Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Few Thoughts about van Gogh - Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Essay

Vincent van Gogh, Roses and Peonies June 1886, Oil on
canvas, 23 ½ × 28 ½ inches (59.8 x 72.5 cm), Kröller-Müller
Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

"How sad to think he never knew he blasted through the art market stratosphere, never knew Christie’s auction attendees yelled like drunk hockey fans..."

A Few Thoughts about van Gogh - Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Essay

If Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet had in fact been destroyed at the time of collector Ryoei Saito’s 1996 cremation, as some surmised, one easily imagines Gary Tinterow keeling over in the Met’s gallery.  Tinterow’s deep scholarly interest in nineteenth century European painting would have hitched van Gogh close to his curatorial heart.  Recall that Tinterow finagled a record breaking Metropolitan Museum acquisition of van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Cypresses in 1993.

Sir Gary had no need to worry.  Ryoei Saito merely threatened to burn or bury in his coffin van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, as well as Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette, when slammed with $24 million in taxes, and mindful of his children’s need to avoid the same.  Saito, the art-world later learned, sold van Gogh’s painting to Austrian-born investment-fund guy Wolfgang Flöttl in 1997, with Sotheby’s Auction very pleased to float Flöttl’s loan.  Later, a bank snatched the van Gogh from Flöttl.

To expand this juicy tidbit, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito’s May 1990 purchase of van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet at Christie’s New York for $82.5 million, valued at approximately $152 million in today’s economy, broke the record as the most expensive painting sold at auction, not to be broken again until Christie’s New York sold Picasso’s Les Femmes d'Alger in May 2015.  To further expand, Tinterow now runs the show in Houston.

For all Gary Tinterow’s unmitigated clout, Portrait of Dr. Gachet failed to make it into Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art, through June 27, 2019.  Alas, some van Goghs are forbidden to travel.  The Museum’s exhibition does however include an etched portrait of Dr. Gachet holding a pipe, printed on paper and marked with black chalk.  It is in my opinion, a more provocative rendering of the homeopathic physician who treated van Gogh’s “nervous disorder,” dismaying symptoms possibly caused by hereditary epilepsy, syphilis, and booze.

Van Gogh was excited about using Dr Gachet’s etching press, he wrote to his brother Theo in May 1890, it provided him with the opportunity to churn-out multiples at no cost, except naturally the cost of having to hand over some of the prints to Dr. Gachet.  Extra inventory was valuable to the indigent artist.

Significantly, the etched portrait of Dr. Gachet was the last print, and the only etching, van Gogh made before he died.  According to the Museum’s very informative catalogue, van Gogh printed fourteen of the sixty-one versions of the Gachet etching, the others were printed by Dr. Gachet and his son after van Gogh’s death.  Further, the plate on which the image was etched resides at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, having been given to the Musée du Louvre by Gachet’s son, Paul, in 1951.

It is popularly believed van Gogh sold only one artwork before he shot himself in a wheat field near Auvers-sur-Oise in July 1890.  How sad to think he never knew he blasted through the art market stratosphere, never knew Christie’s auction attendees yelled like drunk hockey fans over his record breaking $82.5 million sale.

How annoying to think the painting commonly believed to be the only painting van Gogh sold, was ultimately stolen by the Bolsheviks, on behalf of the Proletariat of course.  Van Gogh painted The Red Vineyard near Arles in November 1888.  It is a fact that Anna Boch purchased The Red Vineyard after she saw it in the Brussels group exhibition Les XX in January 1890 for 400 francs, and it is a fact that Anna flipped the painting in Paris in 1906.  There has been a bit of art-historical squabbling, on the other hand, over which Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin or Ivan Morozov, subsequently acquired The Red Vineyard.  Most believe it entered Sergei Shchukin’s collection, some who dispute this believe Ivan Morozov acquired the painting, based on posthumously published research by Jacob de la Faille, some of which Professor John Rewald labeled “woefully inadequate.”  Anyone detect flared nostrils?

Regardless, the Bolsheviks were nationalizing banks and industry, redistributing land, and collectivizing agriculture.  In 1918, comrade Lenin confiscated Shchukin’s and Morozov’s art collections, and the painting became “the property of the people.”  Eventually the two collections entered the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum, today the The Red Vineyard resides in the Pushkin.

Think of the pain Sergei Shchukin felt over losing not only his home and assets, but his precious collection as well, a life centered on passionate collecting, vanquished.  Shchukin had been acquiring French avant-garde art on frequent trips to Paris, by Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, and Degas, by post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and van Gogh.  He lassoed Cezanne, whom Picasso called “the father of us all.”  Committed to sharing, he covered the walls of his palatial mansion, art stacked gallery-style, fifty-something Picassos here, forty Matisses there.  Including Matisse’s joyful, decadent La joie de vivre.  To decorate his staircase he commissioned Matisse’s Dance and Music.  All the while, people snickered at his purchases, unaware he was creating the finest collection of modernist French paintings in the world.  Until he could no longer deny the deepening sense of peril, so many in his circle were being arrested and shot.  Best to flee Russia.  Shchukin never again saw his art.

