A flesh look at Van Gogh.
Whatever we think about Walter Benjamin's theories about the effects of mechanical reproduction on perceptions of works of art, whether we agree with him that the "aura" of celebrated paintings and sculptures is weakened by the proliferation of their images or, on the contrary, believe that media-bred familiarity can turn particularly famous works of art into pure "aura'--icons of themselves, devoid of physical presence--it's clear that ubiquity affects our responses. Understanding Van Gogh's real achievement and accounting for his significance to the evolution of modernism can be, as they say, challenging. It's altogether too easy merely to recognize those archetypal images, know where they are located on our mental maps of the history of art, and let it go at that.
To grasp fully how staggeringly original and passionate an artist Van Gogh was, we need another way in. What would be ideal is an aspect of his work comparatively new to most viewers--a side of Van Gogh detached from the accretions of iris coasters, cypress notecards, wheat field cartoons, sunflower tote bags, and jokes about severed ears. Fortunately for all of us, precisely such a body of work does exist in Van Gogh's oeuvre--his drawings. Until the end of the year, we can revel in it, thanks to an exemplary, eye-testing exhibition devoted to the subject at the Metropolitan, jointly organized by the Met and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. (1) Surprisingly, though more than half of the works Van Gogh produced during his short career were drawings, this is the first major show devoted to this aspect of his work to be seen in the United States. "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" is an illuminating, comprehensive survey that not only fully reveals the importance of this less familiar portion of the artist's practice but also makes evident the dazzling inventiveness of his draftsmanship. And, what is perhaps most welcome, it allows us to begin to see Van Gogh clearly, free of the suffocating veils of overexposure and fame. Even for those of us who have always preferred the artist's drawings to his paintings, the show is full of exciting revelations: drawings rarely, if ever, exhibited or reproduced, and informative groupings that cumulatively enlarge our experience and force us to reevaluate cherished opinions. Once again, we have reason to be grateful to the Met.
Despite Van Gogh's reputation as an uninhibited, expressive colorist--at least, after he came to Paris and discovered the innovations of the Impressionists and the radiance of Japanese prints--he himself always felt that drawing was essential to his life as an artist. Drawing was "the root of everything" he claimed, boasting in one of his voluminous, often illustrated, letters of his "draughtsman's fist." Van Gogh began the fraught project of turning himself into an artist by drawing, partly through a program of self-education, partly through fitful courses of informal study. The exhibition allows us to follow his changing relationship to working on paper, from the very start of his short career to the very end, by presenting us with everything from his initial, laborious efforts to educate his eye and hand to the triumphant, exuberant improvisations of his "mature" years, including some made just before his suicide. We witness his strenuous attempts to translate super-heated emotions into coherent images and follow his efforts to turn his awareness of the complexities of his surroundings into lucid two-dimensional structures. And then we suddenly discover the driven, ferocious artist we know from the paintings.
The exhibition begins with a group of works made between 1881 and 1885, when Van Gogh, having notoriously failed as an art dealer, a clergyman, a teacher, a bookseller, and a seminarian, decided to devote himself to making art, at the suggestion of his brother Theo. He embarked upon a self-imposed course of study, drawing extensively, copying images, wrestling with books on anatomy, perspective, and technique, and eventually working from the motif--mainly the figure. Essentially, he was on his own, with occasional advice from artist friends and his cousin-by-marriage, the painter Anton Mauve. Most of the earliest works at the Met emphasize how audacious, even foolhardy, this difficult young man's decision to be an artist must have seemed. By conventional standards of the 1880s, Van Gogh's drawings are conspicuously devoid of talent; by any standards, they are conspicuously devoid of facility. But what a devoted worker he was! And every once in while, how brilliant! We watch him gradually mastering the rules of perspective in carefully constructed streetscapes and struggling to draw the figure, both full-length and close up, in "character studies." The painters he admires and wishes to emulate are evident, but it's tough going for the viewer--all those craggy peasants with work-worn faces and clumsy stances, rendered with an insistent touch in such workman-like materials as carpenter's pencil and rough chalk. The unlovely physiognomies and lumpy bodies are presumably meant to be seen as ennobled by the dignity of toil, but the result can teeter on the brink of cloying.
The eager young would-be artist soon attained a fair degree of competence in depicting the rural subjects that attracted him, thanks to repeated practice and assiduous study of Jean-Francois Millet's massive, elemental laborers, yet Van Gogh's line and modeling always have a jagged, harsh quality that seems simultaneously to suggest his difficulties with execution, the laboriousness of the tasks he chose to depict, and his subjects' inherent lack of grace. Neither the sturdy, doubled-over figure of Peasant Woman Gleaning (1885, Museum Folkwang, Essen) nor the man in baggy pants and clunky wooden clogs of Woodcutter (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) seems to move with ease or comfort, thanks to the abrupt, slightly awkward modeling of their chunky forms. (This awkwardness may be a good thing, as an antidote to the incipient sentimentality of Van Gogh's heroic peasants and his sorrowing figures with their heads in their hands.)
