07 April 2010

art preoccupations in europe

my main interest has been in learning how to take photos and videos using only the iphone camera, which turns out to be very handy, wide angled but capable of macro, color accurate and very responsive to changes in light.

i tried to paint watercolors plein air twice in venice, but was driven back before i could finish a painting by the extreme cold air and wind. on one day i soon could not feel the brush in my hands. rain and a very busy schedule have kept me from painting in london.

museums in london are receptive to sketchers, so i've been drawing in the national and portrait galleries, and in the victoria & albert. i bought some charcoal pencils and a set of black felt tip pens, but the felt tip pens have yielded fun results, such as this drawing from a very large painting of an irish female politician in the portrait gallery.

i've sharpened my sense of color by looking at art by many different hands from many different historical and national styles. my appreciation of kandinsky, klee, degas and many of the old masters such as titian, chardin and gainsborough has gone up, and my interest in surrealism has waned. the berlin modern exhibition of "degenerate" painters was painful to look at. there was a stark difference in all periods between the painters whose colors seem trustworthy and painters whose works have lost their original balance and appear quite dark or oddly imbalanced. the paintings by joshua reynolds, with their ghostly white faces (all the carmine pigment has faded) are especially easy to recognize.

i've had a great time with my wife. we share for a while, split up, get back together to exchange enthusiasms and observations, and so on, with many nice respites in the museum cafes. (the restaurants in the tate modern and national portrait gallery are especially fine.)

i've gotten a peculiar sense of the enormity and intricacy of historical time, through the large number of buildings and artifacts and historical items we've seen over the past eight weeks, including the domestic items in the science museum in london. a sense of how many lives have poured forth onto the planet and how long they have worked to dig, pile, scrape, fire and cultivate all these things preserved from dust.

and these items have a cumulative flavor that is very different from mass produced items that pile up everywhere in our contemporary environment. a reverent, almost mystic aura surrounds them, like the relic bones, teeth, hair and larger corpse parts of saints that are stored in the churches of venice, st. mark's in particular. against this dreary backdrop the paintings with a living force and honesty shine out miraculously.

is van gogh the most overrated painter -- ever?

i'm posting from europe, during a month long stay in london after a month long stay in venice separated by two weeks in amsterdam and berlin. i've seen a lot of art again during this trip, up close and leisurely, and many amazing paintings, including a figure nude by charles guérin that was a wonder of reverent, glowing color.

but having seen the van gogh museum in amsterdam and the latest show of paintings and letters at the royal academy, london ("the real van gogh"), i have to ask: is van gogh the most overrated painter — ever?

set aside the critical propaganda and popular reception, go through any comprehensive van gogh exhibition, and just look at what's on the wall. can anyone look at one of those works, pick any one you want, and seriously say that it contains an exemplary artistic effort?

the academy "real van gogh" had many of his drawings, and it is painfully obvious that they were done without "the joy of the hand". they consist almost entirely of an early period of clumsy figures and wispy, almost smeary graphite shading, followed by a period in which entire drawings are built up of emphatic, obsessive dots and dashes that seem more intended to blemish the whiteness than create an image. the same dots and dashes serve for grass, bark, leaves and sky (easier and faster that way) ... indeed, in a letter to his brother he actually boasted of his slapdash technique ("done in ONE hour!"). after an early serious attempt in paris to master figure drawing, van gogh seemed just to give up on the challenge; his later figures and portraits are crudely and ineptly drawn. i caution that the images of his drawings you can find online are carefully selected as the most attractive. to my eye they also have been photoshopped to improve contrast. the drawings at the academy show were the representative originals — smudgy, faded and much less appealing.

some of the paintings were so ghastly that they looked like the work of a secondary school student. his divisionist technique has none of the fluency, complexity or subtlety of degas, signac or seurat, and his sense of visual color mixture and paint texture is far below what monet or gauguin put in play. his landscapes are spackled with paint the way wayne thiebauld paints desserts -- but this has a very different impact when used to represent clouds instead of pastries. his color poetry is infantile compared to degas (especially in the exquisite pastels at the musée d'orsay), and compared to manet or sargent he completely lacked any sense of darks and lights.

