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Repetitions: Almost Too Much of a Good-Enough Sort of Thing

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If there is any poster child for artists whose days were cut tragically short; whose life was a series of poignant misadventures; whose every attempt to reach out was rebuffed. . .it is Vincent Van Gogh. And yet by the gouged and fragile yardstick by which we measure the lives of artists, Van Gogh had it pretty good. After he found his true calling, he was supported by a brother whose unwavering loyalty possibly contributed, in no small part, to his own premature demise a year after Vincent’s passing. Van Gogh was able to work – which artists claim to want to do all the time – whenever the mood struck him, which was as frequently as any man who has ever wielded a brush let alone plugged himself, at age 37, with a revolver.

Vincent’s troubles have been the object of agonized speculation ever since his letters became widely available. I would even suggest that the written word is as crucial to the man’s legacy as the paintings that would have sold had Vincent stuck around for another five or ten years. In his case, word and image have become inseparable. They are as implicit in, and to, the totality of his appeal as Dali’s outlandish costumes and Warhol’s soup cans. Van Gogh may not have been the greatest Artistic Legend, but he’s most certainly the most widely known. The Phillips Collection does not necessarily advance the legendary Van Gogh; it doesn’t need to. The Van Gogh Legend sort of starts itself. All a museum needs to do is supply a small body of work, a kind of theme to tie it together, and stand aside.

The Phillips has done that very thing – and to its credit.

Its thesis is, in fact, deceptively simple. Having discerned various patterns in Van Gogh’s creative process, Elizabeth Rathbone, the exhibit’s curator, decided to showcase its sometimes-repetitive nature and was able to cull out images – mostly portraits – that bear out Van Gogh’s somewhat obsessive tweaking of a subject that, in some cases, needed less rather than more. (Contributors to the exhibit range from the Musee d’Orsay, the Cleveland Museum of Art, MOMA, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. The exhibit, of some thirty-five paintings, was five years in the making.) We are given his weavers, which evolve from sketches into unevenly finished paintings. (These were his first attempts at full-scale picture-making.) Montmartre windmills supply the next chain with paintings that are essentially ham-handed, but function, to my mind, as evolutionary signatures. Then we are led to his portraits, first of the postal worker, Roulin, and, finally, to his wife, who sits, in possible agony, with chin resting on elbow at a smallish table with a book opened in front of her. I would doubt if she got any reading done as she posed.

There is also a brace of landscapes (The Road Meanders and The Large Plane Tree), of the same subject, but treated so differently that we are intrigued by these differences, which are intelligently explained by a text on an adjacent wall. One cannot learn too much about an artist’s process and, here at the Phillips, we can do just that.

Room in Arles is Van Gogh’s most definitive, and possibly overpraised, tribute to Japan. The exhibit’s three versions of this image provide us with as many small differences as we will ever want to see.

Yet before I talk about the portrait series, I’d like to extol the Phillips for having assembled a dazzling collection of support material, in the way of painter colleagues’ work as well as texts Van Gogh utilized as he evolved from journeyman to artist. Of these colleagues’ work, the Daumiers’ stand out not only as exemplars of supernatural draftsmanship, but of the snub-nosed realism for which Van Gogh strived at the beginning of his career. (Being in a category by himself, Rembrandt, who is represented by a few small etchings, will have to occupy the room as best he can. Small as these etchings are, they claim as much conceptual space as one might allow.) In a single room, the Phillips, with Ms. Rathbone leading the way, has assembled an array of paintings that summon up, as it were, “the competition.” There is a Monticelli still life, which Van Gogh purchased with the sometimes-mysterious funds painters will have for the work of their fellows. There is Delacroix’s famous portrait of Paganini. There is a Corot, but that’s not surprising. When I was in Memphis, I saw one there too. Not to denigrate the man. It’s just that, at a certain point in history, every museum in creation had to have one. Whether that is good or not depends on your personal aesthetic. Yet Corot was one of Impressionism’s guiding lights. As such, Van Gogh needed him so that he could eventually move on.

The collection is not wide, but it is deep, and it suggests, more or less unobtrusively, that no oak is possible without a bed of acorns – even if, in Van Gogh’s case, the oak’s boughs are poorly articulated and its trunk is gashed to a fare-thee-well.

