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.