Going to Van Gogh
On Friday, Jack and I headed up to the Met to check out the van Gogh drawing show. It’s the first time that all the known drawings have been assembled in one place — they’re fragile and very sensitive to light — and, after Jack’s school conferences in the morning, I decided that visiting them was a better way to spend my afternoon than revising Chase checking ads. Hooky is good for the soul.
There are four or five rooms full of drawings and a half dozen paintings and they are arranged chronologically so you can get a sense of his progress. Right off, I was struck but how much better he was at the beginning than I’d thought. I have always disliked the Potato Eater period and thought that his early drawings would be hamfisted and ugly. In fact, they are quite accomplished; however, he had the beginner’s anxious tendency to overwork. Most of the drawings are thick with heavy-handed lines. It also seemed that he was so anxious to develop himself into a commercially-viable genre painter that he was unoriginal and struggling. He even spent a very brief period in art school; his academic nude is embarrassingly mawkish — he is clearly not working from instinct but trying hard to fit in. It was only after he’d left Paris and found himself in Arles that his drawings really took off.
I discovered that he was always a bit of an art supply freak — particularly in his first few years, he did drawings that used graphite, ink, watercolors, thinned-down oil, pastel, all in the same pictures. His most lovely works were done in just sepia ink and the variety came from his lines rather than his media. He had so many ways of making lines, swirls, hashes, dashes, circles, dots, capturing the rich textures of the countryside, the soft waving wheat, the dried, gnarled trees, the prickly cypress leaves, the delicate wildflowers… WIth just reed pen and ink, he could capture layers of mists sfumattoing off to the horizon. Most evocative was the way he rendered the harsh, ever-noon light of Southern France; the high contrast and deep shadows makes the heat wave off the page.
I was struck by things he does that I probably should do but don’t. He’d redraw good drawings and perfect them. Back at the studio he’d paint from drawings done in the field. He’d do drawings of paintings he’d done and send them off in letters to friends, relatives, potential patrons; I was interested in how in different drawings of the same painting he would emphasize different aspects of the composition — making it more abstract, more colorful, more accessible, depending on what would appeal to the particular audience. I just never work my stuff through that way. I like to think of VvG as being very spontaneous and visceral but he was obviously a lot more thoughtful and deliberate than I am.
He gave a couple of the paintings a painted edge which the catalog explained as an attempt to make them special and more ready for sale. One even had a crude marbleized paper matte. SItting on one of the rare benches at the show, I wrote in my journal, “How could people at the time not have bought these? I want to take them all home.”