The reason to see the Denver Art Museum’s new exhibition, Becoming Van Gogh, is not to encounter already familiar images in the flesh. There’s no Starry Night here, no Sunflowers or Bedroom in Arles. Rather, what should draw viewers is a chance to see the development of Van Gogh’s style, the steep learning curve that defined his short career. Curator Timothy J. Standring notes that Van Gogh’s entire artistic career lasted only a couple of years longer than the seven it took Standring to organize this exhibition.
The exhibition, mounted by the Denver Art Museum itself, and exclusive to this venue, also offers viewers the chance to see numerous small works held by private collections or far-flung museums, placed side by side in a coherent narrative. More than 70 paintings and drawing, including works on loan from more than 60 institutions and collections, are on view; they recapitulate Van Gogh’s dramatic transformation from a self-taught draftsman and painter who hoped to use his art to illuminate the condition of the poor in his native Netherlands, to an artist rapidly assimilating the lessons of the Parisian avant-garde and of the Japanese graphic tradition. He synthesized these elements into a highly personal style just as his personal difficulties threatened to swamp his creative faculties.
In the first room of Becoming Van Gogh, hangs Sorrow a large-scale drawing made in 1882, depicting Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute from the Hague whom Van Gogh had become involved with after she was abandoned by the father of her child. She sits naked, transformed into an allegorical figure by her setting and her pose. A quotation from Jules Michelet, the free-thinking Romantic historian much admired by Van Gogh, provides a caption lamenting the fate of an abandoned woman. The title, Sorrow is given in English – a choice that co-curator Louis van Tilborgh, Senior Researcher of Paintings at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, speculates may reflect an early desire on the part of Van Gogh to publish his work in The Graphic, a popular and influential English periodical with a strong agenda of social reform, and which employed such artists as Randolph Caldecott, Luke Fildes, and John Millais. The unapologetic rawness and awkwardness of the naked figure seems to place her squarely within the traditions of Netherlandish art; the sitter’s identity and the words from Michelet speak vividly of the concern for the poor and outcast which had, a short time before, driven Van Gogh to seek a place as an evangelical preacher among the impoverished miners of the Borinage, an impoverished rural district of southern Belgium.
Hung in deliberate opposition to Sorrow is another allegory, A Young Girl Defending Herself against Eros, painted about 1880 by the popular French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The smiling, pretty marble-smooth figure provides a dose of titillation along with the glossy surfaces and carefully naturalistic details of the approved salon style. The point of the comparison is Van Gogh’s rejection of the gloss, the marmoreal perfection, of mid-Victorian academic art in favor of an emotive authenticity. It’s an intriguing choice with which to begin the exhibition, introducing visitors to a Van Gogh with which they are likely unfamiliar, juxtaposed with a painting embodying all he deliberately rejected in the art of his day.
Yet there’s another layer of irony here: Van Gogh came to create the works for which he is remembered by embracing the avant-garde rebellion against the art of the salons, a rebellion which defined itself in terms of style even more than content. Originally inspired by a desire to create “visual sermons” illustrating the human condition, he would come into his own as an artist by exploring art for art’s sake.
The subsequent rooms in this exhibition mark stages in this journey. In the first major room works such as Peasants Planting Potatoes, The Beach at Scheveningen, and a black-and-white lithograph version of the famous Potato Eaters hang alongside similar images of poverty by such contemporaries as Jozef Israëls. Gustave Doré, and Hubert von Herkomer. The colors are somber and the figures less than idealized. A series of plates from the Cours de dessin of Charles Bargue, a teach-yourself drawing manual which Van Gogh copied meticulously, attest to his determination to master his new vocation. Notes of color first began to enter his work after he studied the works of Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, says van Tilborgh, but it was only when he moved to Paris and encountered the work of the Impressionists that he fully embraced color. And it was in Paris that he began to develop his distinctively painterly style; he admired the bold impasto brushwork of Adolphe Monticelli, a painter of still lives, and sought to emulate in paintings like Vase with Gladioli and China Asters, or the beautiful Vase with Lilacs, Daisies, and Anemones, in which glowing warm tones are balanced against cool blues and violets.
Van Gogh the dutiful pupil appears here in another guise. With his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec he attended traditional drawing classes in which they drew plaster casts of antique statuary. (This, of course, is exactly the kind of training that defined the tradition in which Bougereau worked). As outsiders, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were given the worst seats, where the casts were seen only from behind. Two of their studies hang side by side and, frankly, what’s most striking is how much better Toulouse-Lautrec’s is – the dynamic outline, the impression of glowing white flesh emerging from velvety darkness, the sense that the figure’s leg bears real weight. Van Gogh’s careful drawing seems a bit lifeless beside it. The careful rendering of classical ideals would never be his forte.
Instead, under the influence of pointillists such as Seurat and Signac, Van Gogh’s paintings threatened to become fields of light and energy, dazzling but almost shapeless spaces in which solid forms seem almost to dissolve altogether. But it was at that moment that he discovered Japanese prints, rapidly assimilating all he could of a tradition of two-dimensional design defined by line and color, rather than depth and shadow. The compositions of Japanese masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige seem to have provided Van Gogh with an aesthetic framework, a way of constructing images more congenial to him than the Classical tradition of the west. This aesthetic framework also accommodated his ever more experimental use of color. Inspired by Impressionist color theory, Van Gogh tried out new combinations using balls of yarn to observe the interactions of color. Similar balls of yarn are on display here, in a Chinese box, lacquered a bright red-orange, just like the one Van Gogh used. The mingled colors of the yarn, contained within a brilliantly colored artifact reflective of an east Asian aesthetic, seem a fitting symbol for Van Gogh’s late works.
The fusion of these influences can be seen in a beautiful small painting of a blossoming almond twig in a glass of water, set next to a book whose pink cover echoes the warm, rosy tint of the blossoms. Van Gogh presented this work to his sister, and it is now in a private collection. (This online image does not do it justice.) The mixture of pinks and greens could be gaudy, but is instead luminous against a dark wooden frame; the sinuous brushstrokes carve out the lines of blossoms, twig, and books. The same fusion is visible on a much grander scale in many of the paintings Van Gogh produced during his sojourn in Arles. Van Gogh had dreamed of founding an art colony in the south of France, which he conceived of as a land of light and color similar to his imagined Japan. It was in Provence that he created his most celebrated works, and his bold, sunstruck visions of the southern landscape dominate the walls of the exhibition’s final rooms.
Yet all ended so quickly, in the famous breakdown, in confinement at St. Remy and a return to the north of France, followed all too quickly by his death – an apparent suicide – in the summer of 1890. The paintings in the last room of the exhibition have a sense of culmination about them, but not of completion. Then they just stop. Three self-portraits hang in a row near the exit, inviting contemplation, raising more questions than they answer.
Nor are Van Gogh’s paintings quite the immutable record of his vision we want them to be. Van Tilborgh explains that some of Van Gogh’s pigments, especially the violets, have changed with the years. Brushstrokes we see as almost blue, such as the shadows along the tree trunks in the sheltering, flower-flecked forest of Undergrowth with Two Figures, may once have been purple. His work has continued to change, fading and altering even as his reputation has grown and grown. It’s a timely reminder that the Van Gogh we know is in some ways our own creation, our completion of a work the artist was unable to finish.