Museum of Fine Arts
Dózsa György utca 41, Budapest, Hungary
I want something more concise, more simple, more serious; I want more soul and more love and more heart. Vincent van Gogh, from a letter dated 11 December 1882
Is there anything left to say about Vincent van Gogh? Does everyone know his favorite color was yellow? That he cut off all, or a part, of his ear and gave it to a prostitute? That he was a manic-depressive? That he painted one of the most perfect works in the history of art? It's called The Starry Night yet the artist himself felt it was a failure because he had been "led astray into abstraction." Historians have declared that van Gogh never sold one painting in his lifetime, but he did sell one in the last year of his life, 1890, to an Anna Boch who purchased The Red Vineyard. Compared to prices for his work now, she got it for less than a song. About van Gogh's last painting Wheat Fields with Crows he wrote, "They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness." No you didn't, Vincent, and may you now rest in eternal peace-or at least not roll over in your grave every time one of your paintings is re-sold.
On May 2 of this year, one of six portraits of Madame Ginoux, done by van Gogh, will go on the auction block at Christie's and it is expected to fetch at least
40 million dollars. The Madame Ginoux portrait going to auction is wonderful-all the portraits of her are-but it isn't as wonderful as the two in the Budapest exhibition. Referred to as L'Arlésienne-the woman from Arles-Madame Ginoux, with her husband, was the proprietor of the Café de la Gare that van Gogh frequented and made famous in his work The Night Cafe.
Van Gogh had an extraordinary gift for portraiture, whether he painted himself or others, and the Budapest Fine Arts Museum positioned the two Madame Ginoux works-one with a face angled to the right, one to the left-in a most auspicious way. They were separated by a space through which viewers walked in order to proceed through the rest of the exhibit. It felt like Madame Ginoux was a guide escorting you into deeper realms of van Gogh's artistic process as well as his progress as a painter. By the time you had reached her, you had traversed the first eight years of van Gogh's career as an artist, and he would only have two left.
From this point, you left all the early drawings behind-stunning in their simplicity and moodiness and skill. I wasn't at all familiar with van Gogh's first drawings and the fact that, once he had made up his mind, in 1880, to be an artist, he seemed to have emerged in his work with fully formed sensibilities-an expert at graphic composition and the rendering of atmosphere. His early paintings are somber, drenched in earth tones and earnest in their evangelical celebration of country life and village landscapes. After he moved to Paris, however, van Gogh would embrace the radiant color theories of the Impressionists and his palette would jump into another electron orbit with its luminous and, at times, hallucinatory brilliance.
An early painting, from 1881, is an uncanny still life with a straw hat as a central organizing principle. It gave me a chill to see it because it was as much a telling self-portrait as any we are now familiar with; his recognizable straw hat nearly floats off the canvas like a disembodied spirit searching for its phantom lost self. Still Life with Straw Hat would presage van Gogh's penetrating ability to see into things and people and the landscape and, like Orpheus journeying into the underworld to escort his muse back to the center of his artistic process, van Gogh went again and again into another realm in search of something that was clearly beyond the act of representation-something beyond form, yet somehow attainable and that could eventually be rendered as a constellation of emotions that made life bearable.
Painting was a threshold experience for the artist-an attempt to create what the poet Robert Frost described as "momentary stays against confusion." For van Gogh, being at the threshold meant all or nothing at all. It meant the glory of ecstatic madness channeled into precise brushstrokes of illuminating, expressionistic color fused with intense feeling, or it was funneled into the depths of despair that then found its equivalent in violent outbursts, a hand with a razor, a smashed glass, a gun to the chest.
One hundred seventeen years, and millions upon millions of dollars later, what does van Gogh still mean to us? Is he a dollar sign only, a major investment that confers prestige, pride of ownership, and an ersatz power of greatness by association? Or is he one of the most haunted and haunting individuals ever to burn across the cosmos of art and come to rest in a body of work almost beyond description in its emotional impact? Perhaps van Gogh was put here as a test for modern humanity. If we can accept the hallucinatory give and take at the core of his work as an extreme form of moral and visual calculus-with its immense, but largely untranslatable rewards-then perhaps we can enter with greater confidence our postmodern world where everything has its price and what we thought was stable, progressive, and dynamic in a mostly positive way, is really just a series of endlessly steep inclines, inversions, and unspeakable cruelty. "I want something more concise, more simple, more serious; I want more soul and more love and more heart." What else is there to add to that?