What is it, exactly, about Van Gogh?
For those of us with a vested interest in contemporary art, who spend much of our time immersed in the work of artists most Americans have never heard of, it is an important question to ponder from time to time — one that the Norton Simon Museum's temporary installation of an 1889 self-portrait on loan from the National Gallery of Art calls again to the fore.
There is no more familiar face in all of modern art history: the piercing blue eyes; the gaunt, sallow features; the imagined spectacle of a severed ear (turned discretely away from the viewer in this, as in most, variations); all swimming in a sea of madly quivering brush strokes.
If you've never seen Van Gogh's visage in one of the dozens of self-portraits he painted in his lifetime, you've seen it on postcards, calendars, coffee cups or refrigerator magnets. The National Gallery portrait, painted three months after Van Gogh committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy, in the south of France, and less than a year before his death at age 37, is one of the best known, and its front-and-center presentation here is sure to draw the requisite crowd.
It is, of course, a wonderful painting. The chiseled, penetrating face of the artist, fringed by red and ocher wisps of hair, all but glows against a field of breathtaking blue, set down in fervent, agile brush strokes.
It is, indeed, as if the blue got the upper hand, less a color than force, a kind of fever, that persisted beyond the completion of "Starry Night" several months earlier to colonize this canvas as well. The blue refuses to function as merely a backdrop and comes to physically envelop the subject, saturating his smock, bleeding into the palette he holds in his hand, and casting a blue-green tint across his skin.
A vivid painting in almost any reproduction, it is, like all of Van Gogh's work, particularly electrifying when seen in person, where the mad, groping humanness of his brush strokes can best be felt.
That said, the real value of the National Gallery loan — and this is the third that the Norton Simon has received in the exchange — lies less with the virtues of this painting in particular than the opportunity it offers to consider the museum's other Van Goghs, arrayed with pride to either side of this surprisingly small canvas, through a lens of renewed appreciation.
And from there, perhaps, the Cezannes. And from there, perhaps, the Rembrandts. And from there, perhaps, the brilliant suite of Connor Everts prints on view in the project room. At a museum like the Norton Simon, happily, there is no such thing as an isolated masterpiece.
'Self-Portrait' by Vincent Van Gogh
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Through March 4. Closed Tuesdays.
Contact: (626) 844-6900, http://www.nortonsimon.org