January 2006


Van Gogh at His Eye-Opening Best

Michelle Marder Kamhi

I have attached great value to drawing and will continue to, because it is the backbone of painting, the skeleton that supports all the rest. --Vincent van Gogh

When Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890, at the age of thirty-seven, he had been working at his art for only a decade and was a virtual unknown. Yet within a decade, his sister-in-law could write in her diary: "It is a feeling of indescribable triumph--when I think that it has come at last--the appreciation" from "those who used to laugh at Vincent and poke fun at him."

Surprisingly, it was van Gogh's drawings, not his now more familiar paintings, that were largely responsible for his initial public esteem. One Dutch critic, reviewing an early exhibition of his work, wrote: "It may be accepted as certain that, in the future, the artist, who died young, will receive attention primarily for his drawings." History has proven him wrong. But an extraordinary exhibition which recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art eloquently testified to the validity of his prediction. Previously shown at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it offered a rare opportunity for art lovers to experience the manifold rewards of van Gogh's draughtsmanship. In contrast with his paintings, striking for their rough yet powerful execution, his drawings often exhibit a remarkable subtlety and finesse and are masterworks in their own right.

In the brief span of a decade, van Gogh had set out to master the art of drawing, which he rightly deemed "the root of everything" in the visual arts. "I really believe one must learn to draw in such a way that it becomes as easy as writing," he wrote. Just how well he succeeded was attested by the many affecting works in this exhibition, works ranging from his intense Self-Portraits (compare the painted version from the Met's collection, which was exhibited alongside) and the touching Girl with a Pinafore (also called Young Girl in an Apron) [more] to the richly detailed Carpenter's Yard and Laundry and Harvest in Provence.

Admirably sponsored by United Technologies Corporation, this first major exhibition of van Gogh drawings in America was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see many of these works, as drawings are jealously guarded by their owners and curators to preserve them from the damaging effects of light. Also illuminating was an accompanying gem of an exhibition, In Line with Van Gogh, which sampled graphic works by artists who inspired him (from Rembrandt to Daumier), as well as by his immediate contemporaries.

Largely self-taught, van Gogh learned from sources as diverse as the academic drawing manuals of Charles Bargue, the etchings of Rembrandt, and nineteenth-century Japanese woodcuts by such masters as Hokusai and Hiroshige. In the process, he developed a distinctively expressive style, intensified by the reed pens he ingeniously fashioned for himself out of local plants, during his sojourn in the south of France. There his art came to its fullest fruition.

One of the things that has made van Gogh so interesting as an artist is the voluminous written record he left, articulating--often eloquently--what he aimed for in his art and how he went about attaining it. Both the exhibition and the excellent accompanying catalogue have made liberal reference to his letters, greatly enriching the viewer's understanding of the creative process. For example:

. . . the problem is to find those principal lines, so that the essence is expressed in a few strokes or scratches.
I want to progress so far that people will say of my work, He feels deeply, he feels tenderly--notwithstanding my roughness, perhaps even because of it.
And what I try to acquire is not to draw a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head, but the general expression. . . . In short, life.

Such observations--as well as van Gogh's insistence that the "artistic value" of a work shouldn't "prevent the man in the street from finding something in it"--could prove instructive for artists anytime anywhere, as well as for today's artworld gurus bent on explaining "difficult art" to the masses.

Finally, those who regard van Gogh as one of the revolutionaries of modern art (and wrongly analogize from him to later iconoclasts) should be sobered by what Paul Klee had to say on the subject. Klee, who was profoundly affected by van Gogh's drawings, astutely observed that his use of line "is new and yet very old," and added: "It is more a question of reform than of revolution."

Note: For images and further information on van Gogh, see the Vincent van Gogh Gallery, an extraordinarily comprehensive site that includes sections on his complete drawings and letters; also the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. On the two Japanese artists greatly admired by van Gogh, see Ukiyo-E Gallery - Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige [and] Van Gogh.