimono with bright complementary reds and greens, and added a fantasy Japanese background of storks and frogs borrowed from other Japanese prints. He constructed this image during his confused Paris years, 1886-88, when he tried out various Impressionist styles and, except for his self-portraits, produced work that looks half-baked.

But Japan represented something new for van Gogh, not the jaggedly cropped edges and off-kilter points of view that attracted Degas and Cassatt but rather an imaginary world of nature worship; available women; and flat, shadowless color. It is no exaggeration to say that when van Gogh escaped to Arles, he invented there his own little private Japan. The bedroom at Arles, he tells Theo, is "painted in the free flat tints like the Japanese prints." His Field With Flowers Near Arles (1888) is "a little town surrounded by fields all covered with yellow and purple flowers; exactly--can't you see it?--like a Japanese dream." The apotheosis of his Japanese quest is the swooningly gorgeous Almond Blossom, painted in February of 1890. The picture, which recalls innumerable Japanese prints including one he owned by Utagawa Kunisada that has been reproduced in the catalog, has no obvious center. The gnarled and wonderfully drawn branches toward the bottom break into the allover blossoms, with their red detail and extraordinary radiating energy.

Japan was less a set of technical possibilities for van Gogh than it was a vision, already almost posthumous, of celestial happiness and escape. Unlike Gauguin's literal flight to Tahiti, van Gogh didn't need to go to Japan to fulfill his exotic yearnings. His Japan didn't exist on Earth anyway. Lying in the insane asylum in St. Remy after one of his seizures, he could gaze in the southern light at the Japanese prints with which he'd decorated the room and the Japanese-like flowers blooming outside the window. Gauguin had lasted two months in Arles, finding van Gogh too intense a companion for comfort. But for Vincent van Gogh, in flight from the shadowed northland, Provence was far enough away. And anyway, as usual, he was just passing through.

Christopher Benfey teaches at Mount Holyoke College and is a regular contributor to Slate.