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"Self-Portrait as an Artist,” o/c,
25 13/16 x 32 1/16”, 1887-88.

“The Harvest,” o/c, 1888.

“Boats,” o/c, 1887.

“Wheatfield with Crows,”
o/c, 1890.

Like Rocky prepping for a big fight, cynicism training is in order before viewing a Van Gogh show at Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s LACMA West. This is needed to approach a figure enveloped in hyperbole, veiled in misconceptions about mad genius, hermetically sealed in clichés so deep they have spawned three films and a Pop ballad.

My training included Washington Mutual Bank--sponsor of the Van Gogh venue here--rush hour, deliberately queued behind a woman in a Poppies T-shirt, slowly filling out the “Find the Van Gogh” contest form, where you locate the Wheatfield in order to win a scarce viewing ticket. And intentionally standing in the loudest section of the LACMA gift store listening to fantastic anecdotes about schizophrenia, bloody ears and whores; watching the brisk sale of curios bearing Vincent’s piercing face, listening to Don McClean sing of “eyes that know the darkness of our souls” over and over.

Cynicism bouyed, I went to see the works billed as Van Gogh’s Van Goghs. These are the intimate pictures, the ones he loved, the ones that Theo’s widow Johanna gathered and kept after both brothers had died. They visited the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and now LACMA from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam while that space is being rennovated.

Some of the paintings are rare ones not often seen outside the Netherlands. There is a magnificent, eccentric image of what looks like a bat, its transparent, webbed wings pinned open so that smoldering orange light firing the canvas from behind glows through the rich brown wings. There’s an exceptional Rembrandt-esque Self Portrait painted in the virtuoso tenebrist tradition of the Old Masters, showing Vincent suited, hatted, coifed and contained--save for this explosive center around the eyes that’s characteristic of all Van Gogh’s faces.

Of the well known mainstays there is Self Portrait of the Artist as a Painter, long since Van Gogh’s pop culture emblem. The artist appears at his easel, depicted with energized flecks of calligraphic hue. Then there is the brilliantly executed The Zouave, a sun drenched farm field covered with Irises. Actually, standing before the work I found my training failed me. All of the lectures documenting his troubled youth--he worked for the French Goupil Gallery in their Netherlandish, London, and then Paris branches only to be dismissed; he tried to follow his father’s calling as a minister but could not master Latin; he taught school, became a lay preacher to miners in the Borinage, but was let go there as well when intense empathy was taken as aberrant behavior--pale in the face of the work.

All the gory lore folks never tire of--the tortured three months between October to December, 1888, when a penniless, ill, irascible Paul Gauguin, just back from the South Pacific, reluctantly agreed to go live and paint in Arles with Van Gogh in exchange for a monthly stipend from Theo. The fabled argument on Christmas Eve. And of course the severed ear lobe supposedly carried to the brothel by a dazed and agitated Vincent. It all pales next to the acid yellows, the thick impastoed waves of wheat that voraciously, lovingly gobbles up exuberant spaces.

The cautionary rhetoric social historians like me teach about the culture-bound, context-bound, power-driven paradigms that give birth to unclear concepts like “tortured genius” fall away when standing before some of the finest work in the annals of modern art.

Van Gogh decided he was an artist in 1880. His early drawings and pen and ink sketches (none of these are on view, but are nicely chronicled in the exhibition catalogue) indicate that he had an instinctual sense of composition and draftsmanship, indeed an inbred artistic gift fed no doubt by his art smart family. He was never a naïve dabbler. Van Gogh was surrounded by the language of art history and the avant garde. He loved Millet, bought Daumier, and you can almost see him appreciating, trying his hand at realism, pointillism, Impressionism, symbolism in turn, hoping to paint what is au courante, hoping to fit in only to have his own eccentric vision overtake the work.

“Sprig of Flowering Almond
Blossom in a Glass,” o/c,
9 7/16 x 7 1/2”, 1888.


"Courtesan,” o/c, 1887.

Van Gogh gradually took up the brush full time during 1882-1883. This show treats you to an early seascape, remarkable as a harbinger of the artist’s mature style. Waves rise up in thick white billows of paint, small figures and a horse cart are sketched in thick paint with this tender reverence for nature you find radiating out of even the darkest works made just before he took his life.

