PRINT March 1987


“Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers”

“VAN GOGH IN SAINT-RÉMY and Auvers,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is about the last year and a half of the painter’s life, and is a disappointing show. One goes expecting that van Gogh will continue to be the great formal painter that he is in his work from Arles—from the year before this show begins. (The Met exhibited that work three years ago.) But his work from Saint-Rémy, where he lived in an institution, and Auvers, where he went for the last months of his life—he committed suicide at age 37—is dulled down, without strong feelings. You walk away with a sense that the work is mostly about shades of green, with a lot of gray and tan, and that the pictures as a whole are without light. If you have never seen a large group of van Goghs, you may be absorbed and impressed; he is one of the purest, most forceful artists in the history of art. This is brilliant work, in its way; but it isn’t brilliant by his standards. The show is deflating; it is more a documentary than an art show.

Van Gogh continues to be an artist that society, at different times, will have different feelings about. For some time, especially during the period when “Modern art” was at its height, his reputation was not so secure and high; he was a favorite more of the general audience than of artists, critics, or theorists. But especially in the past ten years or so, with the interest in images for their own sake, artists have been increasingly his most attentive and pleased audience. He has become, perhaps, the most important artist of his era—he is, I think, a more loved figure than Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, or Henri Matisse.

The Met’s Arles show was elating. Van Gogh seemed to go on and on, making one full scene after another. There were great portraits and pictures of wheat fields, of fields and towns seen from long distances, of backyard gardens, of public gardens and street life in Arles. There was a florid and atypical but amazing scene of a harbor, with the sky a streaky but luscious mess. The drawings were awesome; they had a wonderful erectness. Every stone and blade of grass seemed to be seen individually. In the paintings, every color seemed available to him; I particularly remember turquoise and yellow. He appeared to be totally reckless and totally in control. When he was in the midst of his streak in Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo that his mind was above all else “lucid.” His small paintings of wheat fields were the finest works; the individual colors and strokes of paint were beautiful in the way that holy objects were thought to be beautiful. He seemed to work in a state of bliss.

The art of his last year and a half shows that van Gogh suffered something overwhelming around the time Gauguin came to Arles and then left. Van Gogh wrote to Theo shortly after, around the time that he went to the Saint-Rémy asylum, in May, 1889, that “I have no will, hardly any desires or none at all,” and in other letters he talks about his “indifference.” His painting from about this time onward has a holding-operation quality. His handwritinglike style is in place, but the artist is warmed—touched, excited—by less and less. We see views of the corridors, his bedroom, and the garden at the asylum. There are pictures of fields, poplars, and olive groves. In Auvers—it is twenty miles outside Paris—he paints thatched roofs, the stones and streets of the town, gardens and fields. There are portraits from both places, and some are well known: a portrait of his friend Dr. Gachet, who was a friend of many artists; a picture of a girl with a bonnet sitting in a field; a self-portrait with a brilliant blue background—the painter turns to look at us from over his shoulder. There are also some very well-known landscapes from this period; this was the time he painted cypress trees and the famous Starry Night, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Some of the pictures are first-rate. A painting of irises in a garden, seen head-on, is powerfully constructed, and there are some strong scenes of a field with a distant wall. One, where the sun rises in the distance and we feel we’re gliding over huge waves of earth, moving toward the sun, is monumentally sturdy. There is a striking small picture of a man and a woman walking by a cypress tree,toward sunset. It has a golden red and a wet blue green; the work is postcardish—the colors are oversaturated. Yet it evokes a Mediterranean, biblical feeling and we sense that the man, who has a red beard, may be the painter.

The portrait of Trabuc, the asylum keeper, has a wonderful tan background; the man has a memorable white-and-brown-striped jacket, bulging forehead, and frown. It is a compact and dense work. Van Gogh said (about a year before he made the picture), “Ah! portraiture, portraiture with the thoughts, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come.” Van Gogh invented the modern psychological and spiritual portrait, and Trabuc is one of the high points of his art. The lesser-known of the show’s two self-portraits is also dense and strong. Van Gogh’s head is somewhat flattened; his face and hair are an orange yellow, and the background is a soft grayed green. The combination of colors is fresh and unexpected and pleasant—exactly the qualities missing from most of these later works.

