SINCE I AM ON VACATION THOUGHT I WOULD CONTRIBUTE THIS ARTICLE
Van Gogh’s Evolution, From Neophyte to Master
By TED LOOS
There are some artists on whom the sun never sets.
Van Gogh is certainly one of them, given his status as an artist beloved by the public and revered by curators, a genius with a compelling, sad life story to boot.
“There’s always a van Gogh show on the horizon, just as there’s always Beethoven being played somewhere,” said Joseph J. Rishel, a curator of European paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who organized “Van Gogh Up Close” there earlier this year.
The latest major entry is “Becoming van Gogh” at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition, featuring 70 works by the master and 20 by other artists who inspired him, is scheduled to remain on view until Jan. 20 and does not travel to any other sites.
The show traces van Gogh’s development through the 1880s from a struggling, inhibited neophyte, represented by works like the drawings “Girl Carrying a Loaf of Bread” (1882), to a painter in full flourish who could make the shimmering “Landscape from Saint-Rémy” (1889).
Timothy Standring, the curator who organized the Denver show, has his own version of Mr. Rishel’s Beethoven analogy: “Can there be too many books about Shakespeare?”
But while van Gogh’s reputation virtually guarantees that people will flock to the show, “It’s the hardest kind of exhibition to put together,” Mr. Standring said.
The trick for curators is twofold. First, they must come up with a fresh angle on an artist who lived to be only 37 and consequently did not produce as many works, as, say, Picasso. Second, they have to secure loans of incredibly valuable artworks from museums that might be reluctant to share.
Mr. Standring called the exhibition “the most ambitious show we’ve done, as ambitious as the Libeskind building,” referring to the architect Daniel Libeskind’s striking, angular design for the addition to the museum that was completed in 2006.
He added, “We don’t even have a van Gogh in our collection.”
Mr. Standring’s first step was to make a call to Amsterdam. “When you plan a van Gogh exhibit, you need to get blessing of the Van Gogh Museum,” he said, because of its ability to lend works and share its expertise.
In discussions with Louis van Tilborgh, a senior researcher there, Mr. Standring laid out an idea for one exhibition — a focus on van Gogh’s work from 1888 — but it was deemed logistically too difficult to mount.
But his second idea, a look at van Gogh’s crucial years in Paris, became the seed of the current show, which expanded to cover a whole decade.
Mr. Standring said he wanted to give nuance to the popular perception of the artist as sui generis. “People are generally unfamiliar with anything pre-“Sunflowers” or pre-“Wheatfields,” he said, referring to two of van Gogh’s iconic later series. “We’re doing corrective art history.”
Van Gogh’s struggles with illness and the artistic flourishing of his last two years may have warped the public’s perception of his learning curve, Mr. Van Tilborgh said.
“We all think he’s a genius, but he placed a lot of value on craftsmanship. When he started, he had no talent for drawing. If you look at his early drawings, they’re horrible. So how did he develop?”
The answer, Mr. Van Tilborgh said, was persistence. “If he couldn’t do it, he tried it 50 more times. He was one of those rare artists who had the energy to work through the fear of failure.”
“Becoming van Gogh” gives particular attention to the period the artist spent in Paris, staying with his brother Theo and studying color theory.
“He was hovering in Paris for two years,” Mr. Standring said. “Maybe we’re fortunate he didn’t land. He might have turned into a second-rate Impressionist.”
Works from that period in the exhibition include “People Strolling in a Park” (1886) and “View of a Park in Paris” (1886), neither of which resembles the late-career masterpieces that made him famous after his death.
Also featured is a Paris work with a strange past: “The Blute-fin Mill” (1886). The painting — an unusual depiction of a group of people, rarely tried by Van Gogh — was bought from a dealer in Paris by the controversial Dutch curator Dirk Hannema in 1975.
Mr. Hannema, who died in 1984, believed it was van Gogh’s work, but the art world doubted him because of previous missteps — in particular, his attributions of several works to the 17th-century Dutch master Vermeer, which were later discredited.
“His reputation was so bad in the 1970s after the Vermeers,” Mr. Van Tilborgh said. “But when we investigated, we came to the conclusion that he was right about the van Gogh.” The painting was authenticated in 2010, and it was lent to Denver by the Foundation Museum in Heino, the Netherlands.
Mr. Van Tilborgh’s enthusiasm led the Van Gogh Museum to lend seven works to the show, including “Self-Portrait With Straw Hat” (1887). He also edited the catalog with Mr. Standring.
“That gave us our imprimatur,” Mr. Standring said of his attempts to pry other van Goghs out of other institutions.
One major Midwestern museum proved the hardest sell. “It took eight asks, including in-person trips, to get them to agree,” Mr. Standring said, declining to name the institution.
“You have to be prosecutor, defense attorney, psychologist, sociologist and diplomat to do this kind of show,” he added. “They don’t teach you all that in art history graduate school.”
Usually, the Van Gogh Museum tries to stagger major shows of the artist’s work at other museums, so that loans are easier to get and its own resources are not taxed.
So what Mr. Standring called “the beautiful confluence of two big van Gogh shows in a year” — his own and Mr. Rishel’s — could have caused problems all around.
But the curators played nice, which was easier given that their points of focus were different. Mr. Rishel was primarily exploring van Gogh’s perspective on nature, so the Philadelphia museum was more willing to lend an important portrait, “Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle” (1888), to Denver.
“I shared my checklist early on with Joe, and he was very generous and very cordial,” Mr. Standring said. “And I helped arrange for one picture to go to his exhibit.”
Mr. Standring added that he hoped both shows — with their highly specific, nonblockbuster approaches — would deepen an understanding of the artist.
“Maybe this represents a maturity of van Gogh exhibitions,” he said. “Thematic, instead of just a collection of great objects.”