Monday, December 31, 2007

Gods Behaving Badly

If you have even the slightest interest in Greek mythology, zip over to Amazon and grab Marie Phillips' debut novel, "Gods Behaving Badly." I finished reading it last night, and thought it one of the most original and quirky novels I've read in a long time. The concept is fantastic: what if the Olympian gods were still around today? Phillips' gods live in a squalid house in London and have jobs appropriate to their functions. Apollo is an aspiring television psychic, Artemis a dog-walker, Aphrodite a phone-sex operator, Dionysos a clubowner and DJ, etc. Unbeknownst to everyone, the gods still have say-so over the world's affairs, although their powers are waning. Mayhem ensues when a pair of unsuspecting mortals enters their lives. The writing style is as quirky as the story, and I love how Phillips has translated the 'personalities' of the gods into modern terms. (Except that Apollo has always been my favorite, and he's a bit of an arse in her book--well, he could be an arse in Ovid too.) I chuckled aloud more than once. I'll be telling my Classical Mythology class this semester about it, for certain!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Way to Gogh

Ok, the bad pun had to show up sometime. Art Daily reports that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had about 1.5 million visitors this year. The exhibitions "Van Gogh and Expressionism" and "Max Beckmann in Amsterdam" were big draws, and the current show on fin-de-siècle Barcelona is popular too.

But here's the interesting statistic: more than half the VGM's visitors are reported to be age 30 or younger. (Sadly, I'm a few years away from having been one of those during my visits.) It's suggested that the museum's Friday night programs helped contribute to this figure. Back in May I went on a Friday night, stupidly thinking that it would be quiet and I'd get to spend quality time with the paintings. Wrong! It was hopping! A DJ was playing house music in the atrium, and young people were lounging around on cushy chairs, enjoying the cash bar. The galleries were packed, and you could hear the music throughout the building. Not what I wanted, really, but it was still fun. And neat to think that a museum could be considered The Place To Be -- especially when Amsterdam offers all manner of, shall we say, alternative entertainment.

There's more to it than that, I think. Vincent is rather a cult hero among young people (ohhh, I sounded old just then). All my students know who he is even before I get to them, and most of them like his art. He's "cool," and I think that as much as DJ's and a cash bar helps explain the VGM's popularity.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

This Day in History...

On December 23, 1888, about 11:30 pm, van Gogh walked into Madame Virginie Chabaud's maison de tolérance [brothel] at Number 1, Rue du Bout d'Arles in Arles, and asked for a girl called Rachel. He handed her a piece of his ear, wrapped in newspaper. Why he mutilated himself, and why he chose to take the grisly gift to Rachel, we'll probably never know.

When I visited Arles back in May, I walked down the former Rue du Bout d'Arles, now the Rue des Écoles. It's a short, still rather gritty street, a few minutes' brisk walk from the original site of Vincent's yellow house. Both brothel building and yellow house are gone now--victims of WW II bombings--so you have to use your imagination in reconstructing the scene. You have to use your imagination in reconstructing van Gogh's entire neighborhood around Place Lamartine, since the public garden he once frequented and painted is now mostly a car park, the former Café de la Gare is a vacant lot, and the once-gendarmarie is now a Monoprix. But something about the Rue des Écoles on that sunny Sunday afternoon, something about standing on the sidewalk in front of the hollowed-out spot where Rachel's brothel used to be, gave me a little chill. Call it my own over-active imagination, but it did.

The best recent analysis of December 23, 1888, can be found in Martin Bailey's article, "Drama at Arles: New Light on Vincent van Gogh's Self-Mutilation" in the journal Apollo (Sept 2005) 31-41.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Good Books of 2007

I've read a lot of books this year--fun books, not counting books for work or research. Most of them I've read before bedtimes, in a desperate attempt to keep that little hamster in my head from spinning his wheel all night. Here are my favorites, some published in 2007, others published earlier but took me a while to get to them (no particular order).

Nancy Horan, "Loving Frank"--Wow. This one's a real page-turner, even if you already know Mamah Cheney's fate.
Susan Vreeland, "Luncheon of the Boating Party"--I love Impressionist painting and Paris, so I was going to love this book.
Tracy Chevalier, "The Lady and the Unicorn"--Imaginative and richly told.
Elizabeth Hickey, "The Wayward Muse"--I'm a Rossetti fan from way back. Hickey does him justice.
Katharine Davis, "Capturing Paris"--Beautiful writing and an atmospheric story.
Barbara Quick, "Vivaldi's Virgins"--Made me want to go back to Venice...subito!
Donna Leon, "Suffer the Little Children"--This may be the best of Leon's Inspector Brunetti series.
Cara Black, "Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis"--And this may be the best of Cara Black's Aimée Leduc series.

