SPECIAL REPORT

LEGACY OF A TRAGIC LIFE

THE NETHERLANDS MARKS THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF VAN GOGH’S DEATH WITH A NINE-MONTH CELEBRATION

PAMELA YOUNG April 16 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

LEGACY OF A TRAGIC LIFE

THE NETHERLANDS MARKS THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF VAN GOGH’S DEATH WITH A NINE-MONTH CELEBRATION

PAMELA YOUNG April 16 1990

It was September, 1888, and on warm evenings residents of Arles in southern France would gather beneath the gaslit awning of a local café. There, many of them could watch the bizarre spectacle of Vincent van Gogh, in a halo of candlelight, working just up the street. In order to see well enough to paint his now-famous picture Café Terrace at Night, he planted the candles on the wide, flat brim of his hat and placed others around his easel. At the time, the townspeople regarded the red-haired, broad-shouldered Dutchman as a harmless eccentric. But within a few months, their opinion of him had changed: after an argument with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, van Gogh cut off the lobe of his left ear and gave it to a prostitute. The police took him to a hospital, where he was confined for two weeks in a cell for the insane. The artist suffered other breakdowns—and spent several periods in an asylum—over the next two years. Then, in 1890, he died at 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, just as his art was starting to gain recognition. Now, a century later, his paintings are among the most admired—and most costly—in the world.

Adulation: More than any other artist, van Gogh has come to represent the tragic creator, the misunderstood genius who wins the world’s adulation only after his death. In 1987, his Irises became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction when it fetched $71 million at Sotheby’s in New York City (page 41). And this year, Holland is marking the centenary of its famous son’s death with a nine-month celebration that represents the greatest tribute ever paid to an artist by a nation. Two years in preparation, the festival will cost an estimated $13.4 million, with four major Dutch firms— KLM Airlines, Heineken, Sparbanken and Douwe Egberts—subsidizing the budget. Said Odette Taminiau of the Amsterdam tourist bureau: “The Dutch are making damned sure that van Gogh is paid his just dues.”

At the centre of the festivities, expected to draw 1.5 million visitors from around the world, are two exhibitions that represent the most comprehensive retrospective of van Gogh’s work ever assembled. The shows, opened by Dutch sovereign Queen Beatrix on March 30, the 137th anniversary of the artist’s birth, are among dozens of events commemorating the artist. There are also plays, two operas and even a 290-km bicycle tour between van Gogh’s birthplace of Zundert and his grave at Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. And in June, Amsterdam will host a festival showcasing some of the more than 70 movies that have been made about van Gogh’s life. The highlight will be the world première of Vincent and Theo, a 3 1/2-hour TV mini-series by American director Robert Altman, about the artist and his younger brother.

Missionary: Van Gogh, who failed as an art dealer, a teacher and a missionary before becoming an artist in his last 10 years, often despaired of doing anything worthwhile. In 1880, he wrote to Theo: “My only anxiety is: how can I be of use in the world, cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good?” He did not live to see it, but his influence as an artist has been profound. Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a University of Toronto art historian who curated a 1988 van Gogh exhibition at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, describes him as one of the world’s most accessible and rewarding artists. “When you look at his works, you don’t necessarily need to have all the traditional intellectual baggage to understand them,” she said. “What he brings with him is so refreshing, and yet it’s very complex.” Among his admirers is Regina sculptor Joe Fafard, who declared, “Van Gogh is to artists what Christ is to Christians.”

For some, the celebrations in the Netherlands are an opportunity to turn a handsome profit. The tribute has generated a profusion of mugs, ties and T-shirts. But, partly in response to an antiprofiteering tirade in the Dutch press earlier this year, most of the items are reasonably tasteful. “We half-expected to find pedlars lurking outside the museums with plastic van Gogh ears as souvenir key rings,” said Vera Dies, art critic for the Dutch weekly Elsevier. Still, many of the offerings are incongruously up-market: a man who lived in dire poverty for much of his life and scarcely managed to sell any of his paintings is now being commemorated with van Gogh perfume, van Gogh wines, van Gogh tapestries and a “Gentleman Vincent” pen set.

