ART

A terrible beauty

A glimpse-just a glimpse—into the heart of Vincent van Gogh

Hubert de Santana February 16 1981
ART

A terrible beauty

A glimpse-just a glimpse—into the heart of Vincent van Gogh

Hubert de Santana February 16 1981

A terrible beauty

A glimpse-just a glimpse—into the heart of Vincent van Gogh

ART

Hubert de Santana

What am I in most people ’s eyes.2 A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable

man____Very well, then, I shall want my

work to show what is in the heart of such a nobody....

The “nonentity” who wrote those words was Vincent van Gogh, one of the heroes and founding fathers of modern art. And a glimpse of what was in his heart can be seen in the small selection of his work that forms the core of Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, the current exhibition of post-impressionist works at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (until March 22). That glimpse is worth the

whole of what is an exciting but uneven show. A lack of discrimination in the choice of pictures has allowed masterpieces to share wall space with minor works by minor artists. Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec rub shoulders with Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard and even more peripheral artists such as Jakob Meyer de Haan and Maurice Denis.

Put together by Bogomila Welsh, 40, a Bulgarian-born art historian who is an assistant professor of fine art at the University of Toronto, the show was first proposed in 1976 as an exhibition of van Gogh’s work alone. But Welsh rejected the idea of a retrospective since she felt that the Art Gallery of Ontario did not have the international pulling

power to borrow the pictures that would be needed for an overview. (She thought that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a major lender to this show, would be a more appropriate place.) She spent the next four years preparing an exhibition of lesser scope that would concentrate on a six-year period (1886-1891) in French painting when a group of rebel artists, including van Gogh, turned away from impressionism and evolved the style that came to be known as cloisonism.

Cloisonism specifically refers to such art forms as medieval and oriental enamels, stained-glass windows and Japanese wood-block prints.In 1888 the critic Edouard Dujardin used the term when describing the new style of painting being developed by Louis Anquetin. The trouble is that, like many “isms” in art, the word is imprecise, and if it is taken to mean fields of pure color bounded by strongly defined contours, it can be applied with equal validity to the work of the fauves, to Henri Matisse, and even to German expressionists such as Franz Marc. Welsh’s own definition of cloisonism is both vague and overloaded. “It’s a term that has to be dealt with in terms of a reaction to prior naturalism in 19th-century art,” she says. “In cloisonism you’re abstracting and dealing with the character and the essence of the object— you’re going beyond the actual object to the essence or the idea behind it. There is the continuation of the color theory of Georges Seurat: the juxtaposition of primary and secondary colors to create both optical effects and the symbolic color which has emotion behind it.”

In her attempt to impose a cloisonist interpretation on the work of the artists in this show, Welsh has cooked up a post-impressionist stew full of indigestible bits of scholarly gristle. This will likely leave the uninformed visitor to the show with the idea that cloisonism is important in the post-impressionist movement. However, cloisonism was not an important movement, but rather a cul-de-sac which artists like van Gogh and Gauguin—who were tireless experimenters and innovators—explored and quickly transcended.

Vincent van Gogh was 32 when he arrived in Paris from his native Holland in 1886, and made the acquaintance of painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Gauguin and other avant-garde artists, all of whom were to influence each other to some degree. The fascinating thing about the AGO show is that it gives the viewer a rare opportunity to trace van Gogh’s progress through the formlessness and naturalism of impressionism ☺(.Agostina Segatori: In the Café Le Tambourin)', through the scintillating colored dots of pointillism ( View From Vincent's Room in the Rue Lepic and Interior of a Restaurant); through the austere but brightly colored abstractionism of Japanese prints ( Japonaiserie: The Flowering Plum Tree and Japonaiserie: The Courtesan); to the mature masterpieces of the astonishingly prolific Arles period.

However, there are two things about the exhibition that will strike even a casual observer. Firstly, some of the finest pictures in the show are not cloisonist at all: Lautrec’s fluent draftsmanship and delicate color modulations are closer to the work of Degas or Picasso’s blue period. Van Gogh’s The Langlois Bridge With Women Washing and The Sower With Yellow Sun are also not cloisonist, but supreme examples of expressionism, which led the way for the Norwegian Edvard Munch and the German expressionists. The best way to approach this show, therefore, is to enjoy the individual pictures and ignore the confusion that arises from the exaggerated emphasis on cloisonism. Secondly,

while one should be grateful that so many important and often inaccessible works from private collections and overseas galleries have been gathered under the same roof (at an extravagant g cost to the AGO of $1.3 million), one can-

not help but regret the glaring omissions in the show. There is nothing by Seurat or Paul Signac, whose revolutionary color theories profoundly affected van Gogh and his circle. Paul Cézanne, one of the giants of the postimpressionist movement, is missing, though his influence is obvious in works such as Gauguin’s Farmhouse With Haystack, Arles, and Emile Bernard’s Still Life With Blue Coffeepot. At the crossroads of impressionism and postimpressionism stood the kindly, patriarchal figure of Pissarro, who befriended and influenced both Gauguin and van Gogh, yet he too has been excluded.

Instead the show has been cluttered with work of marginal interest by inferior artists like Denis and de Haan. Even the masters are not always represented by their best work. Gauguin’s religious paintings, done during his Brittany period, are often marred by crude symbolism and self-pity, and give only a hint of the great flowering that was to come in Tahiti. In both concept and execution his Joan of Arc is so clumsy and incompetent that it makes one gasp. Anquetin’s Avenue de Clichy: Five O'Clock in the Evening is sumptuous with its violets and yellows, but his Boat at Night is an embarrassing piece of rubbish. And his The Dance Hall at the Moulin Rouge cannot bear comparison with Lautrec’s treatment of the same subject. Indeed, Lautrec’s works are some of the finest things in the show, and include the exquisite Rice Powder as well as the exuberant At the Circus Fernando: The Horsewoman.

But it is Vincent van Gogh who dominates this exhibition with the glorious, psychologically complex pictures painted under the brilliant sun of Arles in southern France. Landscapes, portraits and still lifes seethe with light and energy, the color hurled down with a loaded brush and braided into dazzling flames. In some of the most famous still lifes ever painted, irises writhe with an inner life of their own and sunflowers blaze like a golden constellation, the paint so thick that the image is almost three-dimensional. “I want to progress so far that people will say of my work, he feels deeply, he feels tenderly . . .” wrote van Gogh to his brother Théo; the Arles pictures show how triumphantly he fulfilled that ambition.

In Arles van Gogh produced 200 paintings in 15 months (February,1888, to May, 1889). But the toll in human terms was frightful: he was physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. A year later the lonely, unstable genius shot himself. He was 37, and his career as an artist had lasted only 10 years. During that decade he created 800 paintings and 900 drawings which established his reputation as one of the very greatest artists who ever lived. Pissarro remarked that when he first met van Gogh he had been sure that he “would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. I didn’t know then that he would do both.” Van Gogh did indeed leave most of his contemporaries—and with the evidence of this show the notion of cloisonism—far behind.