Hope 2008 brings more good reading!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Van Gogh for Kids

There's a surprising number of van Gogh products for kids. My favorite van Gogh-themed kid's book is "Camille and the Sunflowers," authored and illustrated by Laurence Anholt, one of a series about famous artists. The drawings are both clever and lovely: Vincent looks so cute with his straw hat and wooden shoes! The message of the book is accepting others who are different from you, with young Camille Roulin (a real person, painted by Vincent) learning this lesson when his new painter friend is picked on by other kids in town. Camille's father Joseph Roulin is the other main character. Anholt clearly did his homework in crafting this sensitive story. Coming in second for me is "Vincent's Colors," a book produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here Vincent's own words are shaped into a poem, each line paired with an appropriate painting. Bright and colorful, kids are sure to like this book.

For littler ones, Baby Einstein's DVD "Baby Van Gogh World of Colors" is surprisingly good. I got it for my nephew (now 9 months old), and it quickly became his favorite. It calms him down when he gets a bit fussy. Each color is represented by a van Gogh painting ("painted" by puppet Vincent Van Goat) and matched with an almost surrealist barrage of colorful images set to music. My only complaint is that there is no Bonus Feature with commentary on the paintings. No, I have another, why on earth is "Sunflowers" put with Orange and not the more obvious Yellow??

Most people probably wouldn't think of Vincent as a lover of children, but he was. One of the great regrets of his life is that he never had a wife and family of his own. For a brief time, he had two surrogate children when he lived with prostitute Sien Hoornik in The Hague; she had a little girl and was pregnant again when she met Vincent. Vincent's letters to Theo during this time reveal his deep attachment to the children, and he loved drawing them too (see at right). After the relationship with Sien ended, Vincent's sadness at leaving the children, then bitterness at not having his own, come through in his letters.

I'm not sure how Vincent would feel about Starry Night umbrellas or Van Gogh action figures (yes, they exist), but I think he'd like his work being the subject of educational books and videos for children.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The World We Live In

Last night, I finished reading USMC Col. Matthew Bogdanos' memoir, "Thieves of Baghdad," about the efforts of his military team to recover artifacts stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003. Superb book, a good read with a great message about the importance of preserving our shared cultural heritage. Sadly, much work remains to be done in bringing the Iraq Museum back to a semblance of normal, and bringing lost artifacts back to Iraq, but Col. Bogdanos and his men helped pave the way for future successes.

The book brought back a memory of Amsterdam in May. My first morning there, I strolled past the Van Gogh Museum and noticed a guard with a bomb-sniffing dog patrolling the perimeter. Not some show-pony guard, a big fellow with the international look of 'cop' and boots designed to kick bad guys up the arse. (We'll call him Dirty Hans. How do you say "Make my day" in Dutch?) I assumed Dirty Hans patrolled only when the museum was closed, but not the case: in three real visits to the VGM (thanks to my handy Museumkaart) and many strolls past (my hotel, the splendidly spotless Hotel Fita, was two minutes away), I always saw Dirty Hans. I'd never seen a bomb-sniffing dog at a museum before. No such dogs at the Rijksmuseum up the Museumplein from the VGM.

Then it came to me. Theo van Gogh. Not Vincent's brother Theo, his grand-nephew Theo, assassinated by a Muslim extremist on an Amsterdam street for making a documentary about the treatment of women in the Muslim world. His killer is in prison, but his killer's got buddies. Wouldn't they love to get their hands on the Van Gogh Museum, wipe out a chunk of the van Gogh ancestral legacy and several hundred tourists to boot? The thought made me sick -- then it made me mad. Still does.

It's a nasty world we live in, when artifacts become looted contraband and museums become potential terrorist targets. Here's hoping that one day, we'll be safe enough that the Van Gogh Museum won't need Dirty Hans.

