The Denver Art Museum’s Becoming Van Gogh is a worldwide exclusive, which I was lucky enough to be invited to preview, that runs through January 20, 2013. The collection – curated by the museum’s Timothy Standring – includes over 70 pieces from more than 60 public and private collections across North America and Europe. Also part of the exhibition are works by artists who influenced Van Gogh, such as Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Emile Bernard; their inclusion only enhanced my experience, as I walked from room to room following Van Gogh’s progression from an inexperienced artist to a master.
Leading a group of members from the media through the exhibition were Standring and co-curator Louis van Tilborgh, curator at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. As we gathered before entering the first hall, Standring explained to us that, “this is not necessarily a biographical exhibition. [It] is an exhibition about…the process of studio practice. What all visitors are going to take away from this is that Van Gogh made intelligent artistic decisions. And you’re going to see throughout with his brilliantly self-taught moments how your own journey will parallel Van Gogh’s as he went about becoming an artist.”
Our first exposure to Becoming Van Gogh was his Kitchen Gardens on Montmarte (top), painted in Paris in 1887. It was beautiful, the simple yet brilliant brushstrokes I’ve always associated with Van Gogh. But that’s just it, the work didn’t introduce me to anything new or different. Yeah, sure, I liked it, stood and admired it while Standring and van Tilborgh addressed the group, but wasn’t truly impressed until I turned away from it.
Staring at works like A Pair of Shoes, One Upside Down and other still-life works in the first gallery made me reevaluate what little I knew of Van Gogh before walking into the exhibit. Since I first heard the name Vincent Van Gogh and seen one of his paintings I had associated him with landscapes and portraits, largely with small or short brushstrokes influenced by his neo-impressionist contemporaries who were doing art with dots. But this, a painting simply of an old pair of shoes, wowed me beyond what I could have expected. My amazement continued to grow as I continued through the exhibition.
I heard Standring mention previously that Van Gogh trained himself in pen and ink and pencil, through a lot of sketching; approximately 1,000 sketches, Van Gogh completed, in his lifetime. But still I did not expect to see something like the Thatched Roofs, 1884, on display impress me so much. It was another piece, quite simple really, which I could not take my eyes off of. The same could be said for several other of what I considered to be very un-Van Gogh pieces I saw in that hall, as well as the next…
As we wandered into the next hall, I finally began to see works of Van Gogh’s which were familiar – like his Blute-fin Mill, 1886. Well, at least the brushstrokes and scenes I’ve associated with him were familiar. I had never seen the piece until now. But it’s at this point, at least in my limited opinion, that Van Gogh became a master, because it’s when he learned the importance of color. Van Gogh: “A good understanding of [color] is worth more than seventy different shades of paint.”
His beautiful use of color in relatively ordinary and mundane scenes is what I have always loved. And it was in these last rooms where I connected with what I had also associated as Van Gogh, and what impressed me about him so. A simple look at grass, or a wheat field, or even just a Riverbank in Springtime (1887) is what I’ve always loved. It’s relaxing, calming even, to admire the work, the subtleness yet brilliance of the color, and imagine I too am there, toes up and arms stretched behind my head, listening to the quite babble of the river as it runs by.
In the late 1880s Vincent Van Gogh painted 37 self portraits. As was hinted by Standring, though, the exhibition would be the ending with a bang, a crescendo; I assumed they were saving those, the best, for last. Before arriving there, at the end, we traveled with Van Gogh to the south of France, where Vincent committed himself to a hospital in 1889 in the Saint-Remy area. It is here that he painted some of his best works – like The Starry Night, which remains at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art – from the window of one of his two adjoining cells or scenes he saw on short, supervised walks.
Van Gogh left the hospital in May of 1890, continuing to paint beautiful landscapes and portraits. Some of his most famous works are his self portraits, three of which are on display at the Denver Art Museum’s Becoming Van Gogh. I should have expected it, since, after all, his self-portrait with a straw hat from 1887 is on all of the posters and advertisements for the exclusive exhibition, but I was nonetheless surprised when I saw it and the others, all lined up together in a neat row.
Seeing Van Gogh’s serious face, his furrowed brow and stern gaze behind a face full of bushy beard, gave me reason to smile as I exited. I had witnessed a master at work, seen his progression through the years, gazed upon new and unexpected art from him, and became better acquainted with how he is viewed today. More simply put by Vincent Van Gogh himself, “The great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed.” And so it was at the Denver Art Museum.