07 April 2010

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 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.


Elisabeth said...

I see your point although I admit I like his pen and ink drawings a lot and several of his late paintings. Still I think no one can challenge Picasso for overratedness. Georgia O'Keeffe is a close competitor in the lack of basic skills category.

Nice to see you blogging again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce - it's me again - Jon from France - a year down the road. I disagree about Van Gogh - this was created by the intelligensia (with reason in my opinion) after he died. He was just a parson - who committed suicide - just before he mebbe made it big, but still :

I met Van Gogh on the road to Tarascon, and seized him by the arm, "Vincent", I've come back from the future - they've made you big – one of the greatest artists who ever lived !

He was concentrated, on his idea for a canvas, "The painter on the road to Tarascon”.

“I've had the breaks I need – met some impressionists and some other great painters in Paris, came to the South and got the dazzling colour idea, even the failed "Yellow house" community with my friend Gauguin – all served, don't feel sorry for me – well, you can if you like – that helps the legend I don't even care about all that - I just want - I've just got to paint.

Mike said...

Look, we're all subject to reactionary spasms now and then, but for shame, man! this has to be one of the most ridiculous, wrong-headed pieces of tripe it's ever been my misfortune to read. (What were you smoking in Amsterdam? I'd lay off the indicas and ask for a good sativa blend next time.)

Point for point, i.e., drawing, "artistic effort," divisionist technique, color poetry,--and why leave out composition and overall pictorial impact--you are wrong, wrong, and pompously wrong. And you could hardly have counterpointed it all more fittingly than with the link to that Guerin. Were there no good Bouguereaus on view?

Bruce said...

"mike" ... shouting and mocking merely shows you have no credible opinion on the subject. you've succumbed so far to decades of hype and misinformation that an alternative view actually upsets you. which usually signifies a person with few real convictions of their own ...

MichaelJA said...

Wow, this is remarkable. Last year I started watercolor painting with really no prior knowledge of it with the way watercolor is used. The teacher I had for a short time played up on Van Gogh, having me purchase Letter's To Theo, and his book on drawings.

I kept thinking there was something wrong with me because I was not impressed and found it a hard time going through his book of drawings.

Maybe I'm just not educated enough? Haven't been in college so maybe this is why?

Then I just read this and finally feel I'm not alone in my feelings about his work, that maybe I have an educated enough eye to know and understand what differentiates excellence from hype.

Thank you Bruce for seeing the Emperor naked as well!

Anyway I just joined your blog so I still have much to read.

Anonymous said...

I love that last comment.

I do agree. The emperor has no clothes.

One point though is that some of his paintings have faded as you noted with the irises; I suspect the same deterioration of the paint pigments has happened to the aforementioned potato painting.

I also visited many museums this past year and have to admit I did not like one piece of work at the Van Gogh museum. The funny thing is that one of my favorite pieces I saw prior to that was the self portrait of Van Gogh at the Musee d'Orsay. The blue background in that painting was surreal.

Overall though, I must agree. Van Gogh is not a great painter, nor even a good one. This goes for Picasso as well. I think I disliked the Picasso museum even more than Van Gogh.

Anonymous said...

Fact of the matter is, when you see a van gogh painting, you FEEL something. I don't even know what it is that you feel, it's a strange mixture of feelings, as strange as his colour use and technique.
As for being overrated..... He shot himself in the chest, seeing himself as a complete and utter failure.
If anything, he was underrated.

Anonymous said...

wow that is insane... to not recognize van gogh as a great is very sad... i feel sorry for ya mate, no offence

Sam Zumwalt said...

Yeah the world must be wrong because you don't get it. That is it. I cannot speak intelligently on art like you can, maybe I decided to devote my formidable years studying more relevant studies that fit my personality, i.e. literature, woodworking, webdesign, etc; however I do know how a painting makes me feel when I see it. I really knew very little about art (and nearly as much now) when I first saw a impressionist and post-impressionist exhibit at MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) earlier this year. I was dragged there by a girl and had very little interest in art, but much interest in her. I had never really been exposed to any of the paintings or artist prior to that night, but after having spent time walking around and examining each piece, I was enthralled by Van Gogh and Edouard Manet. I do not know why, but I was. After that night I went home and googled both and fell in love with each ones works. For me "Masked Ball at the Opera" (which was there) and "Night Cafe" (which was not there.) Turned out to be two of my favorite paintings.