Friday, December 14, 2007

So Many Exhibitions, Never Enough Time (or Money)

Good things coming in the museum world this spring. The Metropolitan Museum of Art just re-opened their 19th-early 20th c galleries a bit over a week ago, so museum visitors will be able to enjoy a spiffed-up setting for van Gogh & Co. The Met has some great-looking shows coming up in the next few months, the highlight in my view being a retrospective of Gustave Courbet (Feb 27-May 18). The National Gallery in Washington, DC will be presenting, among other shows, "The Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Manet" (March 2-June 8) a show which was presented at the Musée d'Orsay this year (if I'm not mistaken), and which will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, following the Washington venue. The show I'm sorry to be missing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" (March 15-July 19), co-organized with the Musée du Louvre.

The Van Gogh Museum's big spring show is co-organized with the Tate Gallery and presents the work of British painter John Everett Millais; his wondrous "Ophelia" will be a highlight. But the exhibition for which I wish Floo Powder really existed (apologies to Ms. Rowling) is the focus-show "Van Gogh's Scribbles," which I assume will be presented in the intimate print-room gallery on the third floor (European second floor). This display will present some of Vincent's original sketchbooks, letters to Theo & co. with sketches of paintings-in-progress, and other bits of this and that on which Vincent liked to scribble (restaurant menus being but one example). Because these artifacts are so sensitive to light, they are rarely put on view, so the folks visiting the VGM between January 11 and March 30, 2008 are in for a treat. How do you say "jealous" in Dutch? Oh well, I'll sit home and leaf through my copy of "The Seven Sketchbooks of Vincent van Gogh," which presents nice facsimiles of the sketchbook pages and even the restaurant menus.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Art of Words

Not much time left for the exhibition "Painted with Words" at the Pierpont Morgan library, celebrating Vincent's letters to friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard (closes Jan. 6th). For fun, I took a minute during my office hour today to see if there was a good airfare to do one of my crazy up-and-back-in-one-day trips, but alas, no fare cheap enough to suit me. Quel dommage!

I've got the catalogue though, and I love it, especially the pages with facsimiles of the letters. What better way to get to know van Gogh than to see his scrawling text: which words he makes just a little bigger to stress their importance, where he gets excited and his handwriting a little bit worse, where he's more patient and the writing is neater. And his French grammar? Not perfect, but that's part of him too. How much do we miss these days, communicating with everyone via email and generic fonts designed by somebody else? Sure, we have the words, but do we have the essence? Who's going to put up an exhibition a hundred years from now with printouts of so-and-so's emails?

I think a lot about words, especially this time of the semester when I've got a pile of students' words to read. I can tell who in the stack loves words and really thinks about they're writing, and who's just trying to get the job done. Words are something to savor; one of my great pleasures is when I'm writing (academically or creatively), fussing over a certain sentence, and boom! There's the word I want, just like magic. It IS magic, and in some ways, a dying art. We're writing more than ever -- but are we really writing? (And don't get me started on the dying art of good spelling...)

"There's the art of lines and colors, but there's the art of words that will last just the same." -VvG to Bernard (letter 4, April 1888)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Van Gogh on the Road

Got a trip planned and curious about van Goghs in the area? The splendid site "Vincent van Gogh Gallery," hands-down the best site on the web for all things Vincent, actually has a World Map of Van Gogh paintings: This past spring, I was set to give a talk at the University of Kansas, and I went straight to the map to discover which van Goghs the Nelson-Atkins Museum had...then contrived to get myself there. It's become a little ritual of mine with trips to new places.

It gets trickier when it comes to the museums themselves: how to know if an artwork you want to see is out on loan? It's a sad, sad feeling when you arrive at a museum gallery and hunt in vain for The Special Painting you've been longing for. Unfortunately, most museums don't have this information readily available, but some do. The Musee d'Orsay's new site has a nifty floorplan which lets you know what's hanging where in the museum (and they seem to keep it updated). The Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo has a cyberlist of artworks out on loan to help prevent unpleasant surprises. But most of the time--you're taking your chances. Happy Hunting!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Hear Her Roar

This art-world story has little to do with van Gogh, but it's so mind-boggling it deserves a post. Yesterday afternoon, Sotheby's New York sold at auction a landmark ancient Near Eastern sculpture, known as the "Guennol lioness," for a record-shattering $51 million hammer price (just over $57 million with the buyer's premium). The estimates had been $14-18 million. The lioness is a well-known masterpiece of early Elamite sculpture, dating from ca. 3000 BC. It was found near Baghdad in the early 1930s and has been in private hands ever since. The most recent owners have had it since the 1940s, and have been very generous in loaning the lioness for exhibitions and to the Brooklyn Museum's ancient art galleries. If any antiquity in the world was going to go for $57 million at auction, this would be it because of its beauty and rarity, but still--it's unbelievable. Not only does the lioness become hands-down the most expensive antiquity ever sold at auction (and I'm guessing, sold ever), but it's also the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction, period.

