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Fresh looks at van Gogh.

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin argued that creating, by mechanical means, multiple copies of something once prized for its singularity and its specific presence in time and space diminished the "authority" and the "authenticity" of the original, whether it was a painting, a sculpture, or the performance of a musical composition. The proliferation of anonymous replicas permitted by twentieth-century technology compromised what Benjamin called the "aura" of the work of art--which he described as "the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced." Aura "withers" when the work of art is mechanically duplicated, Benjamin warned:
 the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the
 domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a
 plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the
 reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular
 situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.

Benjamin's essay was published in 1936. Postmodern appropriation has borne out the unfortunate accuracy of the first of his assertions; the others are simply facts of modern life, although just what he meant by "reactivate" remains unclear. As it turns out, while Benjamin should have worried about how the qualifies of mechanically reproduced music would affect expectations and standards for live performance, he needn't have been concerned about loss of "aura" in the visual arts. Quite the contrary. Being introduced to a work of art through some "mechanical" medium can even enhance aura. Seeing, in the flesh, a painting or sculpture known only from reproductions remains thrilling. Slides and illustrations may provide useful preparation, but nothing can replace the intensity of real surface, real scale, real color, real context; nothing short of direct confrontation conveys a sense of the work of art as a physical object with particular material properties, made by another human being--"authenticity" and "authority" remain intact. Aura is diminished when scholars downgrade attributions, but that's another matter, as is the more interesting question of whether aura is, in fact, what we seek from works of art, rather than formal excellence or emotional resonance or anything else.

It could be argued, moreover, that the mass media's wide dissemination of mechanically reproduced images of works of art has had precisely the opposite effect than Benjamin predicted. Far from causing aura to wither, it has transformed some works of art from physical things with particular aesthetic qualifies into another category of objects that are all aura. These paintings and sculptures have become instantly recognizable icons, all accumulated lame and history, "signifiers" of artistic value whose presence is eagerly sought by hordes of beholders simply because they have been reproduced so often. Standing in front of these well-known works takes on a significance that has nothing to do with aesthetic experience, but lies somewhere between celebrity spotting and the veneration of relics. Even if we pride ourselves on out immunity to the effects of popular reputation, it's difficult to come to terms with such sanctified works. They are hard to see, not only because of the physical barriers imposed, these days, by layers of bulletproof glass and massed tourists armed with video recorders, but also because their accumulated lame and familiarity makes it difficult to look at them the way we would at any other work of art--for their aesthetic qualities; aura prevails.

The oeuvre of that most mythologized of modernist painters, Vincent van Gogh, has been particularly vulnerable to this disagreeable transformation; people who can't recognize The Potato Eaters and would walk right by a picture of the corridors at Saint-Remy can spot a Sunflowers from the far end of a gallery and know all about how the mad genius cut off his ear and never sold a painting. It can be argued that responsibility lies as much with novelists and movie makers as it does with mechanical reproducers, while some blame also has to be assigned to the painter himself. Van Gogh's pictures can teeter on the edge of manner; his rhythmic strokes, loaded surfaces, stylized drawing, and supercharged color make his work so readily identifiable that ifs sometimes hard to get involved with what is really going on in his pictures. (His vigorous pen and ink drawings are easier to "see," despite their stylizations, not only because they have been less frequently reproduced, but also because they are so direct and intimate.) It takes special effort to approach van Gogh's paintings as paintings, and so this spring we must be grateful to the organizers of a pair of enlightening exhibitions devoted to the work of the troubled Dutch painter: "Van Gogh's `Postman': the Portraits of Joseph Roulin," a sharply focused little gem of a show at the Museum of Modern Art from February 1 to May 15; and "Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard,"(1) a broad, contextualizing overview at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Together and separately, they allow us to see this problematic painter freshly and oblige us to take his measure hot as the popularly conceived tortured outsider, but as an informed participant in the modernist enterprise.