Van Gogh revealed in his letters he was captivated by the vineyard across the plain from Arles, near Montmajour, which he saw on his walks.  “We saw a red vineyard, completely red like wine.  In the distance it became yellow, and then a green sky with a sun, fields violet and sparkling yellow here and thereafter the rain in which the setting sun was reflected," he wrote to Theo in November 1888.  “A beautiful color motif,” he wrote to his uncle.  His intention was to do more than simply describe the vineyard, he wanted to amplify emotions.  The bluish greenish paint dabs that loosely define grape-harvesters, their cart, and background landscape, and provide vivid contrasts to dominant red tones, “exalt inner feelings,” to borrow Delacroix’s words.  According to John Rewald, The Red Vineyard was one of the paintings van Gogh valued most.

Regrettably The Red Vineyard remained at the Pushkin, but its mate, The Green Vineyard, traveled from the Kröller-Müller Museum to be in the Houston exhibition.  Van Gogh painted The Green Vineyard in October 1888, a month before he painted The Red Vineyard, with the intention that the two relate to each other through size and contrasting colors.  The painting caused him difficulty though, he sweated blood and tears, he wrote, particularly over the blue sky.

If the turbulent blue sky caused him to sweat blood and tears, he was no doubt struggling with compositional balance.  He rendered the blue sky with thickly applied paint and swirling brush strokes, handled it rigorously, yet it is tame compared to the unfurled, piled-on, textural treatment of vines and grape clusters in the painting’s foreground.  The Green Vineyard’s variations in texture, the Museum’s catalogue states, resulted in an, “intricate, powerful work that consciously exploits high impasto for effect.”  As van Gogh consciously exploited high impasto for effect, in representations of cypress trees and wheat fields, he was developing an unfettered, emotive style, considered by art historians to be uniquely his own.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, May 1890, Oil on canvas,
36 ½ × 29 ⅛ inches (92.7 x 73.9 cm),
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (Vincent van
Gogh Foundation.)

“Nature here is so extraordinarily beautiful,” he wrote from Arles.  Van Gogh continued to be deeply moved by nature at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he was loosely incarcerated in 1889 after merde hit the fan in Arles, when he sliced off his left ear.  And carried it to the brothel (maison de tolèrance), as a gift for the whore Rachel, whose real name was Gaby.  It seems his bouts of incoherence and excessive drinking frightened the townspeople of Arles.  During lucid moments in Saint-Rémy, nature soothed him, he painted the irises that surrounded the asylum’s pathways.  Van Gogh described in a letter to Theo precisely how he used color theory in the painting Irises (1890), he contrasted warm startling yellow and cool blue-violet tones, to heighten their effects.

Roses and Peonies (1886) is a lovely example of the use of “opposites” or complimentary colors, red and green in this case, except he chose a lighter color palette, influenced by the Impressionists.

Years ago I looked closely at van Gogh’s drawings of the prostitute Sien Hoornik, with whom he lived in The Hague.  He wanted to marry Sien, but his parents had a fit and Theo threatened to withdraw financial support.  While living together, van Gogh provided food and shelter for the pregnant woman and her daughter, Sien in turn modeled for him.  The 1882 drawing of Sien sitting on the floor with a cigar was particularly memorable, the “Sien” series brought home to me this man’s proficiency at drawing the human figure, which he considered integral to his painting.  Drawing did not come easily to an artist who lacked inherent abilities, he worked arduously to advance his skills, and stressed in a 1881 letter to Theo the importance of practicing human figure-drawing.  Besides, Millet and Corot, “worked hard on figures.”  As I gawked at the numerous and varied examples of van Gogh’s figure drawings in pencil, charcoal, chalk, and oil paintings, including in sketch books and letters, his acute distillation of human-figure poses and gestures became inescapable.  The old woman’s knotty-arthritic fingers in Peasant Woman Cleaning a Pot, a black chalk drawing from 1885, and the old man’s waistcoat arm-wrinkles in the pencil drawing Old Man in a Tailcoat (1882), are penetrating and nuanced.

Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art, over fifty of van Gogh’s artworks, through June 27, 2019, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man in a Tailcoat 
September – December 1882, Pencil, scratched,
on wove paper. 18 ⅝ × 10 ¼ inches
(47.4 × 26 cm), Van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation.)

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