To my point, I suppose. When I was in college I was told that I was to love William Faulkner, but for me he was long winded and just downright boring, but that does not mean that I can say he is overrated. I know what he wrote about was different and had its own merits. I would much rather read something else, but does not mean I am going to slag off Faulkner because I do not get it. Art is subjective, but saying someone is overrated is not. In your/this blog you have made a very weak point citing where all of these artist are better technically than Van Gogh, but what you left out is the way that he makes people feel when you see his painting. If millions of people feel somehting when they see his works than that alone means he is not overrated. You just don't get it and there is nothing wrong with that, I don't get William Faulkner.

Bruce said...

sam, i'm glad conformity and sensitive feelings help you with the girls. but "not getting it" is assuming what you have to prove.

unlike you, i have actually seen most of van gogh's publicly displayed canvases *in person* (in european and usa museums, along with three major touring exhibitions). i've actually stood in front of the paintings and examined their impact with my own eyes. i also understand how painting is done, and specifically how painting was done in the 19th century. i've read van gogh's letters in the unabridged collection. my summary judgment is that van gogh is a trainwreck marketed as a tragedy, and ineptitude marketed as innovation.

certainly "feeling" is something art inspires in some people. but there is a difference between feeling inspired by sentimentality and an awesome reputation, and feeling inspired by intelligent taste and good culture. the only way you will know which is which is actually to see and study the paintings you want to talk about, rather than look at them online and read about them in books. that is a point that many other commenters here have missed as well.

Marianna said...


Enjoyed your commentary on VanGogh and I totally agree. I have also seen many paintings by VanGogh, Picasso, Seuarat, Klimt, Gughan, Michelangelo, and many others. As an example there were many artists in Musee d'Orsey that were much better then VanGogh hanging near his exhibit. I remember being surprised how unfinished his paintings looked. And how they lacked depth and expression especially ompared to the others.
I sort of felt that way about the Mona Lisa, although small dark and exquisitely painted it left me cold. Although I would not call Leonardo DaVinci overrated just the Mona Lisa.

The art world makes it's own heroes and I often shake my head in amazement at which artists are elevated and which are not.

I do believe the age of civil discourse is long past and most people would rather bully a dissenting voice then sit down and have a reasonable well informed debate. For it is SO much easier to follow popular opinion then have an informed one of their own.

Long live Ignorance and Anti-intellectualism! And bravo to you for having a dissenting voice.


Anonymous said...

Now I'm just going to say that this is only me. You need not listen to my view and how I look at visual art. Because if you asked me to tell you what visual art is, I would reply with:” I do not know". I paint my work with colours and waves that follow the emotion of the happiness and pain I have experienced in my life. Van Gogh was not an artist who's work I saw first. I saw the mona lisa first. And if we are going to be Neo classicists or renaissance men then we would comment that its a nice painting, but in terms of it being Leonardo’s work, it probably the most overrated painting ever, compared to his Madonna of the rocks which is just unbelievably good. Van Gogh's work I can admit was never as structurally or technically as brilliant as turner or Rembrandt’s. But my God that man could colour. His natural mastery over colour and me observing his paintings after seeing starry night helped me build a natural sense of colour and optical blending to the point where I made the best and most colorful watercolor painting in my class by marks. (im such a prat XD I got 100%) But you must understand that the man was seriously ill. And to do what he did. To create beautiful blends of colour and to paint the world in emotion is just so wonderful. You cant judge that. Skill aside, some people strike a chord in everybody. Just because the non artistic public promotes him does not mean based on them we should consider him a Lou Reed or untalented sod. Many artists made works for the public as well as themselves. So why should we be complaining about this man not being as skilled as Da Vinci or turner and yet receives gratitude which you deem unnecessary. If you were a visual art scholar you would find that other visual art opinions would be more politically important than the general public who for the most part would have no authority in art because they have not studied what makes works of visual art in all the spectrums of the mind. ( I have no opinion on who should be judge or jury in the art world because they are all very biased, its only opinion) But He was him. He painted like no other. If you asked Rembrant to pain his image he could copy it, but he could not paint like him. Get what I’m saying? I would stand by him not as an artist but as a human being. Free and wild as the unlimited reaches of our minds. Which leads me back to before. Not all artists need to be as skilled with merit as turner. Many have chosen to break off from it and create what they love, not the perfection of skill. and they let others opinions be secondary. For that desire for skill perfection is another form of art entirely. It does not dominate all. I can't truly say what art is as a whole and neither can you. So as long as effort is put in and a passion exists, neither of us can say anything. Only our biased opinions. One that I try to avoid.

I doze off sometimes when I type so some things may or may not connect or be completely explained.


