Friday, June 29, 2012

Van Gogh, Gobbledygook and Sardine Central

Sheer, sheer aggravation. I wrote for an hour and a half last night, felt pretty good about it and sat down to revisit it this morning, before a nice additional bout. It promised to be a long, substantial post. Maybe I should split it into a few? Happy. Of course, that was moments before I deleted the entire thing in one fell swoop. Aiiiiiiighhhhhh. The one dastardly aspect of automatic save. Back button! Back button! Back, back, back!....No.

So here we are. Where were we? It began with the book on your left. A thoughtful birthday present, which I have been savoring at odd moments around the edges of each day. The last time I was home, my family and I attended this exhibit in its last days at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Normally, the BIG ARTIST shows don't raise my excitement level much above that achieved by the museum visit itself (-- I love an outing! --), though I understand that these usually drive museum attendance and likely shop purchases/new memberships. To be fair, with the exception of a Renoir show last year focusing on his nudes, I usually come away with a deepened appreciation of the artist's mastery or new angle into their motivations, etc. With the Renoir show, though, we were just swimming in a fleshy sea of peaches-and-cream/ivory-and-rose...It goes without saying that Renoir's painting abilities vastly surpassed anything I could attempt. The nudes were fine, they were healthy and beautiful. But were any of them naughty or impatient, intriguing or irritating? Anything, anything other than pleasant? To touch off from that unfortunate presidential voting trend: I wouldn't want to drink a beer with any of them. I joined my father, resting on a bench in the second (or third or fourth) gallery. "She could be a Renoir," he gestured toward an unsuspecting shuffler. He gestured again. "That one, you'd need to fatten her up a bit."

I snorted and shushed him. He grinned and waggled an eyebrow.    

I expected to like this Van Gogh show about as much as I had a Cezanne landscape one from several years ago -- you know, not one of my burning favorites, but solid, rich, engaging. But IMHO, it was one of Philly's strongest exhibits in years! As you'd expect, being able to see those confident brush strokes and massively thick layers of oil paint on the canvasses themselves was alone worth the price of admission. But the variety of line, composition and palette was utterly amazing. One can fall into a false sense of understanding about those few artists' whose work is ubiquitous --yeah, I know, Starry Night, Sunflowers, unbalanced/tortured/ear -- but this wonderfully executed exhibit, bringing together famous and barely seen work, showed how keenly surprising Van Gogh's work still is.

And a good thing, too, as it was Sardine Central in there. It was difficult to go, get at, get to, get away; and while I am good at weaving through and sneaking about the edges, one had to strategically note shifting patterns and pounce upon empty spaces. Audible tours were in heavy use. Some of the deafer among us had their headphone output dialed to maximum; and the collective susurrations of learned curators and art critics sounded at repeated delays throughout the warm, over-peopled spaces. Some of the denser among us planted themselves front, center, and close, before paintings -- and then gazed *elsewhere* as their personal critics intoned observations into their ears. Others of us craned our necks resentfully, biding our time.

The critics were in danger of being swept away in undercurrents of their own making. While I especially appreciated the high horizons of several of Van Gogh's paintings only after they had first pointed them out, and I bought that they both tilted to unusual degrees and that they functioned to "keep you in that world," it was less convincing that due to the strong and lively angles involved in roofs and hills, the painter was conveying "the dragon underneath," also preying upon his psyche. Maybe. Maybe not. An ancient woman with small, bright blue eyes in a wheel chair was being read the placard text by a slightly less ancient companion.

"They're reading something into it!" the elder sniffed.

"I know, it's gobbledygook," the second muttered.