Every once in a while, though, sheer force of feeling transforms a potentially banal image into something unforgettable, as in a strange, clenched, highly developed chalk and charcoal drawing Boy with a Sickle (1881, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo). The crouching figure is so tightly compressed that the young gardener seems almost knotted, the tension of the pose heightened by Van Gogh's difficulty in maintaining a coherent point of view for the intricacies of the folded limbs. The erratic linear rhythms that describe the clothing and suggest form, along with disparity between the carefully observed figure and the schematic setting, contribute to a sense of unease. Nevertheless, the result is impossible to ignore. Something similar obtains in a downright weird, relentlessly hatched 1884 pen and ink drawing of a weaver seated at his loom, within a sheltering hood, watched by a baby in an enclosed highchair on wheels. The complicated perspective of the loom and the chair, plus the demands of accounting for the play of light and making the ungainly furnishings fit convincingly into the room, were almost too much for Van Gogh. Forms are fractured, highlights gleam on places that ought to be in shadow, the figures are barely adequate, and yet the whole is strangely powerful.
Problematic as Van Gogh's figure drawings of these formative years are, his early landscapes seem, almost from the first, assured, lively, and compelling. The gnarled, bare branches of the trees in the garden behind his father's vicarage in winter--a motif he often returned to--like the cranky shoots and knobby trunks of the pollarded trees along a wintry road, appear to anticipate the animated landscapes he would paint and draw in the south of France. So does a very early pen and ink drawing, A Marsh (1881, National Gallery of Canada), a miracle of delicate scratchings and hatchings that create a free-wheeling, multi-scaled, spotty, flooded world of shrubs, trees, hummocks, reflections, and grasses beneath a cloud-dappled sky. (April Gornik, eat your heart out.) The play of like and unlike forms, similar and dissimilar marks, collapses the distinctions between near and far, bringing the whole to life in a way that will be characteristic of Van Gogh's most accomplished works.
Early in 1886, van Gogh made an abortive attempt to equip himself with a more traditional art education by enrolling in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Not surprisingly, given his natural predilection for suggesting the figure with robust, angular masses, he found the program of drawing from plaster casts, with an emphasis on smooth contours, to be less than congenial. He preferred working from the live model at the unsupervised drawing clubs organized by his fellow artists. It's easy to see why. A standing nude from this period, a pot-bellied, amply fleshed woman whose proportions have no relation to a classical ideal, is rendered with a still-disturbing brutality that is a hundred and eighty degrees away from any academic standards of excellence. (Twenty years later, Matisse would translate this kind of brutal realism into the vigor and vitality of the pen and ink nudes he drew during his Fauvist years--alert, robust, uncompromising females who are the direct descendants of Van Gogh's muscular, bottom-heavy figure.)
Van Gogh soon abandoned Antwerp for Paris, where he just as quickly abandoned the dark, tonal, expressionist approach he had developed in the north. A sheet of unflinching self-portrait drawings done in Paris again hints at the future, but the exhibition's views of Paris and its environs, some in graphite and some in watercolor, are not particularly dazzling. Their relative economy and lightened palette are testimony to Van Gogh's enthusiastic discovery of Japanese prints, but their facture and even their imagery remain unexceptional. Apparently, most of the two years Van Gogh spent in Paris were devoted to painting, in a successful effort to alter radically his approach to color and tone, so in marked contrast to the preceding period, he spent little time on drawing. Perhaps that's why none of the exhibited drawings made during those years prepares us for what happens next.
In 1888, Van Gogh moved to Aries. He later wrote to Theo that he had gone south "wishing to see a different light, thinking that looking at nature under a bright sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing." Like most northerners who traveled to small towns near the Mediterranean, he was entranced by the brilliance of the light, bothered by the relentlessness of the Mistral, and distressed by the insularity of his neighbors. The wealth of motifs that he found delighted him and made him want to work even more intensely than usual, which was saying a lot. But since he was worried about the cost of materials for his apparently un-saleable paintings, he told Theo that he would "draw a great deal," in order to capture his responses without wasting precious paint and canvas. For some reason, perhaps inspired by the Japanese, he began to draw with a home-made pen, cut from local reeds. This seemingly recalcitrant tool, stiff at first and growing softer with use until it had to be discarded, needing to be dipped again in ink after only a few strokes, was the instrument he had been waiting for all his life.
