Monday, March 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, Vincent!

Vincent van Gogh was born today in 1853, in the village of Zundert in the southern Netherlands. To celebrate his day, here is one of his floral still life paintings from the Paris period: "Frittilaries in a Copper Vase" (April-May 1887), currently in the Musee d'Orsay.

Among his floral paintings, Vincent is most famous for his sunflowers and irises, but his repertoire contains much more than that. We know from a letter Theo wrote their mother that Vincent accepted flowers from acquaintances while living in Paris and painted them as a way to experiment with color harmonies. Before moving to the French capital, Vincent's palette had been earthy, but his time there led to explosions of color. This work, painted after Vincent had been living over a year in Paris, reveals his particular interest in complementary color pairs (here, blue and orange). One can also clearly see his exposure to pointillism and divisionism, mainly through his friendship with artist Paul Signac. He seems to have been proud of this picture, for unlike most of the Paris period floral still lifes, he signed it. Vincent hoped Theo would be able to sell the flower paintings, but unfortunately, that did not happen. We do know Vincent hung his floral still lifes in the Cafe Le Tambourin on the Boulevard de Clichy, an establishment owned by his then-lover, Agostina Segatori.

Happy Birthday, Vincent!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yale Fights for the "Night Cafe"

Yale University filed a lawsuit in a Connecticut federal court yesterday to assert its ownership of van Gogh's "Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine," the Associated Press has reported. Yale's move is intended to counteract possible legal action by Pierre Konowaloff, the great-grandson of Ivon Morozov, who owned the painting in 1918. As the AP report explains, Morozov's estate, including the "Night Cafe," was nationalized during the Communist Revolution. Konowaloff claims that the Soviet government did not have legal title to the painting and therefore had no right to sell it. In contrast, Yale's lawsuit claims that no international laws were violated when Russia nationalized Morozov's and other art collections, and that Konowaloff has no ownership rights.

Art collector and Yale alumnus Stephen Carlton Clark acquired the "Night Cafe" from a New York gallery in 1933 or 1934, then included the painting in a bequest to Yale in 1961. Recently an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum celebrated the Clark brothers' art collection; the "Night Cafe" was a highlight of the show. The Yale lawsuit points out that neither Morozov's widow nor Konowaloff's parents made any claim on the painting at the time it was acquired by Yale University and the bequest highly publicized. The university argues that Konowaloff can recover neither the painting nor its equivalent value since he failed to take action during the three-year period following Yale's acquisition.

A fascinating case to watch!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hello, Spring

Living in Florida -- where there are really only two seasons, summer and not-summer -- it's easy to forget the first day of spring. Even the television weatherpersons announce the day in a blasé, bemused way, as if it's only a formality after weeks of temperatures hovering around 80.

But still, the arrival of spring deserves a special tribute, and what better than one of van Gogh's flowering orchard canvases from Arles? He painted over a dozen of them in late March-April 1888, pear, plum, apricot and peach trees, explosions of blooms and colors. Subconsciously they likely reflected his feeling of rebirth, arriving as he had in February after two difficult years in Paris. Quite consciously, they reflected Vincent's fascination with Japanese art: artists like Hiroshige made flowering trees a key motif in their ukiyo-e prints. Vincent knew these well, for many beautiful examples formed part of his and Theo's Japanese print collection. Vincent may also have been thinking of one of his heroes, Jean-François Millet, whose lovely "Spring" canvas had entered the Louvre in 1887, while Vincent was still in Paris. (Today "Spring" is in the Musée d'Orsay: see Catherine Delors' blog for a tribute.)

I saw the Van Gogh Museum's collection of flowering orchards in 2007, but I chose my favorite at the Kröller-Müller Museum during that same trip to the Netherlands -- this one, "Peach Trees in Blossom," also known as the "Souvenir de Mauve" (click image to enlarge). I know I say this all the time, but a photograph cannot capture the colors and texture of this picture. It was easily my favorite painting in the entire Kröller-Müller. I could not tear my eyes away. The graceful arc of the tree trunk, the way the flowers stretch to the sky...lovely. Vincent himself thought it the best of the paintings he had done up to that point in Arles, and for that reason, he chose it to send to Jet Mauve, the widow of Dutch landscape painter Anton Mauve, when he learned of Mauve's death. Vincent had known Anton Mauve in The Hague; Mauve had been a mentor and teacher before the two had a falling-out over Vincent's relationship with prostitute Sien Hoornik. It is fair to say that Mauve's work and guidance helped shape Vincent's approach to landscape painting, and Vincent wrote to Theo that he was "choked with emotion" after hearing of Mauve's passing. In typical Vincent fashion, sending the painting to The Hague had a pragmatic angle too: he confided to Theo that the gift "might really break the ice in Holland," in other words, help gain exposure for his work in the brothers' homeland.

After choosing the painting to send, Vincent inscribed it "Souvenir de Mauve" (Remembrance of Mauve) together with "Vincent & Theo." But Theo's name is no longer there, and it is thought Vincent removed it at his brother's request. The painting has never been restored, but the colors are still fresh, whereas in some of the other orchard paintings Vincent's pinks have faded to white.

Happy Spring!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Brush With Genius

I made it to the IMAX Dome of Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry to see "Van Gogh: Brush with Genius," and as promised, here are some thoughts. If this film is playing in your area and you have any interest in van Gogh at all: SEE IT. It is a visual feast. The Imax format immerses you in the paintings; many times the filmmaker gives you the closest details of pictures, so you see individual brushstrokes blown up to thousands of times their actual size. Interspersed with the paintings themselves is superb footage of Auvers-sur-Oise, the asylum at Saint-Remy and its environs (the olive groves), and Arles, together with footage shot in Paris and Amsterdam. In Paris, we see inside the Musée d'Orsay, and in Amsterdam, inside the Van Gogh Museum. Noteworthy in the latter is a look inside The Vaults where the letters and drawings are stored, safe beneath the museum.