MOMA's small but spectacular show is, admittedly, a surefire crowd pleaser, but it is also an inspired footnote to the survey of van Gogh's portraits seen at the Philadelphia Museum last year and an illuminating examination of an important work in the Modern's collection, a confrontational 1889 image of Joseph Roulin against an elaborately patterned background. The postman, who lived with his family on the same street as van Gogh, was one of first people in Arles to agree to pose for the odd, intense, easily offended Dutchman, and one of the few to befriend him. Van Gogh began to paint his neighbor in the winter of 1888, fascinated equally, it seems, by Roulin's pug-nosed, bony face with its wide-set eyes, his luxuriant beard, his ruddy drinker's complexion, his natty uniform, and his passionately populist politics. The two men became close. (Roulin tended the painter during the notorious ear-cutting crisis.) Eventually, van Gogh painted the entire family, producing multiple versions of Madame Augustine Roulin as a paradigm of maternity--often with the couple's youngest child, bore about the time Roulin pere began to sit for his portrait--plus pictures of the two older sons, aged eleven and sixteen. The curator of the exhibition, Kirk Varnedoe, suggests that, as the father of three children, the postman symbolized virility and manly responsibility to the famously alienated painter. Varnedoe sees the series of portraits of the postman as documenting a transformation from the specific to the universal, supporting the view that no matter how interested he was in a sitter's distinctive features and personality, van Gogh wished his portraits to embody enduring types rather than individuals. His comments on works in progress, in letters to his brother, Theo, make this explicit. Witness the famous description of the portrait of the solid, ample Mme. Roulin, La Berceuse, (1889, Boston Museum of Fine Arts), showing her against a flower-strewn background like that in MOMA's portrait of her husband, clasping the cord of a cradle; van Gogh called it an attempt
 to paint a picture in such a way that sailors, who are at once children and
 martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of their Icelandic fishing boat, would feel
 the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own

Van Gogh drew Roulin, whether as symbol or as individual, three times and painted him six. The exhibition at MOMA unites two of the drawings and rive of the paintings. (The others were unavailable because of fragility or the lending policy of the collection that houses them.) Seeing these intimately connected works together is a surprising and eye-testing experience that makes us consider each picture simultaneously as a unique object and as part of a dramatically varied progression. The earliest, from the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, shows Roulin seated rather stiffly at a green painted table, silhouetted against a loosely brushed blue wall. As his imposing gold-trimmed cap and brass-buttoned uniform attest, Roulin was not a mere letter carrier, but a dignified postal official. Something of the self-importance of the petit fonctionnaire creeps into the portrait. He displays the gold braid on his sleeves, fixing the viewer with a watchful eye; his square cut, bifurcated beard competes for attention with his gnarled and rigid hands. Whether the stiffness was due to van Gogh's efforts or to Roulin's self-consciousness about posing is debatable--he seems more relaxed, as well as more elegantly proportioned, in a related drawing. Whatever the reason, in the subsequent portraits, the painter focused on the postman's head and shoulders, gradually stylizing his features into an emblematic type. Perhaps the closest equivalent, in terms of effect and of seamlessness with the qualifies of the medium, is August Sander's "typological" photographs of tradesmen.

The most naturalistic of all the head and shoulders images of Roulin belongs to the Detroit Institute of Art: a lively record of an intent gaze, a bristly beard, and an alcoholic flush of nose and cheek. The most "abstract" belongs to the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland: a head constructed of generalized masses, with Roulin's dark blue uniform set off by a brilliant yellow ground; its abrupt contrasts and broad planes remind us forcibly that, about the time it was painted, Paul Gauguin, champion of the eloquent simplifications to be achieved by working from memory instead of from life, was sharing the Yellow House with van Gogh.

Scholars believe that the last portraits of Roulin, which include MOMA's and the one belonging to the Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, were probably done from other paintings. The postman left Arles to take a better paying position in Marseille in January 1889, and there are apparently no references to his posing before his departure, but even without this documentary evidence these pictures are so remarkably stylized, frontal, symmetrical, and, well, icon-like that they appear to be mainly about pictorial imperatives. Varnedoe suggests that we are again seeing evidence of Gauguin's helpful influence, although they are vastly less schematic than the Winterthur picture. In both the Kroller-Muller's and MOMA's paintings, a rhythm of repetitive strokes all but subsumes naturalism; Roulin's beard curls and writhes like the cypress trees and cloudbanks in van Gogh's Provencal landscapes of the same year. Admittedly, in the Kroller-Muller's picture, the background sprays of poppies, cornflowers, and marguerites are naturalistic enough to be justifiable as referring to wallpaper, but in MOMAs, these casual bunches of flowers become luminous disks and extravagant arabesques embedded in a complicated pattern of loops and spots; the result seems more plausibly a symbol of energy and intensity than an interpretation of anything perceived.

For an intensive seminar on the formative years of the painter's development--the crucial period he spent in Paris, before moving to the south of France--a trip to Saint Louis is required. Together with MOMA's show, it provides an opportunity to clarify our ideas and rethink our prejudices about this dreadfully overexposed painter. The Saint Louis show allows us to set our notions about van Gogh's characteristic style in a broader context, presenting us with absorbing evidence of the formation of that style, while compelling us to ponder ideas about modernism in general and about van Gogh's relation to the avant-garde in particular. If we've ever wondered how the painter of the murky, expressionist Potato Eaters became, in the course of a career lasting less than a decade, the painter of luminous, highly colored, highly charged portraits like those of Roulin, the exhibition provides fascinating answers.

"Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard" is the perfect antidote to the popular conception of van Gogh as an isolated mad genius thrashing around in a state of exaltation in the south of France, making paintings that sprang from nowhere and were light-years ahead of his time. That van Gogh was difficult, was hard to get along with, and frightened people with his intensity is well documented. That he was isolated when he lived in the Brabant among the impoverished miners who inspired The Potato Eaters is similarly easy to prove. But when van Gogh joined his brother Theo in Paris, in 1886, he quickly became part of a group of young artists linked by overlapping circles of friendship and common aspirations. Soon after arriving, he entered the studio of Fernand Cormon, in order to improve his ability to draw, and became friendly with some of his fellow students, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the precocious Emile Bernard. (It's difficult to imagine a more unlikely trio--the worldly, sophisticated, crippled aristocrat; the hypersensitive, awkward Dutchman; and the talented, eager middle-class boy--but they seem to have become friends, perhaps as much because of their common inability to conform to their families' expectations as their common compulsion to make art.) At the shop of Pere Tanguy, the paint dealer and patron of the vanguard, who sometimes installed exhibitions of their work there, van Gogh got to know other young painters as "marginalized" as himself. Eventually, his circle included, along with Toulouse-Lautrec and Bernard, Paul Signac, Louis Anquetin, Georges Seurat, Charles Angrand, Lucien Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, and (because of his remarkable openness to the ideas of younger painters, such as his son, Lucien) Camille Pissarro.

The group seems to have been informal, loose, volatile, and subject to change. Rather than being made up of artists who shared a common practice, it encompassed painters with a remarkably broad range of approaches and shades of emphasis, from Signac, with his dispassionate "scientific" Neo-Impressionism, to Gauguin, with his expressive symbolism, and a good deal in between. There was apparently fierce competition to gain adherents among the proponents of each notion of what painting could be. All of these influences, along with the potent example of his much loved Japanese prints, are visible in the works van Gogh produced in Paris. Over time, longstanding friendships seem to have dissolved over questions of who had done what first or who could be called the leader of a particular group, but initially, at least, these passionate young painters were united by seeing themselves as modern, new, radical, alienated, and--above all--in opposition to the Impressionists, who were a generation older, and now, relatively speaking, established and successful. In other words, the painters of van Gogh's Paris circle saw themselves as an avant-garde. The phrase "painters of the Petit Boulevard," apparently coined by van Gogh, embodied that notion. It referred partly to the neighborhood where many of them lived and worked, but more specifically it signalled their difference from the older generation, the Impressionists, who had so often painted the urban life of the Grands Boulevards -- the new, broad streets lined with cafes, shops, and apartment houses that were the legacy of Baron Haussmann's re-creation of Paris.

We are first introduced to the protagonists through a selection of portraits and self-portraits that are as interesting as paintings as they are as images of the cast of characters. An 1885 portrait of an excruciatingly young, tousle-haired Bernard by Toulouse-Lautrec is a charming image of a key figure in the elaborate set of cross-connections among the painters of the Petit Boulevard; at the same time, the unassuming naturalism of the picture signals how deliberate the sinuous shapes and flat patterns of Toulouse-Lautrec's later "signature" images were. We are prepared for Bernard's own progress by his broadly stroked, assured portrait of a man said to be Theo van Gogh, while Gauguin weighs in with a tentative self-portrait. Van Gogh presents himself as dapper, successful, and assured in an elegant gray hat and striped cravat, a confident self-portrait painted in 1887-88, when he had already developed his distinctive manner of staccato, radiating strokes and heightened color.

After meeting the players, we are introduced to their milieu: the working-class district of the Batignolles (the extreme outer boundary of the Impressionists' world at the beginning of their careers), the area near the Place de Clichy, and those Northern industrialized suburban reaches of the Seine --Asnieres, Courbevoie, and the island of La Grande Jatte--that the Impressionists had painted as surrogate countryside for weekend holiday makers, despite the already apparent signs of change. In these equivocal zones near the city, van Gogh's generation emphasized such signs of modern life as factory chimneys and railroad bridges over what remained of nature; in Paris, they painted kiosks, and, in one of Seurat's paintings, that ultimate symbol of modernity, the still-unfinished Eiffel tower.