"Undergrowth with Two Figures" hung a couple galleries over. It was riveting and aggravating. I loved how it was at once very dark and very light, that yellow blooms showed how the sun reached the wooded bed, but that before us the darkness lay heavier. Loved the violet trunks and heavy outlines. There was an undeniable weight to it and for me, the faceless couple doesn't dispel a certain loneliness. But the headphone critic took it further. After observing that it was painted in the last few months of his life, he said the piece was "all about despair, isolation and inevitability" and referenced "the trees that make it impossible to get into the canvas." Well, okay, it is a surprising choice to feature the nearest trunk almost bisecting the work. But on the flip side, the natural row to the left brings you in as far as you want to go. Which, clearly, if you walked straight down that path, you'd reach the darkness. But even so! Even within the wood, the light~~ Such free bursts of light!

Of course the impact is greater in person**[see below]. I circled it a few times, visited other paintings and eventually planted myself on a bench. My sister wandered over eventually, gazed at the painting in question for a bit.

She joined me on the bench. She leaned in."You know, the critic was talking about this painting and saying all this stuff about isolation and everything was all doom and I'm looking at it like,'Well, *I* kind of *like* it!'" She threw up her hand as if to say, "What's the problem here?"

"I *know*, totally! Me, too~~"

A guy sitting with his back to us swiveled around, "I *completely* agree!!!" The lenses in his glasses were large and thick and made his eyes huge. They fit nicely with his friendly and emphatic manner. We engaged in a volley about the painting, before his attention wandered to his favorite museums in Amsterdam and Paris.

A highly interactive show visit, this! And the creators of all the supporting materials for the exhibit did a great job, even if their interpretations were sometimes maddening. The obligatory biographical details and supporting artwork from other artists were also especially pleasing. The audio/placards informed attendees that Van Gogh eventually amassed a collection of 500 Japanese prints; a selection lining one wall included the following by master printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige:

The Ten Thousand Tsubo Plain at Susaki in Fukugawa
Haneda Ferry and Benten Shrine
We also learned these sweet facts:
  • Upon leaving an apartment he shared with his brother Theo, Vincent rehung prints everywhere, to remind his brother of him.
  • One painting he had created mainly because fellow painter Paul Gauguin was coming for a visit (who um, incidentally may or may not have been the one to cut off Van Gogh's ear ).
  • And best of all~~! This happiest of Van Gogh paintings was painted towards the end of his life, while in the asylum, on the occasion of Theo's newborn son, named Vincent! 
Truly, he painted "Almond Blossom" for the nursery! 
Can you imagine growing up, always seeing that? Knowing that your Uncle painted it for you?

**[below] Compatriot and I have talked about the phenomenon of artwork proximity. Despite all the digital advances in the world, there's still no substitute for being before the artwork itself, right? To wit, Comp brought up "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" by Edouard Manet (1882):
"You know that one, it's always used as a grand symbol of the good life? But when you're standing in front of it, it's so.sad. You can tell she doesn't want to be there, it's been a long day. You *know* her feet hurt."

Well, thanks ever so for stopping by. It appears I have talked your ear off. If you care for a more official take on the exhibit, check out the one from The New York Times.


  1. Oh you're in fine form! Great post, even if a redux. It's good to know that your father is out post-scouting Renoir's - I know I'd have his attention.

    We could talk for hours about the facsimile of online art (or just cheap reproductions); for me it was Hopper's Nighthawks in Chicago. I'd seen the image a thousand times on mugs, in calendars... but when I rounded the corner, the green pierced right through my sight line - I don't ever recall seeing it like that prior.

    You so nicely captured the over digestion of great works... don't you wonder what they may say someday about your work? I do!

    "susurrations" damn, I just put away the dictionary from your last post.

  2. Hey hey, Stone Bridge! Glad you liked it --I have been wanting to write about that for so long, but haven't had the chance. And I think we *have* talked about art/facsimiles, definitely -- it's a fascinating, complicated topic...

    Nighthawks is huge, too, isn't it? I love those moments, so much.

    Hmmm and eek -- I'll leave the theoretical future assessment to you! Dubious. But happy to be blogging and happy you're here!

  3. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for reading, city!