Using the reed pen, Van Gogh developed a vocabulary of marks--staccato lines, dots, hooks, crochets, and bars--that served as equivalents for his perceptions of light and color. This sounds like a system, as if he had worked out a method in which closely spaced dots equal sky, rows of diagonal lines equal wheat stalks, nests of curving strokes equal foliage, and so on. The amazing thing is that each touch of the pen, each mark, seems a fresh, spontaneous response to something intensely experienced. In the portrait and figure drawings, such as the celebrated image of his friend, the impressively bearded postman Roulin, as confrontational as a charging bull, the characteristics of features, the textures of skin and clothing, even a suggestion of pattern and background, are called up with repetitive, apparently spontaneous stabs and drags of the pen. In the drawings of Aries and its environs, such strokes become dazzling--in every sense of the word--equivalents for being out of doors. The brilliant light of Provence seems to emanate from the drawings of the orchards just outside the town. The penetrating Mistral seems to rush through the densely stroked pine trees and olive trees of the drawings made at nearby Montmajour. Urgent strokes flicker and dance across the page, now coalescing as the tiles of rooftops, now exploding into swirls of vegetation or agitated sea, and now dispersing into the stubble of freshly harvested wheat fields.
Surprisingly, many of the most vivid, apparently direct of these drawings, such as the tour de force Haystacks (For John Russell) (1888, Philadelphia Museum of Art) or the three swirling versions of Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (all 1888, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, respectively), turn out not to be direct studies at all, but rather, "transcriptions" of paintings, included in Van Gogh's long, excited letters to his friends and brother, made to show them what he had been doing; the three seascapes, for example, were sent to the painters Emile Bernard and John Russell, to whom Van Gogh was particularly close, and to Theo van Gogh. At intervals in the Met's installation, multiple drawings of the same image are hung beside the paintings they refer to, which allows for fascinating comparisons. Often, the clarity and luminosity of the economical drawings criticize the loaded, slightly desperate surfaces of the paintings. The canvas of Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888, Pushkin State Museum, Moscow), for all its inventive orchestration of flickering yellows and acid greens, and its tracery of red masts and dark blue ripples against the underlying blue expanse of water, reflects the challenges of getting paint to read as chroma in bright sunlight; the ploughed, labored surface suggests repeated campaigns of piling pigment on the canvas in a not entirely convincing attempt to make it legible as pure color, rather than as tone. The sparkling contrast of black and white in the drawings seems to suggest more about the motif and more brilliant color than the painting. In addition, the equality of the ink and the white paper, despite the range of tones and thicknesses in the pen strokes, almost always makes the drawings read more abstractly than the paintings, so that we see them first as glorious symphonies of marks and only subsequently interpret what those marks refer to.
What is also surprising (and suggestive) is that different drawings intended to report on the same painting can vary quite dramatically, not only in terms of touch and density, but also in details of composition and, on occasion, in size or proportion. It's as if the act of drawing was so compelling to Van Gogh that, once he had started, invention took precedence over mere reportage. Or perhaps the fact that he had already come to terms with the motif, by painting it, allowed him more freedom to improvise; he was, after all, someone who frequently used reproductions of the work of painters he admired--perhaps most notably, Millet and Delacroix--as the starting point for his own work, a process he compared to a musician's performing compositions written by others.
The most potent sections of "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" are arguably those devoted to the end of his life. The landscape drawings take on heightened ferocity. In some (usually vertical in format), the dizzying perspectival space Van Gogh had worked so hard to master changes, tipping upward to exclude the horizon. The sheet becomes a frontal, all-over expanse of marks that simultaneously announce their place in Van Gogh's graphic vocabulary and seem newly invented with each application. A drawing of an empty patch of lawn surrounded by shrubs becomes a near-abstraction of dots, short vertical bars, loose curves, and stiff rosettes, with the varied rhythm of the strokes both reinforced and countered by alterations in the amount of ink applied; the cumulative effect is a tenuous evocation of a remarkably specific landscape that exists primarily in terms of syncopated visual weights across the surface. The same is true of a couple of densely packed drawings of a cottage garden full of sunflowers, potted plants, and a riot of unidentifiable blooms.
In Van Gogh's last drawings, made during his hospitalization at Saint-Remy and later, after his remove to Auvers, the graphic drama is even more palpable. Cursive rhythms often dominate, in place of the disciplined rows of parallel strokes of the Arles drawings: wheat fields ripple like the sea and trees billow like clouds. An 1889 drawing of Wild Vegetation (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), probably done at Saint-Remy, is an unstable, shifting tapestry of astonishingly varied pen marks, both in terms of configuration and tone. Van Gogh's drawing seems as free and rapid as the handwriting of his most heart-felt letters. Wild Vegetation is like a wordless essay--or perhaps a poem--on untamed, impenetrable growth, translated into uninhibited mark-making. Next stop: Jackson Pollock.
"Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" is accompanied by a first-rate, fully illustrated catalogue with informative essays and entries on each work exhibited in New York or, in the exhibition's earlier incarnation, in Amsterdam, along with a wealth of comparative material. Sections on the technical studies performed on the drawings reveal a great deal about Van Gogh's process, his materials, and the alterations that time has produced on his works on paper. In its own way, the catalogue is as intelligent and absorbing as the show, which is saying a lot. Both are important and deeply satisfying in themselves, and both are essential to any understanding of Van Gogh's real significance.
(1) "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 18 and remains on view through December 31, 2005. A catalogue of the exhibition, by Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heugten, and Marije Vellekoop, has been published by the museum (392 pages, $65).