Van Gogh's Factories at Asnieres, Seen from the Quai de Clichy (1887, Saint Louis Art Museum), an engaging, unpretentious picture held together by the force of color and inventive composition, sums it all up. The painting is split into big horizontal bands of green-yellow field and green-blue sky, separated by a narrow frieze of frontal buildings with brilliant red and blue roofs, and stitched together by smoking chimneys and the repetitive pickets of a fence. Perhaps most striking is the variety of painting languages van Gogh employs, as though he were trying all the possibilities suggested by his friends at once: loose, impressionistic gestures in the sky, rhythmic strokes of divided color in the field, and expediently direct touches in between. The biggest surprise of this section is Bernard's Iron Bridge at Asnieres (1887, Museum of Modern Art, New York), a paean to the railroad and to the beneficial advice of Gauguin. Bernard didn't need the fussy, silhouetted black figures walking along the embankment, but otherwise the nineteen-year-old painter acquitted himself brilliantly, fearlessly deploying the bold flat planes of the bridge piers and riverbank, and orchestrating a rich assortment of pinks, rose-grays, and mauves against the celadon green of the Seine, an acid yellow boat, and a flourish of green grass. Gauguin's influence is evident in Bernard's touch, in his aggressive simplifications, and possibly in his lush palette, but the picture is full of energy and promise. A little Anquetin "portrait" of a kiosk on the Boulevard des Batignolles, bathed in rosy light, is another highlight.

Other sections deal with the various responses of van Gogh and his circle to such themes as landscape, portraiture, and "Entertainment and Nightlife." Here, Toulouse-Lautrec is the obvious leader, a connoisseur of Parisian low-life who introduced van Gogh and Bernard to its attractions. Unlike the Impressionists, who concentrated on images of spectacle and spectators, the younger artists seem to have been most engaged by the general atmosphere of Paris at night, its crowds and louche encounters. The exception is Seurat, represented by the Albright-Knox's delicious Study for "Le Chahut" (1889), with its musicians and high-kicking dancers conjured up out of a haze of red, cream, and blue, but relegated to the world of artifice by a spotted and dotted dark-blue frame. Toulouse-Lautrec offers incisively drawn, rapidly stroked paintings of negotiations between tourists and available women, while the teenage Bernard demonstrates his debt to his friend's speedy, sketchy style in The Hour of the Flesh (1885-86, private collection), a big, evocative pink and green pastel of pairings-off, so uncannily atmospheric and scrupulously observed that we begin to wonder if Bernard's parents knew where their young son was at night.

Throughout, the evidence is marshalled thoughtfully, setting related pictures side by side--everything from internationally celebrated works to obscure or seldom seen ones--all chosen to reveal the connections and divergences among the painters of the Petit Boulevard at different points in their tenuous association. Van Gogh's acclaimed La Berceuse, from Boston, for example, is paired with Gauguin's less known portrait of Mme. Roulin, from the Saint Louis Art Museum's collection. Painted in Arles, they bear witness to a dialogue begun in Paris and continued in the south, even though Gauguin's acceptance of van Gogh's invitation to join him at the Yellow House seems to have been prompted by economic need rather than affection. Tellingly, van Gogh centers Mme. Roulin against an otherworldly background of stylized flowers, turning her into a kind of lumpen madonna; Gauguin's Augustine Roulin is feminine and appealing, if slightly bovine, but the painter shoves her off to one side, against one of his own pictures (also in the show). Gauguin's painting of the postman's wife makes palpable his interest in Cezanne--apparently not shared by van Gogh--as docs his portrait of Bernard's sister, Madeleine, which is paired with one by Bernard himself. The older painter's influence on the younger is evident in the similarities of a "Cezannian" touch and an economical rendering of form in both paintings, but Gauguin (who apparently tried to seduce Madeleine) presents us with a flirtatious, poised, slender-waisted young woman, while her brother makes her a bodiless, introspective innocent.

In addition to the obvious pleasures of such a well-chosen group of often unexpected works, the show gives us a new sense of each artist as an individual, a sharpened awareness of van Gogh's place in the Parisian vanguard, and a more acute understanding of the complexities of the modernist enterprise in late nineteenth-century France--complexities that make the rather clumsy academic coinage "modernisms" more and more necessary, as we realize just how many alternative ideas of the new were current at any given time. The handsome, copiously illustrated catalogue that accompanies the show develops similar themes. Collectively, the essays by the show's curator, Cornelia Homburg, and her colleagues amount to a definitive discussion of van Gogh in relation to the avant-garde, and by extension, become a provocative examination of the notion of the avant-garde itself, particularly in Paris, in the last decades of the nineteenth century. We might wish that all of the essays were as free of predictable attitudes and jargon, as full of insightful observations as Homburg's, but the catalogue is nonetheless a valuable, informative document--the next best thing to a trip to Saint Louis.

(1) "Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard" opened at the Saint Louis Museum of Art on February 17, 2001 and remains on view until May 13. The exhibition then travels to Stadtisches Galerie, Frankfurt (June 8-September 2, 2001). A catalog of the exhibition, edited by Cornelia Homburg, has been published by the museum in association with Rizzoli (255 pages, $50).
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Title Annotation:exhibitions of Vincent van Gogh's works
Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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