Bruce said...

it *is* remarkable how clichés reassert themselves despite disavowals. why does it matter that van gogh was "seriously ill" and unknown? it doesn't matter that titian or rubens were seriously wealthy and famous. does an artist get credit for being sick, poor and ignored, instead of being healthy, rich and famous? where does that value system lead us?

the more important issue is this emphasis on "he was him ... free and wild." actually, no. van gogh took on painting the way most people take on homework ... diligent, plodding, repetitive, overserious. read the letters.

far from being a "master of color" (another cliché premise), van gogh memorized a few complementary color formulas handed down from academics like chevreul and applied them in the most laughably literal minded and routine way. he doesn't converse with color, or explore color, he lays it on like spackle.

and speaking of spackling, run your eyes over that sunflower painting above and tell me about its wonderful sense of color. the point is absolutely not about "skill perfection" (another cliché premise). the point is about art, and whether marketing myths have any part in it.

of course, nobody wishes ill on dear dead vincent, and you're welcome to queue for three hours to stare at his impoverished and relict works if that is what it takes to "stand by him as a human being". be sure you buy the catalog too. that purchase alone is probably sufficient to ensure that vincent's fame rings eternal among the wild, free, sick and poor who are the real artists among us.

will that be cash, or card?

Anonymous said...

Picasso or Andy warhol were waaaaaaayyyyyy more overrated.
Should never of been given the accolades or coverage
bestowed upon them.

Sibsy said...

I agree that Van Gogh is probably as famous as he is due, in part, to his tragic life story. But I wouldn't say he is overrated as an artist.

I don't know every Van Gogh painting (and the sunflower one sure isn't my favorite) but I know if I walk into a room in a museum and there's a Van Gogh there, that is the very first place my eye will go. I've stood before his paintings, heart arrested, before even glancing at the name. Now, I like many artists quite a lot, and I think some have "technical" skills that might be better, but I don't think you can beat Van Gogh for instant, visceral, emotional impact.

Technically speaking, you can't compare Van Gogh to a Gauguin, or a Renoir, or a Da Vinci. Why would you? They are clearly coming from different contexts, and pretty clearly had different intentions in their paintings. Was Manet, with "Olympia," going for an anatomically representational nude with clean lines and supple blending? Warm skin and the most realistic silk sheets? Obviously not. Since he didn't use those technical skills, it doesn't mean he's "worse" than Titian with "Urbino." (It's an oversimplification of the argument, but just an example.) I would certainly allow that I don't think there are many people around today who have the training or skill to do what a 16th century Italian master could do. But they're not trying to, either. With someone whose style is so wildly different, I think trying to force technical comparisons is irrelevant.

Everyone has tastes when it comes to art. I love me some Manet, Vermeer, Zurburan, Marc, Cezanne (and yeah, Van Gogh)... I'll stare for ages at an Irish illuminated manuscript, or a Cretan wall mural, or daydream about lunch in front of a Dutch still life. On the other hand, I think Egon Schiele is gross, Seurat is boring, and Renoir had a sickly colour pallete (for the most part. I kind of dig some of his landscapes). That's just my taste.

But you seem to be arguing vehemently that it ISN'T a matter of taste - that Van Gogh is a fraud, and anyone who respectfully disagrees is ignorant, conformist, and leans towards cliche tastes. Whoa, buddy.

I have to say... as I was reading your post, the feeling I came away with was that you dislike Van Gogh - not because everyone likes him undeservedly - but because everyone else likes him, period. Did he go a little too "mainstream" for you, perhaps?

Again, it's totally fine to not like someone's style. But this "museum visitors are sheep!" rhetoric rings a little false. Disliking something just because it's popular doesn't make you smarter or more unique or extra-discerning. It just makes you a slave to culture in a different way. Like what you like, hate what you hate, but let other people do the same without weirdly accusing them of mass-consumerism.

(I guess I am ready to be accused of anti-intellectualism, now?)

Bruce said...

hmmm ... to the previous, i would say picasso and perhaps warhol are *overpriced*, which is different from being overrated. valuation in terms of money gets you into the whole koons/sherman/murikami thing of art as industrial product, which flies the flag of "what do i care what art is, i only know what it costs."

van gogh is symptomatic of the valuation of art as an expression of the human spirit getting sucked into the vampire gut of marketing. the price of his paintings is irrelevant to his reputation -- something you cannot say about that womanizing toreador picasso, whom we love for his bandy legs and bullying personality.

van gogh is symptomatic of marketing's boast to create all value out of itself, out of the mechanism of bullshit, and its promise to polish any turd into common coin or crown jewel, take your pick. even a turd like a van gogh painting.