Much of the public’s fascination with the painter springs from the tragic nature of his life. Besides failing repeatedly—until he chose art— to find a vocation, he never married and was rejected by most of the women he cared for. High-strung and temperamental for all of his life,he became increasingly unstable in his last years. The end of his life was marked by intense creativity—and by periods of derangement so severe that he occasionally ate his paints. He was constantly tormented by a sense of isolation. Yet the expressive power of his art has prompted many to make a pilgrimage to Amsterdam this year. The main show, at the city’s Vincent van Gogh Museum, consists of 133 of the artist’s 900 paintings, 80 of them on loan from 20 countries around the world. And in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the town of Otterlo, 64 km southeast of Amsterdam, 248 of van Gogh’s 1,100 drawings are on display. The two shows combined display the full range of his genius. The painting retrospective encompasses the sombre early depictions of peasant life in Holland and the blazing, sun-drenched canvases that he painted in southern France later on, including Sunflowers, Wheatfields with Crows and several of his haunting self-portraits. According to Frits Becht, managing director of the van Gogh 1990 Foundation, which organized the centenary, the aim was to “display the works van Gogh himself considered his most important.” Becht said that organizers made decisions on the basis of what van Gogh said in his voluminous correspondence with Theo, an art dealer who supported him for most of his life.

Insurance: Assembling the exhibition of paintings was a huge task. The show’s insurance costs set a world record of $3.6 billion, a measure of the rapidly escalating prices in the art market—and of the risk of art theft (page 48). Van Gogh 1990 Foundation spokeswoman Madelaine Waardenaar said that some institutions refused to lend their van Gogh works, while others “didn’t make up their minds until they learned every detail of our security arrangements and measured the humidity and light in the van Gogh museum.” The museum underwent a costly renovation to provide better control of lighting levels.

Precaution: As well, the fear that humidity generated by crowds could damage the paintings led foreign museums to insist that no more than 7,500 people could see the exhibition on any day. The most controversial precaution was to put all but a few of the paintings behind glass, which makes it difficult for viewers to fully appreciate van Gogh’s vigorous brushwork. Said visitor François Meffre, of Nîmes, France: “Glass to a painting is what a condom is to sex.”

Still, Marina Vaizey, art critic of The Sunday Times of London, was one of many who praised the show, describing it and the exhibition of drawings as “the biggest and also the best” assemblage of van Gogh works in this century. And Sue Glass, a Redondo Beach, Calif., teacher who travelled to Holland for the tribute, said that the painting show had brought van Gogh closer to her. Said Glass: “You sense the heartbeat behind the legend.”

The two exhibitions will close on July 29, the centennial of van Gogh’s death, but other aspects of the celebration will stretch into 1991. At least 15 institutions dotted around Holland are holding shows of their own to illuminate aspects of the artist’s works and life. Rounding out the celebrations in Amsterdam will be an exhibition that explores van Gogh’s impact on early 20th-century art. Featuring works by French artist Henri Matisse, Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky and Austrian Egon Schiele, it will run from Nov. 16 to Feb. 18 at the van Gogh museum. For their part, the French have invested $1.53 million in preparing Auvers, where he spent his last months, for an expected 150,000 visitors during the centenary. Town officials are organizing tours to the sites van Gogh painted in his final weeks.

Indifference: Van Gogh’s life has been romanticized to the point where the myth often eclipses the man himself. Several popular biographies have over-dramatized his mental problems and mythologized him as a genius driven mad by unhappy love affairs and society’s indifference. One of the first sources of the van Gogh legend was the painter Gauguin, in his 1903 autobiography Avant et apres (Before and After). Susan Stein, curator of modern paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that Gauguin exaggerated the degree of van Gogh’s mental problems partly for his own purposes. The curator explained that, by characterizing van Gogh as a madman whom he took under his wing, Gauguin “could take credit for some of van Gogh’s innovations and triumphs.” The romanticization continued in several other accounts of van Gogh’s life, notably U.S. novelist Irving Stone’s 1936 best-seller Lust for Life and the 1956 film of the same title, starring Kirk Douglas.

But since 1956, when American art scholar John Rewald wrote his influential book, Post Impressionism: From van Gogh to Gauguin, critics have begun to recognize that van Gogh was more of an intellectual than had previously been thought. Said Stein: “It was the first book to really look at van Gogh as a serious artist as opposed to a creative mythic genius, showing him not as isolated from what was going on in his time, but very much informed with contemporary literature and painting, and very much involved with the art world.”

Gravestone: In van Gogh’s birthplace of Zundert, a southern town near the Belgian border, little remains to remind visitors of the great painter. The van Gogh home, on the main street facing the town hall, was demolished in 1903 and rebuilt to the same design the following year. Nearby is the tiny redbrick church where the artist’s father, Theodorus, was a Protestant pastor. In the churchyard, there is a gravestone for Vincent van Gogh, but it is not the artist’s: the grave is for his parents’ first son, who was stillborn. Grieving over the loss, the couple decided to name their next child, born the following year, after the dead infant. Van Gogh was the eldest of six surviving children. As a child, he showed a talent for sketching and an insatiable appetite for reading. At 16, he was sent to The Hague, where an uncle got him a job as an art dealer.

