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 the critical propaganda aside, go through either of the exhibitions, 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 show had many of his drawings, and it is painfully obvious that they are 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 dots and dashes that seem more intended to cover the page than create an image. the same dots and dashes serve for grass, bark, leaves and sky (easier and faster that way) ... indeed, he boasted to his brother of his slapdash technique ("done in ONE hour!"). after an early serious attempt to master figure drawing, van gogh seemed just to give up on the challenge; his later figures and portraits are crudely and ineptly drawn.
some of the paintings were so ghastly bad that they looked like an untalented high school student had painted them. his divisionist technique has none of the complexity or subtlety of 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 poety is infantile compared to degas, and compared to manet or sargent he completely lacked any sense of darks and lights. (the amsterdam museum has a painting of potatoes that is almost entirely black. no, i don't mean it is dark. i mean the potatoes are black, the table is black, and the wall behind is black. the painting has been heavily photoshopped -- like a fashion magazine model -- in this image; the actual image is much darker and almost illegible.)
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, and a hobby horse conception of "color theory" which was far cruder than anything that talented painters would tolerate. little wonder that he retreated into a "japanese" perspective flatness, and his colors are generally garish and clangorous, regardless of the motif or light. to borrow a quip from picasso: on the vase above, the highlight is not light, it is merely paint.
and speaking of color ... van gogh's colors can't be trusted, or are known to have badly altered, because he used fugitive paints. both museums made explicit mention of this problem with his paintings; the amsterdam van gogh museum has a full wall display on the issue. it's even a badge of sophistication among art connoisseurs to know that the white background in the new york met's iris painting was originally pink, not white. a color that has long ago flown home to baby jesus.
the saving twist for posterity is that he wrote such a long epistolary narrative about his great efforts and wide experiments 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!
the nub of van gogh was that he had the persistence, diligence and self presentation of the adult combined with the artistic outlook and talent of a child. That manchild chemistry, atavistic and yearning, 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 seems to rest on his marketability, both in the auction art market and in museum exhibition attendance. (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 -- i, my wife and a visiting friend took turns at the queue.) somewhere between the lonely suicide who couldn't sell his paintings 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.
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 fabulous guérin figure nude, perky pink in a green hat, which will go back to the hermitage in leningrad.