Bruce said...

and to sibsy ... is this really what they are teaching at university nowadays? explaining to people what they *can* or *cannot* say, what is *fine* or *not fine* to believe?

if you knew how to read, you would address the several specific points where i claim van gogh's reputation is either undeserved or manufactured, and the direct line i draw between this poverty of merit and the overriding influence of marketing, aka bullshit, in his iconic reputation ... as in many dimensions of modern valuation and ritual obeisance.

you're mistaken: i don't judge art on technical skill per se. (da vinci was a clever technician but a ghastly artist.) art is a quality of performance that arises from the spiritual in the same way that weeping is a quality of performance that arises from the visceral. you learn to see fake art, without an intellectual mechanism or linguistic elaboration or the folderol of political correctness, in the same way you learn to see hypocrisy in people.

van gogh had a conception of art as a form of career that required study, hard work and lots of practice -- that is the core of his "artistic vision". dutiful to his vision, he built himself a cage wheel and ran on it every day. he suffered, he died -- by suicide or accidental shooting is unclear. but no matter. marketing came along, wrapped him in a crucifixion myth of neglect and suffering, and the martyrdom legend was born -- the book, the film, the fame, and of course the posthumous gush of fortune.

marketing will continue to turn the crank on its profit hurdygurdy, and profit will squeak with the same impoverished music as the little gerbil spinning its little wheel. that is the awakening that each of us must come to as an individual: the realization that the queue, the crowd, the reverence, the reputation, are all manufactured, miraculously, from myth.

Gary said...

Hiya Bruce

Wow, what a great blog.

Re: Van Gogh, I couldn't agree with you more.

My immediate reaction when I was exposed to Van Gogh's work in art college was that my lecturers were trying to sell me snake oil and I immediately balked at this type of proselytism. (Suffice to say, this didn't make me popular with my lecturers, Bruce!)

I still feel that way to this day.

The whole industry that's developed around Vincent has quite a propaganda machine, doesn't it? (as some of the comments you've got on here prove)

Oh well...!

Thanks once again for an amazingly engaging and articulate blog entry.


Anonymous said...

A big thank you for your blog. I have not studied art but i know what i like and every time i would see a van gogh i just could not see why he was regarded in some quarters as the greatest artist who has ever existed - unfortunately, i could never put my thoughts into words, and one would have to be careful what one said as if you said you just did not 'get' van gogh, you would be laughed at and told you did not know what you were talking about. what i do know is the great marketing swindle, and the art world is perhaps one of the most efficient exponents. How could we lesser mortals argue with such 'experts' for example the Wildenstein dynasty! Anyway, I digress. A marvellous blog abd more power to you - the voice of reason.

Anonymous said...

Some people can't think for themselves. Van Goh is interesting and fun, but nothing as special as he is built up to be.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!!! :-))))

Anonymous said...

thank you Bruce. I just came back from my first van gogh exhibit and came away with the same impression as you. One painting actually looked like a poorly done paint by number kit. And I agree. Sometimes the paint looks like it was put on with a spackling knife and not blended.

Alex Nery said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your analysig of Van Gogh, both as a fabricated myth and as an inept artist. Howevever, you also said Da vinci was a ghastly artist, and I was wondering why exactly is that. I understand his fame as a painter is way beyond his actual achievements, but the word you used to me seems a little overboard. Could you clarify on that?

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the debate is that everyone seems to see things in black and white. My own subjective take on Van Gogh is that he made some amazingly powerful paintings, and some amazingly amateurish paintings. I'll agree that he is overrated, and that there is a strange marketing hype built up around his tragic life that colors the way people view his art. Putting all that aside, some of his work is quite wonderful.

I have been fortunate to see 70 - 80 of his paintings and drawings in person. About a dozen of which completely floored me. There's a self-portrait from 1887 which is utterly haunting. That one painting says more about the troubled soul of the artist than all the books, movies, and marketing about him ever could. (And here the mythos of the "tortured artist" is not just marketing hype, it is the subject of this painting. A painting of a human being suffering through something inexplicable. There are also several paintings of his which I found laughably bad and thought smugly to myself, "I can do better than that".

Bruce, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through the handprint website and the wealth of information it contains. It seems rather obvious that you are a very "left-brained" person. It also seems that Van Gogh was probably a "right-brained" person, so it makes sense that you can't see past the sometimes clumsy (though usually emotive) application of paint, and the often (but not always) simplistic color schemes. Van Gogh, viewed from a technical point of view, was not a very good painter, but that's not what his art is about. Its about the freedom of expression, in search of something. And yes, as you mentioned he studied art like a kid diligently doing homework. But when he was in front of his easel (especially during the last year of his life) some other force was moving him than the one moving him while he was writing his letters to Theo. He may not be as great as some people argue, but besides paving the way out of impressionism and into expressionism, he did create at least a few great artworks.

