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Art: Agony, Bliss & Hard Labor

2 minute read

To his impressionist friends, Vincent Van Gogh was a pathetic puzzle. Renoir, Monet and Pissarro all painted nature ripe and smiling in iridescent veils of sunlight, but the touchy, red-bearded Dutchman couldn’t manage that; he seemed to be after something different.

Not until after Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 did the world begin to find out what he was pursuing. In ten years of agony, bliss and hard labor, he had poured out some 900 drawings and 800 paintings, written hundreds of letters. Self-expression was all he cared about, and the self he expressed was so affectionate, violent and wide open to the world around him that the circle of his admirers has broadened with each generation.

Nine hundred thousand people scrambled to see Van Gogh’s first full-scale show in the U.S. (in 1935-36). Last week a repeat performance opened in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum.

The new exhibition, which would move on to Chicago’s Art Institute in January, was even more comprehensive than the old one, with 96 paintings and 68 drawings covering every period of his work.

In their use of color the paintings of the impressionists were like windows looking out onto sun-filled space. Van Gogh’s were more like lamps; the powerful contrasts of pure color created an effect of light-vibration which was not confined to the pictures themselves but seemed to radiate from them. And where the impressionists minimized drawing, he applied an oriental concept that he had learned from studying the woodcuts of the 19th Century Japanese artists, Hiroshige and Hokusai. To Van Gogh, as to the Japanese, line was more than a lasso for capturing shapes, it was a way of touching and riding the slope of a field, the thirsty arc of a sunflower, the surge of a mountain or the flamelike thrust of a cypress.

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