And now to these portraits.

Monsieur Roulin clearly liked the odd fellow who insisted on painting him in his everyday garb, which always stands out behind a background of saturated color. Roulin himself looks, by turns, quizzical, weary, approachable, and mad. Van Gogh utilized his bushy beard and pinchy little eyes to good advantage. Yet Roulin was, for the most part, an excuse for Van Gogh to experiment with the choppy brushstrokes which he laid out on the canvas like so many logs in a cabin. They follow the contours of Roulin’s face without describing its texture. The strokes, in fact, supply their own texture. I think he returned to Roulin so much because he wanted to create a more or less perfect order, of which his vigorous brushstrokes were mathematical signifiers, if you will. For those of us who want a face to catch the light the way a face does in the third dimension, Van Gogh will be somewhat disappointing. But if we like to see a flat surface energized by his log-rolling technique, there is much to see, learn, and appreciate. I’m of two minds. In that Van Gogh cares nothing about natural light, there isn’t much in the way of traditional space. But that isn’t what Van Gogh was after. Van Gogh must be approached as a sort of pioneer who was sincerely drawn – as he was in this case – to the spatial purity of Japanese prints. Within the narrow confines of his ambition, Van Gogh succeeds. But I fear that there is nothing to be learned about Roulin’s character or personality – or about the conventional space that surrounded him.

So too in the next series – though it is more elegantly compact. Roulin’s wife is painted more boldly and not separated into those logjam units. With her, he wanted to create the flat patterns Matisse would eventually perfect – though Matisse’s patterns lack the nervous energy Van Gogh brought to everything he did. For my money, I’ll take the Dutchman.

Unfortunately, he massacred their poor baby, whose greenish little body concludes the series. The poor little thing doesn’t have a chance and, wisely, refused to beg for mercy. The paintings are, in my view, merely bad. It is said that mediocre painters are always the same. Great ones either enlarge one’s vision or make one wish to poke his or her eyes out. Van Gogh’s little baby makes one wish to do the latter. Fortunately, his other choices do not.

Van Gogh-olatry is here to say, but it can be tiresome. My own preferences do not that way tend, though I too am infected by the Van Gogh legend and have read his letters to Theo with the affectionate admiration they deserve. Van Gogh was that lifelong student for whose mindful dedication the audibly sincere often strive. Because of his spotty orientation, Van Gogh could never become complacent about his work. His champions consider his flaws as invaluable as the strengths that were so uniquely his and fortunately numerous. Yet his flaws were also unique to him and frequently disastrous. I wish there were some way we could curb our knee-jerk enthusiasm for Vincent Van Gogh. He was an abundantly interesting man, a more than occasionally good painter, and as original a life-force as Western art has ever seen. Yet we have allowed him to sweep aside so many equally worthy men and women that one might as well consider Van Gogh a kind of sun around which lesser artistic planets revolve – and are occasionally burnt.

Yet I would recommend this exhibit heartily. Any attempt to hold the mirror up to an artist’s technique – an’t it be well-considered – is a very good thing. And, as such, the Ms. Rathbone has done that. Yet I would hope that, for future exhibits, artists who lack Van Gogh’s legendary status are presented with comparable care – not to mention curatorial imagination.

A Sidelight:

While you’re strolling the gallery, don’t miss the famous “beeswax room”, which is – as its creator tells us – a Rothko painting turned inside out. I suppose you could look at it that way. I however, prefer to regard it as a kind of oasis from which the intellectualizing strain that front-loads our understanding of modern and postmodern art has been temporarily banished.

Go in there, close your eyes, and open your nostrils. They will be so titillated (if that’s the word) by the onrush of honey-soaked molecules that you’ll just want to stand there and take it in. If art can heal – and I believe it can – you could do worse than get your dose of healing there. Try it. And go look at some paintings afterwards. In fact, take a gander at the Rothko’s.

What do you think will you remember most?

In the interest of not prejudicing you, I’m going to withhold my answer.

The Phillips Collection is at 1600 21st Street, NW Washington, DC 20009

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Sunday: 11:00 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Thursday: extended from 5:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

For closures and other questions, call: (202) 387-2151

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