Bruce said...

i'm delighted to encounter an opinion formed, as mine is, from actually standing in front of 100 or more of van gogh's drawings and paintings.

i decline comment on the whole "left brain, right brain" carousel because, after all, it would just be that left brain talking, right? but i get your point that, basically, i'm not a "feeling" kinda guy. before you close that book, however, i'd ask you read my two postings under may, 2010, to see how i respond to art and talk about it -- when i like it, and why.

until then, i'm curious what exactly is meant by "the freedom of expression, in search of something"? or, "some other force moving him" in front of the easel? i accept such sentiments in the generous spirit of "i'm sure you could be clearer about what you want to say, if you took the time."

aren't those sentiments part of the marketing mythology? in fact, to understand perspective, van gogh built himself a little frame divided by wires, and copied clumsily, wire square by square, the framed landscape. read in the letters how he talks about color design with simple textbook concepts. consider that the finest praise he could make to theo about a drawing is "i finished it in under an hour." does that seem to you like a mind seeking "freedom of expression"? isn't that an excuse for a hand that simply couldn't feel sensual about paint? don't the little hatchmark brushstrokes feel more like embroidery than sonnetry?

the deep issue with all of van gogh's work is that he is one of the first casualties of the modern art marketing juggernaut. review the comments above, and you'll perceive how difficult it is for people to approach and talk about van gogh's work without resorting to the large arsenal of clichés in seeing and saying that have been deployed to sell it for over a century.

i have to ask again, why is a tortured soul more interesting than a sublimely happy soul or a bodger artist more interesting than a master craftsman? aren't fretful souls and careless craftsmen really the most common and unremarkable people of all? and isn't the fact that it seems just a wee bit callous or "unfeeling" to say that part of the premise on which marketing can build its kingdom of pretense?

perhaps that is the point. the marketing juggernaut, in its early years, hit upon the marketing concept that would pave its career through the 20th century: "here, bodgers and weepers, is a man who sees as you see, feels as you feel, and even paints just the way you would paint ... if you took the time."

hannuhoo said...

Dear Bruce and fellow travelers!

Yes, artists often are unhappy creatures and may be that's what makes them tick. So, may be it is with this fellow van Gogh. He was unwell somehow. A countryman of mine, a doctor even wrote a book of Vincets illness. There he compered him with the american composer Gerhwin who had a tumor in his brain. The doctor, Kivalo was his name, thought it quite possible that this tumor could have liberated extra creative powers in already gifted people. He had other examples of similar cases. So, he thought, the behavior of van Gogh had many of same symptons. OK.

I myself have dual feelings about him as a person but I do praise him as a painter. So I have been wandering what is it that you, in many ways a praiseworthy man, don't 'get' him. Well, strictly taken, it's none of my business otherwise but one thing. But, you are, thinking of your work and blog etc. a man of influence. So I say to other passers-by that in this detail 'van Gogh' Bruce has something personal against him, ageinst his way of painting. No insult here! People just are different. Bruce has done a great job in his writings and is a fine craftsman.

But, practically speaking it can not be just a whim that so many, propably the majority of modern first class painters and artists regard Vincent van Gogh as one of the great ones. So, please be free to be your own mind in this subject.

Thank you Bruce of your great work and Good Luck in Life!

zenif3 said...

I came across this post googling for Most overrated paintings. I was expecting to find the Mona Lisa, but it surprised me to find Van Gogh on many lists. And this is why:

I'm an ignorant person, and I think that this ignorance sets me on neutral ground. I walk through galleries or museums and if something catches my eye then I care about who painted it. Then I spend some good time staring at it, getting close and far, walking away, then coming back to see if I'm impressed still. This is, for example, how I discovered Renoir, Rembrandt, etc.

So no hype in me liking Van Gogh. I'd seen some of his paintings here and there, never considering it one of my favorites, not even enjoying looking at any of his paintings. I wasn't moved by them, at all, ZERO. (I considered Monet to be my favorite).

Then last month I went to France, d'Orsay (they had the Van Gogh exposition). And oh surprise, he IS good! I only liked some of his paintings of his last 2 years. Yes, just a few, but how much I liked them! Even the ones I never liked seeing on calendars and stuff really talked to me!

And don't tell me that I should see Van Gogh through an educated eye, scholars know too much but contribute too little (what has any scholar done other than books? I think people loose focus when they study too hard something that is not meant to be studied but enjoyed. I agree that understanding methods, rules, etc. enhance the experience, but there's a balance often forgot, and why do I say it's been forgotten? Cause outstanding works are not produced, just studied! -if you can't do something better than what you say you understand, do you really understand what you say you understand?-).