In 1873, the art gallery sent him to work in its London branch, where he fell madly in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugénie Loyer. Shattered when she rejected him, he became preoccupied with evangelical Christianity and lost interest in his job. After he was fired in 1876, van Gogh taught briefly before turning to missionary work, first in England and later in the poor Belgian mining district known as the Borinage. Deeply moved by the miners’ desperate living conditions, he gave away his belongings and slept in a hovel. His superiors, alarmed by that zeal, dismissed him in 1879. The following year, he decided to become an artist. “I will take up my pencil which I have forsaken in my discouragement,” he wrote to Theo, “and I will get on with my drawing.”

Sketches: Some of van Gogh’s first powerful sketches were of the prostitute Sien Hoornik, with whom he lived for a short time. Then, in 1881, he began taking painting lessons. By 1885, when he was living in rural Neunen, he had completed his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters. With its earthy brown tones, the depiction of a family of peasants bears little resemblance to the color-saturated canvases that he would later paint in France. But its humanity reflected van Gogh’s empathy for the poor. He wrote to Theo, “I have tried to emphasize that those people .. . have dug the earth with those very hands they are reaching out to the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.”

The full flowering of his genius took place after he moved to France. The art trade had taken Theo to Paris, and in 1886 Vincent moved in with him. There, he met many of the great artists of the time, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was a difficult period for the long-suffering Theo, who adored him: Vincent, who had always been unstable and argumentative, became even more so when he began drinking heavily.

In 1888, seeking the bright light of the Mediterranean, van Gogh moved south to Arles. The intense southern colors were reflected in his landscapes, flower paintings and portraits. But the period of derangement that led him to mutilate his ear in late 1888—an act now thought to have been caused in part by epilepsy—was the first in a series of crises. In May, 1889, van Gogh voluntarily entered the asylum in the nearby town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He continued to paint furiously during periods of lucidity. His attacks, he wrote to Theo in October, spurred him on in the same way that “a miner who is always in danger makes haste in what he does.”

Recognition: That period marked the beginning of recognition for van Gogh. In a February, 1890, letter, Theo wrote that he had sold one of his brother’s canvases, The Red Vineyard, for 400 francs, then a respectable sum. But the painter saw it as an omen of ill fortune, replying that he “feared at once that I should be punished for it.” In May, he moved to Auvers, where he came under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet. But despair welled up and overpowered him: on a hot July afternoon, he walked to a field and shot himself in the chest. He managed to drag himself back to his room, where he died 36 hours later. Soon after, the grieving Theo suffered a physical and emotional collapse of his own. He died in January, 1891.

One positive analysis of van Gogh’s work appeared late in his lifetime. More widespread critical recognition emerged soon after his death. Said art historian Welsh-Ovcharov: “Fame did come to him very quickly. As soon as he was dead, and even prior to that, more and more artists and contemporaries realized what this so-called madman was all about.” Collectors began to seek out his work, and the art world began to recognize him as a master who had influenced the development of Western painting, especially in his use of color as an expressive force. When Irises sold in 1947, to Joan Whitney Payson—whose family owned the painting until Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond bid $71 million for it in 1987—the price was $84,000, an extremely high figure for a painting at that time.

Certainly, van Gogh’s impact on subsequent generations of artists has been lasting. Pablo Picasso and the German expressionists acknowledged their debt to him. British artist Francis Bacon painted variations on van Gogh’s works. And Matisse, who owned several of his drawings, was in awe of him.

More recently, Regina artist Fafard, who says that he has read everything he can find about van Gogh, has produced a 40-part sculptural work that transforms each of the Dutch artist’s self-portraits into three dimensions. Said Fafard: “I didn’t start out thinking that van Gogh was greater than other artists. I concluded that after completing my study.”

Feeling: Many have written about van Gogh, but few have been able to articulate the extraordinary appeal of his work more effectively than the scholar Rewald. “Every one of his canvases has a spiritual content, crystallizing a genuine feeling,” he wrote in Post-Impressionism: From van Gogh to Gauguin. Now, only a wealthy few can afford to own his paintings. But, for the millions who cherish his work, it transcends price tags—and endures as the uplifting legacy of a life of pain.