Vincent van Gogh's best paintings are radically uncouth. Just as he rejected the bourgeois ways of late-19th century family life, so his art progressively refused the formulaic slickness and social reticence promulgated by the art academies of the day. In place of their dully repetitive prescriptions, Van Gogh sought freshness, a soulful sense of intimate kinship with his subject matter that bristled with visual intensity.
"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," the much-publicized exhibition that arrived Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, does a very good job of conveying just what was involved in achieving that difficult aim. Call it a display about sweat equity--the slow, arduous, labored accumulation of painterly skills that, regardless of the innate gifts that are evident even in the artist's earliest paintings, were essential to acquire in order to complete the formidable task Van Gogh had set for himself.
In other words, don't go to LACMA expecting a show stuffed with dazzling masterpieces--if, by masterpiece, you mean a painting that would be counted among the top tier in Van Gogh's mature, fully formed aesthetic. This is not "Van Gogh in Arles" or even "Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers," to cite the two breathtaking exhibitions of the Dutch painter's late work triumphantly organized for New York's Metropolitan Museum in the 1980s. Instead, among the 70 pictures assembled here, only a handful of authentic masterpieces will be encountered.
The reason is that Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, which opened just 25 years ago, was formed around an estate collection that had been handed down through the artist's family. Most of the best paintings had long since been dispersed to public and private collections around the world.
Some, like the amazing pictures "The Bedroom" and "The Yellow House" (both 1888) remained, as did such critically important early works as "Scheveningen Beach in Stormy Weather" (1882) and "The Potato Eaters" (1885). These (and more) are at LACMA. But the bulk of the Amsterdam museum's 200 paintings--and the bulk of the exhibition, which was made possible by a building renovation and expansion project--are undeniably lesser works. What's intriguing is that the resulting emphasis on minor examples turns out to be not such a bad thing.
In "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" you get a clear and compelling sense of what it means to be a working artist--in the most mundane, unromantic sense. For Van Gogh this is especially salutary. His mythic legend has by now so obscured the actuality of his life and art that a focus on the commonplace labor and sometimes snail-like, incremental progress involved in making convincing paintings is as refreshing as a gust of fresh air.
And, for a reason we'll get to in a moment, it is especially pertinent to the empathetic content of this particular artist's work.
Van Gogh started dabbling with painting late (he was 27), his career as a full-time artist was short (eight years from beginning to end) and the period of his great achievement stunningly brief (late 1887 to mid-1890, when a bullet ended everything). Indeed, it's a fairly long haul through the galleries before you'll come upon a true example of one of those flat-out masterpieces promised by the show's title. More than half the exhibition is over when the jaw-dropping landscape "The Harvest" (1888) suddenly pulls you up short. By then, you have a pretty full idea of how Van Gogh got to that remarkable place.
The show's six rooms are divided chronologically, according to the places where the artist lived and painted. The first two rooms, chronicling the formative development of his art in Holland, Antwerp and Paris, are the largest, with 42 of the show's 70 pictures.
Van Gogh's innate, unformed talent is evident straightaway, in the surprisingly free and easy manner brought to "Scheveningen Beach in Stormy Weather," the little picture of a sailboat threatened by a squall (not to mention by thick sheets of viscous oil paint, which seem to bear down hard on the canvas). So is his committed identification with the peasant class, whose daily struggles and closeness to the earth are so poignantly rendered in his ambitious ode to the dignity of secular communion, "The Potato Eaters."
A mordant wit is also in evidence. His juicy little picture of a grinning skull smoking a cigarette is not some prescient surgeon general's warning but, rather, a startlingly contradictory vision of the posthumous pleasures of the flesh.
In these first two galleries you see Van Gogh picking his way through a variety of artistic precedents: absorbing the sensuous brushwork of Frans Hals, ratcheting down the ostentatious objects in traditional Dutch still-lifes, emulating the tenderness of Millet's pictures of workers, sorting out the surprising color of Rubens, learning the optical vibrancy that fueled Impressionism and was analyzed by Seurat.
Pictures in these rooms may even be outright failures, but everywhere you witness a voracious appetite for the task at hand. The hunger may be represented by the smallest triumph--a crackling opposition of hot and cold color in the otherwise casual juxtaposition of two little lines of crimson within the cobalt-blue trim of a jacket, say, or a bristling sense of sentient life in a lowly bunch of chives growing quietly in a flowerpot.
Even a stunningly ugly painting such as "The Courtesan" (1887) becomes remarkable, if only for the anarchic audacity of Van Gogh's scheme. Based on a print by Keisai Eisen of a flirting Japanese geisha wrapped in an elaborate kimono, "The Courtesan" loosely reproduces the scroll. Van Gogh floats it against a watery background filled with jutting bamboo, thick lily pads and red-legged herons, while a puffed-up bullfrog sits at the grinning lady's feet.
Chromatically, the large, vertical, utterly incongruous picture is an eye-popping train-wreck of gold, crimson, jade and lapis lazuli. After all that, coming upon the virtual perfection of "The Harvest," painted the following year and hanging in the next gallery, generates an even more resonant thrill. The hard-won lessons, the willingness to be bold, the naked ambition for his art--all get their stunning day of reckoning here, in the scorched, unforgiving, Mediterranean light of the landscape of Provence.
Anchored around a lumbering wagon wheel at the bull's-eye center of the canvas, an impossibly gilded landscape of harsh, industrious productivity unfolds in carefully measured spaces within the vivid intensity of the picture's sophisticated color. The painting, as both a meticulously crafted object and a visionary image of hard-edged fecundity, becomes a secular embodiment of the biblical injunction that, as ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Late pictures like "The Harvest," "The Zouave," even the weirdly erotic little "Crab on Its Back" startle and mesmerize, because the secular communion sentimentally depicted in "The Potato Eaters" has, after arduous labor that his peasant-subjects knew in their bones, been sensuously transformed into the authentic social intercourse of a powerful work of art. In the final rooms of "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," there are enough of these incendiary works, with their strange but truthful union of joy and pitilessness, to make for a satisfying and unusually illuminating exhibition.
"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," LACMA West, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through May 16. Open daily.