At this show, even the strong and well-known pictures are flattened out by the larger subject of van Gogh’s enveloping sadness and lack of feelings; nearly everything seems far away and ungraspable and wan and uneventful. In the first works we see—drawings and watercolors from May, 1889—his touch is fuzzy and heavy. In the first large room at the show, which presents landscapes from June and July, there is already a preponderance of green, a lack of light, a sameness of color. Some of the views from a distance have a surprisingly conventional feeling and structure. The many paintings and drawings of a field with a wall have a masterful technique, but they feel like summations, presentation pieces. Especially if you have seen his earlier paintings of fields, these feel worked up. In the views of olive orchards and of the asylum grounds, there are a lot of smoldering, hot reds and purples and pale, dreary greens. One feels him groping, backtracking experimenting. He often makes a sky of dashes or dots that zoom off, or he outlines a shadow cast by a tree in an orchard and then fills in this shadow-form with dots, so the orchard “floor” has an ornamental, patterned feeling. Van Gogh seems to anticipate much (somewhat later) turn-of-the-century art and design. These details were influential up through World War I (and Stuart Davis and Joan Miró made wonderful paintings in this style after the war).

One still loves the way van Gogh paints, yet these details, seen next to his Arles paintings, feel like devices. The asylum and orchard pictures don’t seem to be about anything. The values in the paintings–the contrasts of light and dark—are photographic. These pictures have more life in reproduction, and the Met’s catalogue—it is by Ronald Pickvance, who is also the curator– is more absorbing than the show. The pictures and the mostly biographical text, which includes many quotes from van Gogh’s letters, fuel each other. The paintings and drawings and his muscular, forthright descriptions of what he was doing form a self-contained world. Going through the book, we don’t care so much about the “quality” of the pictures. We enter a realm where the artist’s products and life, taken together, are the work of art. Van Gogh is less the great French-type painter he wanted to be—the colleague of Delacroix–and more another kind of artist he admired: a cross between an artist and a novelist, an illustrator of a’ text that could change a reader’s life.

When the show turns to Auvers, the overriding spirit is of hopelessness, a dead end. The town scenes are claustrophobic. The buildings, the people, and the rocks seem to be collapsing. The colors are a jumble, cacophonous; he frequently uses a bright red that doesn’t connect with any of its neighboring colors. He uses green more and more. His soul seems to be green. He is such a great poet that, even as you feel the emptiness of the pictures, you realize that he has made green the color of hopelessness. Field with Poppies, an oil, is so smudgy it is unbelievable. From one scene to the next, you feel him lurching. He makes attempt after attempt to grab something in the way of a motif. But each time he seems to lose faith as he works. One painting has an unfinished sky. We feel the labor of finishing that sky. We see what it is like to realize in advance that a picture will be inert when finished. He seems to look a lot at his contemporaries, particularly Monet and Renoir. There is a boating scene that is a redoing of Renoir. But boating scenes are not van Gogh’s subject, and the figures are stiff, weightless. When he shows people on a street or in a field, they are often strange, waddling, deformed. The girl who plays at an upright piano and the girl who sits in the tall grasses are pasty faced, unattractive, unfelt as individuals.

One misses the heat and light, the bright, glowing colors–even the literal image of candlelight or gaslight—of the earlier work. Van Gogh doesn’t paint the sun too often in his last year and a half; when he does, he is most convincing about the light it sheds when he paints a wet, hazy, purplish, late-afternoon light. Most of these scenes have no particular light. The famous Starry Night becomes the symbolic painting of his last period, in that when he painted these stars over a valley, he painted the last convincing real-life light he saw with power: light from stars and the moon in a night sky, light that gives off no heat.

The most experimental and, one can feel, psychologically truthful picture in the show is Rain. It isn’t one of his very finest, but unlike most of these later pictures, it has a subject. This gray painting is more like a detail from a screen, yet it feels complete. The slashes of rain seem to be right on top of the picture, and they give it its contemporary sense of surface. The Met’s exhibition feels like this painting—a portrait of a mind on a gray, hopeless, rainy day.

The final room shows his last work. Each picture is done on two square canvases joined together. The very size—they’re so many small oriental screens—is appealing. But this room is disheartening. Almost each picture is another attempt to push into a different sort of painting. Sometimes the color is naturalistic. Sometimes it feels deliberately artificial; in a picture of hay ricks, he “styles” the color, so that everything has a blond tonality.

Does it make van Gogh any the less to feel that—at least, on the basis of this large selection–his late work has its core sucked out? No, because the sense of bleariness makes his earlier painting fuller. Van Gogh was in love with art and artists and the idea of a painter’s life, but he valued being true to his instincts more. He couldn’t turn out merely professional “van Goghs” for long. Perfecting and cultivating his invention—his handwritinglike style—was not enough for him.

Sanford Schwartz is a writer who lives in New York. He is the author of The Art Presence New York, Horizon Press 1982.

“Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers” will remain at the Met until Marsh 22.

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