Conclusion. Maybe he didn't contribute with a huge number of awesome paintings (who did anyway?) but if you take him out of history the loss would be noticeable, which would not happen if we did the same to many other painters.

Bruce said...

zenif3, your way of taking in gallery paintings is very similar to mine, except i sometimes get down on my hands and knees to use the reflections from overhead lighting to study brushwork. i don't do this with a van gogh, because he first of all makes every brushstroke plain, and second because it might be misinterpreted for genuflection.

i think you should put aside claims of ignorance or fear of the accusation of ignorance. the point i have been making all along is that van gogh is not evaluated with naive eyes but eyes polluted by marketing hype and claims by "experts" for his "influence" or "greatness".

unfortunately you conclude by asserting that "taking him out of history" would create a noticeable loss, which is exactly the claim of his influence that i have been arguing is irrelevant to evaluation of his paintings as paintings. it also presumes an expertise about art history or cultural influence that you claim you do not have. when you go further, and venture that "people lose focus when they study too hard something that is not meant to be studied" you finally do proffer opinions that suggest you don't know what you're talking about.

i don't reason from hypothetical worlds in which van gogh does not exist because they are arguments based on fiction. we have only one world, this one, as evidence, and in this world many creative early modern artists never saw paintings by van gogh and were not influenced by him if they did.

did van gogh paint some interesting, affecting paintings? sure, why not? but the bulk of his work is appallingly bad, and has been spackled over by so much art crit marketing bullshit that it is difficult to see with unbiased eyes. do any of his works rise to the stature of "outstanding"? maybe, depends, why not? but nothing that justifies the christlike personality cult and adoration of his lightstruck daubings as holy relics. the keyword here is *overrated*, and the specific claim is *most overrated*.

you seem boxed in by the presentation that you are ignorant, nevertheless you like van gogh, you won't be bullied into not liking van gogh because you're not all high falutin' and expert. i don't see how that brings you in dispute with me.

my claim is that van gogh is an art marketing profit center (as i'm sure you experienced in the crowds and retail offerings at his exhibition); that his reputation is an art marketing triumph; and that his corpus of works, shabby to begin with and diminished over the century by the consequences of his inept workmanship, is entirely disproportionate to his continued reputation.

i encourage you do two things. one is, by all means, to try to see more of van gogh than one exhibition. get to know as much of his work as you can. i would ignore expert opinion as such, but learn the answers to any specific questions the actual works put in your mind.

second, i encourage you to take a calendar or catalog or postcard into the exhibitions, and hold the reproduction up to the actual painting. if you find, as i'm sure you will, that the colors have been "corrected" and "improved" to make the painting look better than it is, then you will have the first clue to unraveling what is really the substance of the van gogh legend. and, who knows. with time, after balancing what you see in the gallery with what is reproduced and discussed in the books, your opinion of van gogh may end up being not much different from mine.

Bruce said...

to hannuhoo ... i find it difficult to take seriously the ad hominem that i have "something personal against van gogh", although i guess that english may not be your native language and therefore you don't mean that i have some grudge against van gogh as a human being, but mean that my dislike is a subjective judgment on biased evidence.

both ideas are flatly wrong.

i explicitly wave away as irrelevant every biographical aspect of van gogh. i don't care if he suffered or not, or was insane or not, or had a tumor or not, or was a good person or not, or killed himself or was shot by schoolboys. *none of that* has any bearing whatsoever on whether or not this object hanging on the wall has certain qualities. *all of that* has quite a lot to do with the marketing hype and the van gogh legend, all the bullshit rolled up over a century of art market lucre. and to the degree that you cannot talk about van gogh without bringing those issues into the discussion, or cannot look at a van gogh painting without out those issues in mind, to that degree you confess your inability to look at a van gogh painting as a painting, for what it is, and admit you've surrendered your mind to the reputation that people have put there in place of your own judgment.

so much for my possible prejudice against van gogh as a person.

i explained elsewhere, and here repeat, that i have personally stood in front of pretty much every van gogh on public display in any of the major touring exhibitions mounted since 1968 (at the LA art museum), and every work on public display in the major galleries of LA, chicago, new york, england, netherlands, france, germany, italy, switzerland as circumstances arranged, either as a loaner, an item in permanent collection, or a touring show. point is not that i have seen every work, but i have seen a lot. no digital enhancement, no burbling audioguide superlatives; just the works, me, and a one to two meter separation.

so much for biased evidence.

