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Not just oil and canvas: a rich selection of Van Gogh's drawings moves to New York this month, following its showing in Amsterdam. Martin Bailey welcomes this concentration on a neglected aspect of the artist's work, which raises important issues, such as the problem of fading in Van Gogh's work on paper.

'Vincent van Gogh: The drawings' argues that although it is the paintings that shape our image of his oeuvre, the artist's works on paper are highly important. A high proportion of his greatest paintings are permanently on show in public collections, but the drawings are rarely displayed, for obvious conservation reasons, and therefore remain relatively neglected.

In their catalogue introduction, the directors of the Van Gogh Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art claim that Van Gogh 'should be counted as one of the finest draughtsmen of his century'. That may be going a little too far, but the exhibition does emphasise his astonishing achievements in less than a decade of work. This month the show moves to New York, following its Amsterdam presentation.

The catalogue comprises 119 drawings, although a few are shown in only one venue and there are also some ex-catalogue works. Around 1,100 of Van Gogh's drawings survive, so those included represent around ten per cent. It is a manageable number for a large exhibition, and much more selective than the only other major show of drawings, when in 1990 the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo brought together 248 works.

The current exhibition begins with thirty-one drawings from Van Gogh's Dutch period (1881-85) and ten from Antwerp and Paris (1885-88). A welcome addition at the Amsterdam showing, although it is not in the catalogue, was the museum's newly-purchased portrait The Hague Bookseller Jozef Blok (from whom Van Gogh bought twenty-one volumes of The Graphic). Among the highlights of the Dutch drawings is a landscape series from Nuenen, including Winter Garden (Van Gogh Museum). Sjraar van Heugten, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum, says these are of 'such a quality that they should have been marketable and found buyers'. Perhaps the tragedy is that Vincent relied too much on his kind-hearted brother Theo (who was a Parisian dealer) to sell his work. Had he not depended on family contacts, he might have been more successful in selling.

Arles rightly provides the heart of the show, with fifty-nine works (1888-89). One of the delights is Cottage Garden (Fig. 2), a rarely-exhibited drawing from a private collection; the exuberant flowers create an almost abstract pattern. Most revealing are several series of works demonstrating how Van Gogh tackled the same motif. For instance, with his Harvest in Provence, we are first shown his original drawing (private collection), which he embellished with watercolour (this became the most expensive work on paper sold at auction when it fetched 8.8 million [pounds sterling] in 1997). Next came the magnificent oil painting, followed by slightly different pen and ink copies that Van Gogh made for his artist friends John Russell and Emile Bernard. These copies were done with a reed pen, with bravura results.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The exhibition also includes a marvellous selection of works from Van Gogh's short stay at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, when he saw the Mediterranean for the first time (there has been considerable debate among scholars about the dates of the trip, but the latest evidence convincingly puts it at 30/31 May to 5 June 1888). The Pushkin Museum's painting Boats at Sea will be shown in New York, together with four subsequent drawings. These include a very rough sketch in a letter to Bernard, which has just been given by Eugene and Clare Thaw to the Pierpont Morgan Library (for decades it was hidden away in a Rothschild collection). The show concludes with nineteen drawings from St-Remy and Auvers (1889-90).

With the combined clout of the Van Gogh Museum and the Metropolitan, nearly all of the masterpieces have been obtained. Arguably, the most missed drawing in the exhibition is Starry night, which was seized from a German castle and taken to Russia towards the end of the World War II. The hope was that it might have been returned to the Bremen Kunsthalle in time for it to be lent to the exhibition, but restitution has been blocked by the Russian authorities.

The hanging of the Amsterdam show was excellent, despite a few minor quibbles (a small display of ten ex-catalogue minor drawings under the banner 'Not all the works were masterpieces' and an ugly 'cut-out board' representation of the cart depicted in Harvest in Provence). One of the treats in Amsterdam was a group of a dozen sketches in letters, as well as the artist's four surviving sketchbooks, which have never been exhibited together. In New York, Susan Stein, the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will have a somewhat different hang and she promises to include further paintings that relate directly to drawings.

Among the issues raised in the catalogue is the rarely discussed problem of fading in Van Gogh's works on paper. In his first drawings of Montmajour, the inks were so fugitive that the images are barely visible today. Van Heugten has written a revealing essay, with early reproductions juxtaposed with present-day photographs. Another important technical discovery is the extent to which Van Gogh used highly diluted oil paint on paper, which has often been mistaken for gouache (for instance, in the Metropolitan's Vestibule of the Asylum, Fig. 3). Van Gogh was always highly experimental in his techniques.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

In Amsterdam two books were confusingly marketed as 'catalogues'. Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings is the true catalogue, with entries by the exhibition's four curators, Susan Alyson Stein and Colta Ives of the Metropolitan and Sjraar van Heugten and Marije Vellekoop of the Van Gogh Museum. Specialists will find this invaluable, particularly the helpful 'summary of the literature' on each work, recording how views have developed. The other publication, even more confusingly, has two slightly different titles; in the Netherlands the English-language edition is called Van Gogh Draughtsman: The Masterpieces and in the UK it is Van Gogh: The Master Draughtsman. Written by Van Heugten, this is an illustrated essay for the general reader, and should he regarded as an accompanying book rather than a catalogue.

As well as the exhibition books, we should also note the Van Gogh Museum's definitive catalogue of its own drawings, numbering over 500. The first three volumes have been published and the final one, covering Arles to Auvers, is due in 2006. The Kroller-Muller Museum, which has just over 180 drawings, is also preparing its own catalogue, again for publication next year. This outstanding Amsterdam-New York exhibition, combined with these publications, is focussing attention at last on this neglected side of Van Gogh's achievement.

'Vincent van Gogh: The draings' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (+1 212 535 7710), 18 October-31 December. It was previously at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2 July-18 September, under the title 'Van Gogh Draughtsman: The Masterpieces'. The catalogue, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, by Susan Alyson Stein, et al., is published by the Metropolitan Museum, ISBN 1 58839 165 5 (paper), $45, and ISBN 1 58839 164 7 (cloth), $65, and also by Yale University Press, ISBN 0 300 10720 X (cloth), $65/35 [pounds sterling].

Van Gogh: The Master Draughtsman by Sjraar van Heugten, ISBN is published by Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0 500 23825 1 (cloth), 24.95 [pounds sterling], and as Van Gogh

Draughtsman: The Masterpieces by the Van Gogh Museum/Mercatorfonds, ISBN 90 6153 597 2 (paper), 25 [euro].

Accompanying the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is 'In line with Van Gogh', a display of seventy works on paper by artists who either influenced or were influenced by Van Gogh.

Martin Bailey is a Van Gogh specialist and correspondent of The Art Newspaper.
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Title Annotation:Exhibitions
Author:Bailey, Martin
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Words:1260
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