color poetry? brushwork mastery? artistic vision? -- really?

van gogh relied on a variety of artistic crutches, including a wired picture frame to help him see basic perspective — little wonder that he retreated into a "japanese" perspective flatness. he adopted a grade school  conception of "color theory" that was far cruder than anything a talented painter would tolerate; as a result his original colors were garish and clangorous, regardless of the motif or light. to borrow a quip from picasso: that highlight on the sunflower vase is not light, it is merely a dreary slather of faded paint.

and speaking of original colors and faded paint ... van gogh's paintings can't be trusted, or are known to have badly altered, because he was negligent and uninformed in his choice of fugitive pigments. he did not paint brown and ochre sunflowers in front of pale green walls, but what he did paint will be forever lost to you. that is, unless photoshop comes to the rescue — as it routinely does in every van gogh print and art monograph i have seen.

both museums made explicit mention of this problem and, at the time of my visit, the amsterdam van gogh museum had a full wall display on the issue. on display there was an early painting of potatoes that is almost entirely black on black. no, i don't mean it is dark. i mean the potatoes are black, the table is black, the wall behind is black. the painting image has been heavily photoshopped -- like a fashion magazine model — in this image; i suspect it may even be an image taken decades ago. the actual painting is much darker and nearly illegible. it's even a junior badge of sophistication among art connoisseurs to know that the grayed background in the new york met's iris painting was originally pink, not white, a fugitive carmine that has long ago flown home to baby jesus.

the saving twist for posterity is that he wrote a relentless epistolary narrative about his implacable efforts, wide experiments and messianic suffering to make himself into an artist -- those letters! all those heartwarming, earnest, utterly humorless but highly quotable letters about the holy mission of art and his devout penitent efforts to make himself spiritually worthy! one can in fact document a direct connection between the translation and publication of the letters, the fervent evangelizing by a coterie of "apostles," and the rise of van gogh's reputation as an artist. somewhere between the recluse who couldn't sell his work and the bloated myth romanticized by irving stone and fleshed out in film by kirk douglas, the art marketing juggernaut of the van gogh myth was born. and it's been rolling over gullible, conforming eyes ever since.

the nub of the van gogh legend (carefully lifted from the letters) was that he had the persistence, diligence and self presentation of the adult combined with the artistic talent of a child. this became a two pronged marketing message: (1) sweat hard enough and even you can become great; (2) childlike earnestness is all you need for talent. that manchild chemistry, atavistic, yearning and contrarian, makes him easy to market to the modern ethos. and mass marketing was in full flow at both museums, which put on sale a great variety of van gogh merchandising, prints, postcards and publications.

will that be cash, or card?

indeed, van gogh's entire fame now seems to rest on his marketability, both in the auction art market and in museum exhibition attendance, in dollar sales and wholly conventional esteem. sort of because it was something one expects to do on vacation in london, i stood in line for three hours to get into the academy show — actually i, my wife and a visiting friend took turns at the queue while the other two retired to nearby fortnum & mason for refreshment.

it's remarkable how the crowds make the fame and the fame makes the crowds. look at the stupefying length of this line! look at how huge is the van gogh museum in amsterdam! look at all those authoritative, lavish books! listen to the reverent blandishments of the audioguide! how could he not be great? no, greater than great -- immortal!

the royal academy show is the last van gogh exhibition i will ever see. i realized this when i admitted to myself that there are perhaps only two van gogh paintings i would look forward to seeing again, ever (neither was in the london show). but there are many paintings i hope to see again many times, or that i regret probably never seeing again ... such as that luminous guérin figure nude, perky pink in a green hat, which lacking critical blandishment will likely go back into storage at the hermitage in leningrad.