here is where you, not i, veer into subjectivity. i ask how you know that "the majority of first class artists" regard van gogh as "one of the great ones", or if you just venture that as your personal opinion. i have studied the lives and work of many modern painters, and i don't recall van gogh floating to the top of their hit lists.

anyway, here are *my* opinions: first, if you made a list of the top ten artists as the source of revenues in art publishing, art exhibitions, and art auctions, van gogh will be near the top, if not in first place. fortunately, my opinion has a basis in fact:


second, if you made a list of artists with the widest influence in the history of painting, in terms of one artist influenced by another -- as giotto did before cimabue, or rubens did before titian -- then van gogh would be very far down the list, probably below 50th place. if you look into it, you will find that the direct and documented influence of van gogh on another artist is, in fact, rare, limited, and parcel of post impressionism as a heterogeneous movement.

third, my claim is that the discrepancy between the first number and the second number is larger for van gogh than for any other painter in the canon.

fourth, my claim is that the discrepancy is almost entirely due to the art marketing of van gogh as the new testament god of a demotic art mythology that has its roots fundamentally in the nurturing soil of profit, art profit, the profit of selling people goods at false value.

so much for subjective judgment.

Trevor West said...

Is Van Gogh overrated? He is rated as highly as he should be given the amount of love people have for his work. I suppose I can understand that not everyone will like a particular artist's work. Still, anyone that can't enjoy Van Gogh, I feel sorry for that person. Some of his work is mediocre, but the style he developed at the end of his life is not. For me, some his paintings are the most beautiful works of art that I have ever seen.

I am unhappy with the assertion that art must satisfy a technical qualification to be considered good. It's backwards. What is plain and simple is that his work is absolutely beautiful. Perhaps you should stop thinking about it like some robotic art critic, and see it for what it really is.

TheWrathofShane said...

I am glad that you sir were able to logically explain why Van Gogh sucks. Its like it gets shoved in our face that he was great and we should like it, be inspired by it, ect.

I think Van Gogh is the Justin Bieber for the rich and educated. He didnt sell in his own time for a very good reason.. Only after he dies do the stuffy richers immortalized his garbage.

Is justin Bieber any good? The millions of screaming girls says yes, the rest of the world says no. Its the same syndrome but for the rich and educated.

Its not just Van Gogh either, happens all the time. Hype syndrome.

john nemaric said...

Yep it's the emperors no clothes thing. When you have amazing painting duplicators who can paint identical copies of the masterpieces, so close that experts have trouble picking them ( and then have to rely on provenance to sort them out), then it proves that the life led, has nothing to with the painting.

Having said, he was pretty good. The greatest - well it's all very subjective. Just for the record Gaugan and Lautrec both appreciated his paintings.

Bruce said...

i'm doubt that the falsifiability of an artwork or the ready duplication of an art style is a useful measure of its quality, and of course citing the opinion of Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec (note spellings) is just another instance of letting an exported brain think for your own.

my question is: how many van gogh paintings have you actually seen -- up close and personal, in the flesh, with your own eyes?

a large part of the van gogh myth rests on manipulated images and small format, false color reproduction -- which incidentally destroys the visceral impact of looking at his scabby, fretted and amateurish painting surface.

Anonymous said...

What a insane conversation. This is a conversation that misses perspective. He may not even be know had he produced these works at a different time. He changed or at least was a part of changing what was considered art or good art.

That is one point. The other is that a lot of his work had a strange energy to it. For instance the painting of the madhouse garden. Even if someone captured this type of energy today, they may be relevant, but to do it when it was considered garbage makes it much more incredible.

Bruce said...

it's true that van gogh might not be known if he painted, say, in the 16th century. but the true interest of your first point is in what's called reception. in fact, i don't know of an inclusive historical study of the van gogh reception, looking chronologically at critical opinion, sales, collectors, galleries, valuations and monographs that have built van gogh from the 19th century eccentric into the juggernaut "product" he has become today. being played by kirk douglas in the biographical film based on the biographical best seller can't hurt.

your other point is more elusive, because it implicitly asks "what is art?" but it's also suggestive that you loop via your example back into van gogh's biography (his bouts of madness). this opens the floodgates of pathos, pity, romance, hyperbole and fabrication that have floated his reception for over a century.

my reformulation of your comments would be: would we know of van gogh today, or appreciate his "strange energy", without all the marketing that has been used to build his reputation, without the mythic biography that has provided the stone and mortar for the construction?

Anonymous said...

So you are asking if he would still be so famous if he wasn't so famous. It's like trying to figure out if Tupac is considered one of the greats because of his work or because of how he was marketed. A Tupac being a great example as an early influencer of rap and a fan of Van Gogh himself.

