May 11, 1999

Van Gogh Exhibition

We went to the Van Gogh exhibition yesterday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was very interesting, very crowded, and there was a long wait, ticket in hand, to get in (about half an hour).

Two paintings in particular impressed me: Self Portrait in Felt Hat, and Landscape at Twilight. The self portrait is the single most compelling and electrifying work of art I've ever seen. It is literally hypnotic. After looking at it for about five minutes, I wandered off, to return twice more for briefer looks. Aside from the technique of bright colors laid down in a pattern that radiates from the portrait's eyes, the facial expression finally came through as very sad, making the painting more than an abstract triumph of imagination and technique. Every brush stroke seemed perfectly controlled and perfectly placed. A man said, "I want to take it home with me." I replied, "I'd never get any sleep," meaning, first, that I could hardly take my eyes off it, and second, that it haunted my mind while I wasn't looking at it.

Self Portrait with Felt Hat (Click to view larger image)

After a while I contrasted the effect of this painting with the "efforts" of Frank Stella, an exhibition of whose work I had seen ten or fifteen years before. Stella is a big name in modern art, but his work, at this showing, was all abstraction, big, thick circles in muted colors. Totally emotionally desiccated . . . why does he bother? Stella nibbles ladyfingers in the studio while Van Gogh bleeds on the canvas.

Agbatana I (1968) by Frank Stella (Click to view larger image)

The second most impressive work was Landscape at Twilight, and it was indeed the rendering of the sky that was so stunning. It glowed as though illuminated from within. This could have been a trick of the lighting used in the exhibition, which generally was glary, reflecting off the surface of the paint, though there was no glare apparent in this painting. Contrasted with the green and black trees, it made a most beautiful effect. The canvas was the same size and wide shape as the Wheatfield with Crows; according to the brochure he did, I think, sixteen such canvases.

Landscape at Twilight (Click to view larger image)

Other paintings were striking and compelling. I remember especially the Reaper in a Wheatfield. The texture of the paint in the wheatfield is simply wonderful. Some paintings I have previously thought highly of, such as the Almond Branches and the Wheatfield with Crows, did little to move me compared to those mentioned above.

In all, despite the hassles and expense, it was a trip well worth the effort. It brought vividly home to me that prints are no substitute for the originals. It makes me wonder what it would be like to see a similar exhibition of Picassos.

Here's a link to the Van Gogh (Internet) Gallery, where I got the above images: Van Gogh Gallery.