The accompanying commentary is fairly lightweight, but it works: the filmmakers knew you'd be so busy gawking at the visuals that you wouldn't be listening to anything dense or detailed. It also makes the movie more 'kid-friendly.' An actor portraying Vincent provides first-person narration as voiceover, and onscreen we follow two 'characters' of a van Gogh researcher and a filmmaker (the latter is one of the actual filmmakers) around Vincent's world. The voiceover commentary gives the basic timeline of Vincent's life, explains some key events, and gives "Vincent's" thoughts on his fame today. Two moments in particular made me smile -- in the first, "Ellen" the researcher is carefully examining a letter fragment in which all the words are crossed out, trying to work out what Vincent had originally written. Those well versed in van Gogh studies will recognize the letter fragment as one recently deciphered by VGM curators and published in the 2000 issue of Van Gogh Museum Journal. "Vincent" complains about the researcher trying to read what he had carefully made sure no one would ever read and proclaims "Who cares?" Kind of an in-joke, it seemed to me, since the film was made in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum.

The second made-me-smile moment was a shout-out to my girl Rachel (pronounced correctly in the film as Rah-shell). "I liked Rachel," Vincent says in voiceover. "She was close to me. She had a warm heart." I wanted to clap.

Another interesting tidbit about the film concerns the choices of the paintings. I found it striking that an entire van Gogh documentary did not once show Starry Night or Sunflowers. The filmmakers were strategic in choosing a broad range of work that demonstrates the diversity of Vincent's subject matter. They did not stick to the paintings everyone knows. The most 'famous' works to make an appearance are the Orsay version of the Bedroom at Arles and the Cafe Terrace at Night. Paintings and drawings depicted are nearly all from the collections of the VGM, the Kröller-Müller Museum, and the Orsay, which partly explains the absence of Starry Night, but even so, the filmmakers clearly made an effort to expose moviegoers to artworks they might not have seen before.

"Van Gogh: Brush With Genius" recently won a major European award for large-screen format films, and deservedly so. SEE IT!

Monday, March 16, 2009

For Sale in Maastricht

March brings The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) to Maastricht, a grand display of Old Masters, modern art, antiquities, you name it, not to mention hundreds of collectors, curators, dealers, and assorted art glitterati.

It also usually brings at least one van Gogh: last year, it was "Child with an Orange" from the Auvers period, this year it's "The Park of St. Paul's Hospital" (F640, JH1800), painted in October 1889 on the grounds of the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. This landscape, on offer from Dickinson for 25 million Euro, has been in a Swiss private collection since 1963 and has only been exhibited three times since that acquisition. Its provenance can be traced directly back to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.

The painting is one of a series Vincent did in the hospital garden in the autumn, when he was fascinated by the changing colors of the landscape. The particular detail depicted here is part of the terraced garden lying in front of the former men's wing; today, this area of the hospital remains closed to the public because of the patients residing there. The painting includes one of Vincent's favorite subjects at Saint-Rémy, the cypress, which he considered a quintessentially Provençal motif. Also typical of the Saint-Rémy period is the somewhat subdued color palette compared to the Arles paintings, here with touches of red to suggest autumnal foliage.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Van Gogh Goes Imax

Color me happy! The new IMAX documentary "Van Gogh: Brush with Genius" is coming to Tampa Friday, and I'll be able to see it next week. Huzzah! The documentary had its first US screening back in the fall, in New York to accompany the "Colors of the Night" exhibition at MoMA. It is now opening at other American IMAX venues. The Tampa venue is the IMAX Dome at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI); information and showtimes are available at the MOSI website.

The website for the documentary itself includes a trailer and other information about the film. It was shot on location at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and places where Vincent lived and painted (including Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers-sur-Oise). The cinematography looks amazing even on the trailer; I can't imagine how it's going to be in IMAX format. Oh boy! Review to come...

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Van Gogh in South Carolina

Van Gogh doesn't often get to my birth-state of South Carolina (neither do I, for that matter, I haven't lived there since I was two). But he's there now, with a single painting included in the exhibition "Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales" at the Columbia Museum of Art (through June 7th). The most expensive show ever mounted at the museum, with a price tag of $550,000, the exhibit also features works by Monet, Renoir, and Manet -- and of course Turner and Cézanne.

The Van Gogh painting in question is this one, "Landscape at Auvers in the Rain," done in July 1890, not long before Vincent's death at Auvers-sur-Oise (click image to enlarge). Scenes of rain are uncommon in his oeuvre, and that alone makes this painting interesting. It's one of a passel of pictures done of wheatfields while Vincent lived in Auvers, pictures that he believed showed the vitality and vigor of the countryside. It's also in the so-called "double-square format" (50 x 100 cm), a canvas size/shape that Vincent began newly working with while in Auvers. Note in particular the strong use of the complementary color pair blue and orange, which makes the landscape seem vibrant even in the rain.

If you visit Auvers-sur-Oise, look carefully at the cemetery wall as you are walking up the hill en route to paying homage to Vincent and Theo. You will find a poster of this canvas, marking the exact spot where Vincent stood as he painted it, near the edge of the cemetery, gazing out over the Oise river valley.