Bruce said...

it's interesting that you appeal to an artificial circular argument to deny that we can first identify a famous person, then determine how and why they became famous.

reception history is not an arcane practice, and it could very easily sort out the relative importance of artistic originality, influence on other artists, salon reception, critical opinion, market valuation, elites, money, art auctions, fictional biography, mass image manufacture, media acclaim and blockbuster museum shows. more accurately than, say, in the case of picasso, because van gogh had absolutely no choice and played no role in the matter (being dead, and despite that pathetic backstory).

i've just provided a topic outline for such a study; i've made a constructive suggestion that could test my claim that van gogh is first and foremost a marketing success story. you seem to feel something is missing from the comments above and this missing perspective is, apparently, that we just take fame at face value. but isn't that the essential premise of the "van gogh product" marketing strategy?

Anonymous said...

Van Gough overrated ???!!!!
ahahahahahah ..what a pile of garbage.
A critic wanna be over here ...VG painted with his heart and sole and the simplicity of his work is WHY he is considers genius. thanks for the good laugh.

Mike Rodent said...

It's funny how "reified" gushing reverence for VG's every creation has become.

Many of the things people say about him, such that he supposedly for the first time brought feelings directly to the canvas, thus overturning what "every" artist prior to him had ever done, are demonstrably untrue. You have dared to go back and point out something which was said and thought by contemporaries (who didn't rate him), to wit that his drafting skills leave a lot to be desired. Does that matter? No, not necessarily.

But I'd compare him with someone like Turner: are we really saying, by the way, that Turner "never brought feelings to the canvas" and "just painted like a camera"? But, strange to say, you will hardly ever seem human figures in any of T's paintings. And having seen this one, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-garreteers-petition-n00482, in an art gallery once, I can say without much hesitation that, great as he was, Turner could not paint figuratively. Which limitation, if such it be (and I think it is one), constrained his art into particular avenues which we now rightly say prefigured Impressionism and much 20th Century art.

Similarly, I think VG's limitations as an artist made him take up a new avenue, and in some way it may well be that to be lacking in recognised qualities forces an artist to find their own "new way". The result can be good, bad or indifferent, or something which you can call all 3 or none of the above, often depending on your mood and generosity.

The previous commenter said that VG "painted with his heart and sole". I didn't realise he was quite that revolutionary: Jackson Pollock (wow it's suddenly getting very fishy) eat your heart out.

Bruce said...

you've raised some interesting points, but i question the concept that turner labored under "limitations" rather than something more like lack of interest. in his time landscape figures were generic staffage, and one could buy crib books of engravings of stock figures in stock poses to copy. why bother with anything more complicated, when your main interest is light and landscape? (yes, i know about the carnal sketchbooks. different topic i think.)

it's also interesting to consider the claim that van gogh "brought feelings" to the canvas. as you say that's obviously false (the vigor of titian's portraits, the sadness in rembrandt's "bathsheba", the joy in hals, the spirituality in vermeer, etc.), so the question becomes what kind of feeling van gogh introduced ... on that point all the folklore about the poor suffering artist struggling in obscurity to realize his vision is probably a good clue to the answer.

an even more interesting question is whether it was really van gogh or the fictions of reputation marketing that brought those feelings.

art history seems complex to me, and for every artist breaking new ground stylistically, you have new technologies like cameras or lithographs or industrial pigments, new social trends like anarchism and socialism, new art markets, salons, shaping expectations and novelties.

Mike said...

You're a man after my own heart: +1 for Tiziano di Cadore/Titian in particular... yes, I'm a massive fan (worth 20 Canaletti any day) and +1 again for Vermeer.

I had to google for these Turner erotic sketches you mention... although I have a very faint feeling of deja vu from somewhere... OK fair enough: probably lack of interest, as you say, although painting faces and figures is another story to just sketching bodies...

"Reputation marketing"... yes, as you said a year ago in this thread, untwining the "real" VG from the powerful Hollywood myth-making purveyed courtesy of Vincent Minelli and Kirk Douglas is no doubt impossible to do. I'd be really interested in knowing what the general public's and contemporary artists' views of VG were *before* that film came out... in fact I think I had a bit of a google and there's an interesting bit in Wikipedia which says that his "first peak" was before WWI, when people were impressed by ... his letters. Hmmm...

Bruce said...

the film is based on the 1934 biographical novel by irving stone, his first, which i enjoyed reading in my teens. if i remember correctly, the novel is based on the van gogh letters in the german translation. in fact the case can be made that van gogh's popularity was actually due to the letters, and in no small part to stone's book, and the art was then harmonized with the portrait they created.