Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Lessons of Van Gogh

Since I was a 5th grader in school taking art classes at the Portland Museum of Art, I have been entranced by Van Gogh. Every Saturday for weeks, I would pass his masterpieces as I trudged to art class. They were on loan as they were building a new museum just for his art. In the years since I have read many of the letters, read about his life and of course visited every exhibit of his paintings he made such an influence on me.

My first chance to see his museum was in 1967 when I was traveling to Liberia, West Africa to begin my two years in the Peace Corps. My group had a whole day in Amsterdam so we were out to see the sights. We hit the Anne Frank house first, and leaving there in tears just didn't have it in us to see anything else. I don't even remember what we did after but we were a very sober group on the flight to Liberia, West Africa.
Van Gogh's Perspective Frame

So, it was with great anticipation that I went to the Van Gogh museum last week. I have recounted the carnival like madness of merely getting into the museum on a average summer day. However, once inside, it was worth every minute of waiting.

This museum, like my most favorite museum in the world, the Prado in Madrid, is very accessible. You are carefully guided through his life and work yet the museum manages to include incredible details of his work effortlessly. I learned more in a few hours there than in all the years of reading about him.

One of the things that surprised me was that art did not come easily. He had to work harder than most to get the details right...perspective, figures, all the things most artists seem to understand natively. This frame, the one he used to get his perspective correct was fascinating. In many of his earlier paintings, X-rays have revealed pencil lines showing the work he did before he painted. This frame was made for him in several sizes and is detailed in a letter to Theo.

In reading about his art, you often find that he has sketched over and over again figures, buildings, scenes and such because of his limitations. Yet today, it is those very "eccentricities" that endear him and make his art so unique.

The other busted myth was that he was self taught. That is anything but the truth. He did take classes often struggling to master his limitations. His major teacher was Anton Mauve who while a realist painter, showed him how to use both oils and watercolors. They would do paintings of the same subjects and of each other! He also spent much time with the greats like Gauguin, Degas, Toluse-Lautrec and others and learned from them as well. He became fascinated with the Japanese block prints and several of his renditions of them, along with the originals he saw, showed that he was very influenced by what he saw around them. He must have brushed against Seurat as there is even a pointillist period of which self portraits are in abundance. It was finally in Paris that his colors lightened and he became infatuated with color.

The other lesson, and sad as it is, is that what we are seeing today, no matter how well preserved they are, is the paintings do not look like when he painted them. Many of the colors, the reds and purples especially, have faded and in some cases are non-existent today. This discovery was made when pictures were removed from their frames for cleaning. It was discovered that on the edges, hidden by the frame from light that many colors were far more vivid, in some cases startlingly so. They showed one painting, "Bedroom In Arles" as it is today and also a digitally enhanced version that restores many of the faded colors. While still striking today, the missing violets and purples would make the painting even more compelling. It turns out that many of the oils in that era depended on natural dyes and the red lake and some of the purples faded, often in less than ten years. I wish more of the paintings were shown as they might have been.

If you are an artist, of any style, this museum is definitely one that you should visit. The depth of the exhibit, the depth of the knowledge given is worth every minute. You will come out with so much more knowledge, not just about Van Gogh's methods but with questions that you might want to ask yourself about your own art.

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