Thursday, October 06, 2011

Vincent in Context

I'd never been to Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum until yesterday. I't say it's worth the trip, though perhaps not for reasons they tell you in the guide book.

Thing is, it is not a parade of Vincent's greatest hits. There are a few hits here, but a lot of the show-stoppers are in other places. What it does offer are two rather different inducements. One, it is an overview of an entire career. And two, it does an exemplary job of putting him in context--the context of those he was influenced by and (to a lesser extent) those he influenced.

Career: one kind of good museum show is the one that shows you the whole career arc from start to finish. You can't do that with novels (how long would it take you to read all of Dickens? Of Henry James?). I suppose you might do it in a way with music but it might be s stretch. With an artist, you can see him as he develops, makes false starts, imitates (better, "responds to") others, finally finds his way--and then, perhaps, evolves, although in the case of Van Gogh, of course, he died before he had a chance to do much evolving (apparently he thought he was burnt out but we'll never know). In the present case, I'm surprised to find out how much "Van Gogh before Van Gogh" there is. Almost everything we remember of Van Gogh comes from a year or two at the end of his life. His entire artistic life lasts only about 10 years. It turns out that during the early period, he painted a lot. You'd have to grant that not much of it is memorable in the way the famous stuff is. But it is still fascinating to watch him as he tries pointillism, tries Toulouse-Lautrec, tried (especially) Japanese print technique and suchlike. Recall Beckett's rule: fail again, fail better.

Influence: the museum offers an impressive collection of work that Van Gogh would have seen and by which he was clearly impressed. Toulouse, Seurat, Pissaro and suchlike. Again these aren't the ones that bring in the crowds but it doesn't matter. They're still better than almost anybody else and in any event, it is interesting to see how they fit. There's a smaller but still instructive display suggesting Van Gogh's own influence after his tragically short career: Fauvism, German Expressionism and suchlike. One can only wish they had more.

In short, this is a museum with a plan, well-articulated and well-executed. If there is some kind of prize for curating, I'd say these guys deserve it.

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