This kind of price is usually found only for the big names of 19th and 20th century painting, and even then only for big-time works by those folks. Van Gogh's current auction record remains The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold at auction in 1990 for $82.5 million. That portrait has not been seen in public since--it was purchased by a Japanese businessman who kept it in a vault, and after his death, it is said to have been quietly sold to another collector in the late 1990s. The identity of the winning bidder of the Guennol Lioness has not (yet?) been revealed, but at that price, it's almost certainly a private collector. Here's hoping that the lioness' new owner will be as generous about sharing her as the previous owners were. It would be a shame for her to be tucked away in a vault, never to see the light of public day again.

By the way--did I mention she's only a shade over 3 inches tall? As one of my students put it, she cost not quite $20 million per inch. Wow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Van Gogh at Night"

Looks like the next big van Gogh exhibition in the US will be "Van Gogh at Night," hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, Sept 21, 2008-Jan 4, 2009. The exhibition then moves to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Feb 13, 2009-June 7, 2009. The MOMA website at this point gives only a cursory description of the show and doesn't name any specific works. But if you visit the website of the Kroller-Muller Museum and consult their "Objects on loan" list, you discover at least some of the pieces they intend to lend, including "The Sower" (currently in Seoul for the big VvG retrospective, so visitors to Otterlo will be missing it for a while) and "Landscape with Wheatsheaves and Rising Moon." Notably absent from the Kroller-Muller's list is the famous "Cafe Terrace at Night" -- can it be that an entire exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh's night imagery will be missing this painting?? Surely later we'll see it added to the list...

This promises to be an exciting show, both visually and in a scholarly sense. I think I will have to make an overnight journey to NYC for this one, instead of just a rushed daytrip as I did for "Van Gogh and Expressionism"!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Why "Starry Night"?

At a holiday party this weekend, someone I was chatting with casually mentioned her "Capitol One credit card with Starry Night on it." There had been several designs to pick from, and she chose Starry Night because she knew it was Van Gogh. And it was pretty.

Show a picture of "Starry Night" to just about anybody, and they can tell you it's Van Gogh, or at the very least, "that guy who cut off his ear." What's in the art history survey textbooks, be it Gardner or Stokstad or Jansen? "Starry Night." What can you find as a switchplate cover, a tote bag, an umbrella, a mousepad, a throw blanket? "Starry Night."

Truth is, Vincent didn't consider "Starry Night" particularly important among his works. He painted it in June 1889 while at the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole just outside St-Remy-de-Provence, and contrary to popular belief, didn't paint it while looking out his barred room window at the night sky and the mountains. No, he painted it in his studio elsewhere in the building, and if you go to St-Paul-de-Mausole (which I did back in the summer), you see quite clearly that there is no view of Saint-Remy from where Vincent's room would have been. Nor does Saint-Remy even look like the town in "Starry Night." Vincent made up that sweet little Dutch-looking town in the painting, and he imagined that night sky too. He mentions the painting fairly casually to Theo in a letter, doesn't say much about it, and Theo in response doesn't show much enthusiasm for it. (Theo thought Vincent's paintings worked better when they came from nature.) I guarantee you that if Vincent himself picked the paintings that go in the art history textbook, he would NOT pick "Starry Night." (I think he'd pick the London version of Sunflowers and the Harvest in Arles in the Van Gogh Museum.)

So why is "Starry Night" so famous? Why do the tourists flock to it in the Museum of Modern Art, examine it with hushed voices as if in a church, and virtually ignore Vincent's beautiful Olive Trees hanging next to it? Is it the brilliant colors or just brilliant marketing? Or is it the stars themselves--so different from any other starry night Vincent painted--that make us dream?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Van Gogh in Portland

The Portland Art Museum has added one of Van Gogh's Dutch works, "The Oxcart," to its collection. Painted in July 1884, while Vincent was living with his parents in Nuenen, "The Oxcart" reveals his interest in contemporary peasant life. Another version of this painting belongs to the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo. As reported by the Statesman Journal this past weekend, "The Oxcart" becomes the first Van Gogh on permanent view in a Northwestern US museum.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Lonely Attic Room

