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Skull of a skeleton with burning cigarette

Van Gogh
Van Goghs

Van Gogh lands in Los Angeles (An unlikely marriage some years ago!), and along with the opening of the Getty Center in the Hollywood Hills, seems to drive in the nail of a new cultural identity of this city to the great displeasure of the pseudo-elitist San Francisco where the cultural aura hasn’t quite gone past the patchouli artist workshops.

After a stop in Washington DC, Los Angeles benefited from the unique passage to the New World of this itinerant exhibit on loan from Amsterdam as their museum undergoes renovation. It’s with a certain impatience that I awaited this visit as one would a pilgrimage, having always been fond of his tortuous representation of the world I grew up in (Arles, Saintes-Maries de la Mer, Saint-Remy-de-Provence).
The exhibit is divided into five periods, each one represented by well and lesser known works.

The first room covers his Dutch debut at the end of the 1889 and principally describes harsh peasant life as witnessed by The Potato Eaters, Head of a Woman, Head of a Man, Cottage, and Skeleton Smoking a Cigarette. The painter reinforces this harshness by giving his figures rugged faces and deformities representing the difficulty of labor, and by using dark, worn colors.

Two years and one room later, you enter the pastel colors of his Parisian period, his Pair of shoes serving as a transition to this new style. His light, bluish representations of harmless landscapes, influenced by his meeting Gauguin and the Impressionists, seem to denote the peaceful state of the artist in a sort of renaissance. To Moulin de la Butte Montmartre, Restaurant of Clichy, Bords de Seine, Rooftops of Paris, Still Life and Self-portraits, add the Japanese influence of The Courtisan. Noted also is the arrival of certain demons with La chauve-souris, or his Absynth glass that contrasts with the innocence of the child playing outside behind the bar window.

One year later he arrives in Arles and his palette of blue, yellow, and red witnesses the human warmth and warm weather found at long last. The Harvest (surely my favorite) shows a path of blue stages (human figure-facades of farm houses-mountains-sky) like an escape bringing certain good fortune. This impression is amplified with The Bedroom where the paintings in relief within the painting take on body (further enforcing the need to see this work up close). In effect, the relief of the tableau under his pillow seems to symbolize an exit door into another world: painting, his only reality, the world where he becomes alive, contrary to the uniformity of his bedroom. Others like Yellow House, or Fishing Boats of Saintes-Maries with their juxtaposition of deformed and classical, confirm a certain trouble between reality and another world.

In 1889 he goes to Saint-Remy-de-Provence where he seems to recover from his trauma, leaving only some scars as one can see in Champ de Blé au Coupeur, a symbol of a predatory death. One could also look into his version of Pieta by Delacroix, an imprint of a certain crucifixion, together with other views of the asylum in which he was interred.

Finally in 1890 we come to the last stop, Auvers-sur-Oise, where Wheatfield with crows presents us with a torturous path falling prey to the birds of ill omen, contradicting The Harvest by its absence of s sky offering salvation. While some may refute, it’s difficult not to see the symbolism of the path of his life and its near end.

Moving on to the Van Gogh circus.

I pose the following question: What was the more annoying, the extreme merchandising or the vulgar visitors? The latter have an upper hand. Though the posters, cards, umbrellas, mugs, magnets, boxes and more displayed all of the paraphernalia of a profit machine, they were largely eclipsed by the torture by the visitors.

Even if morning at a museum usually isn’t rush hour, it was a real battlefield to be able to contemplate a painting. Once I pushed the fat guy in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt out of my way, I had to get rid of the shrews literally sticking their noses in the paintings. Someone, for effect, even dared blurt out "It’s funny how this guy’s red shirt in front of me doesn’t really go with the painting at all" in order to clear the path. I must make a remark about the preponderance of framing specialists in the room who spent most of their time trying to inspect what was behind the paintings. The "experts" and the "amateurs", all proud of enlightening everyone in the room with their knowledge and invaluable impressions herby give you the honor of their finest Vangoghian pearls:

    While gazing at a self-portrait: "He really does look like Kirk Douglas."
    Comparison between a stylized and finished portrait:"They look so different."
    Contemplating a landscape: "It’s so impressionist!"
    Contemplating another landscape: "The sky is so blue."
    In front of The Yellow House, Arles: "I want to rent an Enterprise car, drive to Arles, and go horseback riding!"
    Finding meaning in Skeleton Smoking a Cigarette: "Even at that time the message was that smoking kills!"
Van Gogh: Van Goghs
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
January 17, 1999 – May 16, 1999

  Fred Thom


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