Yesterday I saw the Van Gogh Exhibit in DC.
I wish now I had taken pictures of the things that disturbed me about the exhibit . . . But I did get a few photographs of things I liked about it.
Overall, I highly recommend this show:
- There is an interesting set up of images of vases projected onto a large bias relief style vase. Comparing the vases was an amusing exercise, if a bit small potatoes.
- There is a model of The Bedroom that you can walk into. You can sit in there, have your picture taken. Wow factor is high on that piece.
- In that same section there is a deconstructed model of one of the Japanese paintings and a three dimensional construction of the lobby/entrance to the mental institution. Fascinating.
- The largest room is immersive in its own right. Some of it is not really about Van Gogh, but it is still interesting.
- The close look at all his self portraits is wonderful. His eyes are piercing and he's looking right at YOU. He's intimidating.
- The coloring room seems like it is for children, but that was also really enjoyable. Just do it.
- You have to pay extra to be a VIP - DO IT! You then get to do an additional 3D immersive experience at the end plus you then get a lanyard, a badge, and a poster, all with starry night decor. The 3D googles were hard to fit on and the whole thing made me car sick, but WOW was that an amazing trip. You start in Van Gogh's bedroom that he so famously painted, check out some buildings in the village, walk past a windmill, walk (glide really) through a wheat field and then a Pissarro-esque forest, then come into the village where the outdoor nightclub is there on your right and then down the street to the quay. So many paintings brought to life and you get to travel through them, looking all around. Are the mountains in the background authentic to Arles? I dunno.
- One of the panels tells us the largest amounts of money ever paid for Van Gogh paintings. This elevation of the economic value of these objects - as though their worth is amplified because rich individuals and corporations speculate on the value of art - is beneath contempt. It has no place in an art gallery.
- Speculative theories are presented as fact and they denigrate the contribution of the artist. For example, with no further evidence that some modern eye doctor thinks he's proven it, Van Gogh's inventive mastery of color is chalked up to the "fact" that he was color blind. In other words, he didn't invent it! He was just a victim of color blindness. That really ticked me off. There is zero contemporaneous fact offered to support this claim, although he was seen by numerous doctors, wrote thousands of letters discussing his life, and consulted with (hobnobbed?) scores of other artists.
- In another presentation, we hear the voice of someone claiming to have a profound understanding of the symbolism of Starry Night - in which the stars are the light of optimism and the village is the darkness of despair. The cyprus tree unites these two opposing forces - bridges the gap. Van Gogh's letters are quoted repetitively in the exhibit. There is NO evidence provided of any kind that Van Gogh intended his works to have symbolic content. Yes, we are all subject to Jung's collective unconscious - communication by symbols is the universal human condition. But to ascribe these thoughts relating to Van Gogh's mental illness is unsupported by fact and demeans the artist. It's just speculation that looks like click bait. Do we care about Sylvia Plath's work because she killed herself? Are we just prurient consumers of morbid lives?
- They made a big deal about Van Gogh's last painting, of roots, as somehow manifesting his depressed state, while ignoring other works that had a similar structure of bare wood and the unvarnished truth about nature, not prettified. I found it odd that the curators, who made a big deal about his suicide, did not bother to mention the counter-theories that he was shot by an unsettled teenager. If we are going to dig around in the mud - why not bring up the controversy about that? But no - it didn't fit in with the producers narrative that he was not a suicidal individual.
- The obsession about his mental illness and suicide seemed to be of a piece of the current obsession with the lives of famous people - someone kidnapped Lady Gaga's dogs - news at 11; Robert Downey Jr. got loaded and went and slept in a bed at the neighbor's house by mistake, now you can dislike him rather than appreciate his art. I admire these artists but knowing this level of information about their personal lives is degrading to all of us. Pitching Van Gogh as a color-blind suicidal nut-job - why is that needed? There is SO MUCH to discuss about art without bringing that up.
- Another element that I found missing was any discussion of Van Gogh's brush work. Their claim is that the reason Van Gogh is so well appreciated is his use of color. Au contraire! While his use of color is spectacular, his brush work, the amount of painting he used, the thickness of the paint, and the brush strokes themselves, unmediated as it were, are a huge element - an element I would argue that is more powerful than his use of color. I love his brush strokes of flowers . . .
- Additionally, his vision of the way things look - the refraction of light around stars, the shape and nature of the clouds in some of the landscapes, the way wall paper pushes forward into the foreground, the difference in how a painting of irises looks close up and far away (abstract vs REAL - as though you are looking out a window at them) - there is SO MUCH MORE TO VAN GOGH than his use of color. How could the curators have neglected these aspects of the best painter of all time?