The room where Van Gogh died still exists. Arrive at the Auberge Ravoux on the main square of the little town of Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris, climb the wooden stairs to the top floor, and enter the small room where Vincent drew his last breath. A single skylight lets in the sun, the double-doored squat closet where he would have put his things waits ready, and if you look closely, you can see holes in the plaster where somebody hung things on the wall. Vincent was the last person to sleep in this room; because he was a suicide, the inn closed it to tenants after his death. On my two visits to Auvers (in 2006 and 2007), I was fortunate to be at the Auberge at a quiet time, and so had the room--and its memories--to myself.

A Belgian named Dominique-Charles Janssens acquired the Auberge Ravoux in the early 1990s after a long struggle with creditors, the French government, etc. and lovingly restored the inn to its former glory. The restaurant downstairs has marvelous food, but it's the room upstairs that counts. The room next to Vincent's (in Vincent's day occupied by Dutch painter Anton Hirschig) is restored to show what these rooms looked like when furnished, but Mr. Janssens deliberately left Vincent's room empty "so visitors can furnish it with their thoughts."

But Mr. Janssens has a dream: to bring an original Van Gogh painting back to the room. He's been quietly raising money for years, but the November 7th (non-)auction of "Fields" at Sotheby's New York boosted his resolve. He's made an international call for help from artlovers everywhere and has created a website: The time was too short to raise enough money to bid on the "Fields" at auction, but a statement released after the auction (see "Press" on his site) reveals that he hopes to take advantage of the non-auction to raise more money for "Fields"--or another painting.

At first I was a little dubious, I must admit. I love the quiet of Auvers. I love that it's not touristy, and I'd hate to see it turn into a Van Gogh carnival. But then I thought about how much Mr. Janssens has done thus far--not just for the Auberge Ravoux, but other sites in Auvers such as Dr. Gachet's house--and what commitment he has to maintaining van Gogh's memory. And I let my romantic sensibilities run free, and I think about how the lonely attic room wouldn't seem so lonely with bright, beautiful colors to fill it. I share Mr. Janssen's dream, and I hope others will too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Van Gogh & Wall Street

A week ago, the evening of November 7th, a Van Gogh painting failed to sell ("Fields," July 1890). The biggest Impressionist/Modern Art sale of the Sotheby's season, and the very publicized Van Gogh did not sell. The auctioneer, while coolly professional, looked surprised and a little perturbed, and when he made the last call for bidding ("Fair warning..."), I think there were crickets in the back of the room. No, I wasn't there; I watched it as live webcast on The painting didn't make its reserve ($25 million) so it passed, and because Sotheby's put a guarantee on it with the seller, they now own it. And have to figure out what to do next.

Surprising was the reaction next day. Sotheby's stock plunged about 28%--and the analysts talked about the "Van Gogh Factor." If the Van Gogh can't sell, the art market must be in terrible trouble! Or so the media outlets said. Others grumbled that the estimate was too high, that this painting had been quietly shopped around for months, etc.

What gets me is the irony. During Van Gogh's lifetime, for him not to sell a painting was hardly world news. "He only sold one painting" has become one of those things people just know about Van Gogh. Stocks didn't fall, newspapers didn't notice, and auction houses' bank accounts didn't hinge on the sale or non-sale of a Van Gogh. So what would Vincent make of last week's auction and the response? Would he laugh at the irony or be perplexed that one of his paintings would carry a $28-35 million dollar estimate to begin with? What would he say if he knew he had the power to influence Wall Street?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Welcome -- Bienvenue!

Welcome to my blog, where I'll be posting and sharing my thoughts on art, travel, popular culture, and of course, Vincent van Gogh. Why "Van Gogh's Chair"? For Van Gogh, chairs symbolized friendship and community. When he furnished his yellow house in Arles in summer 1888, among the things he bought were twelve rustic chairs for the colony of artists he hoped to create (only one of those artists ever came--Paul Gauguin--but that's another story!). In his paintings, empty chairs suggest the need for companionship and understanding ("Night Cafe on the Place Lamartine," "Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles"), and in the famous "Van Gogh's Chair"(National Gallery, London), the presence of the artist himself.

So pull up your own chair. Settle in with your cup of coffee, your pipe if you smoke one (Vincent certainly did), or even a glass of absinthe (It's legal again in the US). And join the conversation.