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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Mad artist myth no longer holds

Vincent van Gogh in context

Special to The Japan Times

The name Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) invariably invokes a legend -- the legend of a wild, creative genius, out of sync with the stilted, repressive atmosphere of Victorian Europe; who exploded in passionate art and self-destructive disregard of the banal parameters of everyday life; who followed his muse unswervingly, like a moth to a flame; whose madness was the flip side, and possibly the source, of his uncompromising genius. To those of us saddled with responsibilities and borne down by petty rules, this is an immensely attractive legend.

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"The Courtesan" (1885)

It is also the legend that is drawing Tokyo's art lovers out from their homes, cafes and petit galleries, in their hordes, to the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MoMAT), to see an exhibition that, perversely, seeks to destroy the crowd-pulling legend.

Van Gogh is thought of either as a genius or a madman, curator Kenjiro Hosaka complains.

"That is a just a story, a legend. It makes it difficult to get the real information on him. It gets in the way of his social and historical background. Most audiences like legends. They need legends to get a grip on the art, but we want to look around the legend. We want to break the legend.

"Firstly that van Gogh wasn't the tortured, isolated, and insane artist of cliche; that his art wasn't simply a geyser of pure, wild creativity as is often thought; and that as a man and an artist he was firmly rooted in the time and culture from which he sprang."

One of the first paintings greeting you as you enter is "Still Life with Open Bible." It serves to highlight the powerful influence on van Gogh of Dutch Calvinism. Indeed, his father was a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church. Although van Gogh later made nature and art his religion, he always retained the fervor, as well as the methodical and disciplined habits of this faith.

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"Road with Cypress and Star" (1890)

Calvinism, with its emphasis on the sanctity of honest labor, infuses a painting like "The Sower" (1888), in which the sun creates a golden canopy over the humble laborer at his work. With three crows eating the seeds that fall by the wayside, it also evokes the biblical parable of the sower, one that had a particularly strong resonance with Calvinists.

This painting, especially in the figure of the sower, owes a clear debt to an 1850 painting of the same name by Jean-Francois Millet, who delighted in scenes of the working poor. This ties in with one of the main themes of the exhibition -- van Gogh's influences from his contemporaries and predecessors. To make this point there are several Japanese woodblock prints, including Keisai Eisen's "Courtesan" (c. 1830-46), alongside van Gogh's own surreal version.

By highlighting the many influences on van Gogh's art, the exhibition goes a long way to dismantling the myth of pure creativity that has surrounded him in the public mind. A picture emerges of a painter who carefully looked at other painters and diligently learned his craft from them. Almost all the elements of van Gogh's art are reflected in the context with which this exhibition surrounds his art.

Paul Cezanne's "Road Leading to a Lake" (c. 1885) shows the cross-hatching painting technique that van Gogh adopted and used with greater vigor, while his technique of setting dots, flecks, or strokes of unmixed colors next to each other to create potent vibrations, is referenced to the experiments of the Pointillistes, represented here by Paul Signac's "The Lighthouse at Portrieux" (1888). Both these influences emerge strongly in "Road with Cypress and Star" (1890), a painting that seems to writhe with artistic energy.

Although the influence of other artists is apparent, the tendency remains to view van Gogh as an emotionally isolated figure. While this may be true of the period he spent in Arles toward the end of his life (1888-90), it is certainly not true of his time in Paris (1886-88). Van Gogh organized exhibitions with other artists, like Paul Signac (1863-1935), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), who were outside the mainstream, he called this group the Petit Boulevard. It was this experience that led van Gogh to believe he could found a utopian art colony in Arles in the South of France. This is the time and place central to his legend, as this was his most productive period and also where he started suffering fits of madness that finally led him to shoot himself in 1890.

"The Yellow House" (1888) shows the famous building where van Gogh lived at this time. The pale yellow hues under a heavy cobalt sky create an almost oppressive feeling, hinting at the mental trauma van Gogh was to suffer there. Indeed, it is perhaps possible only at this latter end of the artist's short life to see something of the half-insane genius of legend in the strong distortions of form and color, and the powerful brushstrokes so characteristic of his art, almost as if he were painting in a hallucinatory frenzy. However, van Gogh's madness occurred in short episodes between long periods of lucidity. "When he was ill he didn't paint," Hosaka informs. "So I don't think his art comes from his craziness."

By emphasizing his painting technique, influences and background, this thought-provoking exhibition manages to successfully attack the cliche of the tortured, original genius. But, by dismantling the legend, isn't there a danger of destroying the appeal that van Gogh has for so many people?

"I don't think we can entirely stop making the legend," Hosaka ponders. "But if we make the legend, we should at least try to make the real legend. I want to move the legend closer to the paintings and to the real van Gogh."

"Van Gogh in Context" runs at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo 3-1 Kitanomaru Koen, Chiyoda-ku, 102-8322 Tokyo Japan; then moves to The National Museum of Art, Osaka from 31 May- July 18; and to Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, July 26 - Sept. 25

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