By 1885 he is painting unique, confident scenes of peasant life, like the famous Potato Eaters, one of the highlights here. At this early date, well before the so-called incendiary contact with Gauguin at Arles, Van Gogh’s strokes seem already propelled by their own force. His reinterpretation of the tangible world as energized vectors of light and color is already in place. The hands of these peasants look like coiled trees. The lamp that lights the humble meal has already begun to oscillate (even in this monochromatic palette). Lest you think this is something tossed out by a high strung novice, there were at least 50 studies for Potato Eaters suggesting, whatever his other problems, astute esthetic deliberation.

Other works from this early period include peasants spinning, smoking or knitting in deep, mossy green worlds where the only color is an orange speck suggesting some burning ember in a distant hearth or in the pupil of an eye.

Van Gogh’s innate gifts were stimulated when he joined Theo in Paris in 1886. Early Parisian works lighten and brighten almost to the rainbow palette of Renoir (Boulevard de Clichy), but carefree Impressionism seems awkward in his hands. He remained in Paris for a year and eight months, tried to attend art classes, and met artists such as Pissarro and Lautrec. The latter introduced Vincent to hurricanes--absinthe cut with hard liquor.

By the 1860s absinthe was considered a serious drug in Europe. In Van Gogh’s day medical journals linked the stuff to epilepsy, seizure and madness. By 1915, nine million gallons had been sold and consumed. Whether he was already ill or whether the absinthe exacerbated an already existing condition, certain remarkable works here that were done in Paris evince a tightly strung vision, an intensity of means and message that flowers here. A lime green bottle and glass of absinthe, three vertiginous lime green books begin to display that imbedding of object and ground into one churning network that will be characteristic of the late work. There is also a truly surprising Courtesan, copied from a 19th-century Japanese print by Kesai Eisen [see the item on Van Gogh and the Japanese Print in last month’s Continuing section--Ed.]. Here Van Gogh incorporated the lessons in graphic media and non-Western art that were running through the Parisian art world at the time.

Agitated by the pace in Paris, perpetually unable to cope with any environment for too long, Van Gogh moved to Arles with Theo’s financial assistance. He arrived with dreams of a bucolic artist co-op. The first works are becalmed, sun-drenched by the searing light there: The Yellow House he rented in hopes of attracting a community of artists; his Bedroom at Arles; and Harvest, one of his favorite and most technically astute landscapes.

This peace didn’t last long. Lonely, he painted Wheatfield with a Reaper, sent Theo another veiled alert in a letter that likens the wheat to life, cut down by death. Theo, ever the loving co-dependent caretaker, sent Gauguin for company and interchange at this point.

After Van Gogh recovered from the ear incident (one imagines it as the culmination of three months of tension between the diametrically opposite men), neighbors suggested he be committed. When he is released after a couple of months, a frightened Vincent, never knowing when the next episode of illness will hit, commits himself to the asylum in St. Remy, where he remained for nearly a year.

Volumes have been written on what exactly Van Gogh suffered from: Addiction, withdrawal, alcoholism, eliptoid psychosis, latent epilepsy, gonorrhea. Everyone agrees that from Arles on he suffered cyclic, unremitting seizures about every two to three months that brought on bouts of intense depression, violence, auditory hallucinations, ringing in the ears and stomach pain. In between he painted at a feverish pace, perhaps knowing he had to get the work in before falling ill again. Notable from this period: A frightful Crab struggling helpless on its back.

Again concerned, Theo arranged for Vincent to move to Auvers sur Oise where he can be closer to Paris and under the care of the artist/doctor Gauchet, whose Rx was “paint.” And once again, the change was temporarily curative. After a feverish two months of intense work, Van Gogh shot himself, dying two days later. Remarkable from this period is Undergrowth, but Wheatfield with Crows, executed just before he shot himself, is the most poignant.

Maybe it’s something in the Dutch water, maybe it is the light up there (or lack thereof), or perhaps it is the secular residue of the Protestant notion of nominalism (i.e., transcendence is found in the most minute details of nature). Whatever the source, the great Dutch triumvirate of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian share each in their own time, each in their intense, pristine expression through pure plastic means. Each was a revolutionary draftsman, designer, spiritualist. But of them all Van Gogh has touched posterity hardest--behold the crowds! We are earnestly amazed by the pained and exuberant, childlike and luminous world that unfolds whenever we are around this work.