Outpost Art News


The Futurist infringement

by Doug King | post a comment

In the eyes of the Russian Realists and Symbolists, the Futurist infringement upon the traditional meaning of art and reason was caused by demonic forces and would result in a cultural Apocalypse. The Realist Repin, in fact, insisted that art "is the highest gift of God to man, His holy of holies ... [The devil] cynically spits at the meaning of the beauty of life and nature ... [and the] Highest Reason in art is gradually replaced by the stupidity of a shameless squirming person [a Futurist]." For Dmitry Merezhkovsky, an influential Symbolist thinker, Futurism was "a new step of the Coming Boor" since Futurists killed Psyche, "the soul of the world," and created a mechanical person, an "image of the Beast" [the devil]. Malevich attacked the enemies of Futurism in his 1913 caricature Dragon of Criticism (Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum), which represents a demonic dragon pierced by the arrows of the Futurists and explains that the criticism of the Realists and Symbolists, including Repin and Balmont, is annihilated by the Futurists' trans-rationalism. An additional aspect of the presence of the ace of clubs in the Aviator has to do with Malevich's dispute with the Jack of Diamonds society whose symbol was the card with the same denomination. The Aviator was meant to defy the defenders of traditional cultural values and reason who, in Merezhkovsky's words, were afraid of the Futurist diabolic age of mechanical beings. The aviator is a brave card gambler, a trans-rational

Futurist, able to defeat both the "archaic devil," as Kruchenykh called it, and the diabolic critics of Futurism. The fork that conceals the aviator's right eye, like the Englishman's spoon, is associated with satirical Futurist writings that compare art and literature with dishes cooked by artists and poets for their readers and spectators. Yet, the fork is a more aggressive and violent artifact than the spoon. In the Victory over the Sun, a fork appears in a comic battle scene that unfolds before the sun is annihilated. One of the protagonists announces to his enemies: "Thou considers me a fork and ridicules my thought, but I waited, and did not go with a sword against you. I am the continuation of my ways. I waited ... I carefully buried my sword in the earth, and took a new ball." He throws the ball and hits the enemies whose swords bury themselves in the earth in fear, and thusly he defeats his contenders. This individual is a Futurist, as his statement, "I am the continuation of my ways," hints at Kruchenykh's essay New Ways of the Word, illustrated by Malevich and published in September 1913, which declares that the seekers of the future choose crafty ways in art, and their "cleverly sharpened weapon [the trans-rational language]" confuses their enemies. The combat between this individual and his enemies signifies the battle of the Futurists against their literary and artistic critics. Each of the individuals in the battle is identified through his personified weapon-language. The enemy, who has the sword of the traditional rational language considers the weapon of the Futurist a fork, while the Futurist has replaced his sword with a new weapon, the ball of the trans-rational language. The fork conceals the true power of the ball that defeats the swords of the enemies. Similarly, the fork covers the right eye of Malevich's aviator, concealing his true inner power, which is, however, revealed in the ray of a light emitting from his left eye. In Khlebnikov's terms, the aviator is the new Futurist "man-ray" who has come to illuminate the universe. In the Aviator, a small red arrow leads from the fork to the numeral "0" on the black top hat, replacing the Englishman's red spoon and becoming a new emblem of Malevich's Futurist hero. The "0" emits strong rays of light, breaking up the word "pharmacy" (A-PTE-KA) related to signboards whose letters stand out against the nocturnal city of Mayakovsky's poems. (132) The Cubo-Futurists divided humankind into two groups: the true artists and the pharmacists. For Malevich, an artist searching for a canon or painterly prescription was like a pharmacist who formulates his scientific prescriptions. The Aviator's light of trans-rational knowledge strikes the art pharmacy of rationalism. The rays of this light form a yellow triangle with the "0" at its left angle on the aviator's top hat, the Russian letter "C" at its apex, and the numeral "2" at its right angle--an example of pictorial displacements of abstract units. The duality of the "0," embodying the concepts of the beginning and the end, especially intrigued Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov who, from 1912 on, were preoccupied with the trans-rational notion of mirskontsa ("the world backwards"), a neologism combining the words mir ("world"), s ("from") and konetz ("end"). The world backwards ties the end of the previous life to the beginning of a new, trans-rational world with broken causality, a reversed passage of time, and the intertwining of the past, present, and future. (135) In his 1913 essay, The Devil and the Speech-Creators, Kruchenykh stated that, when the Futurist poets defeated the devil and hell, they put an end to the end [the devil], and moved towards new goals and ideas. After the victory over diabolic darkness (madness), Kruchenykh's new goal became the victory over the divine sun of reason, the source of the world. In Christianity, the darkness of evil will be destroyed by divine light and create a "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1). From the early 1900s on, many Russian intellectuals, including the leading Symbolist poets Bely and Alexandr Blok and the prominent religious thinkers Merezhkovsky and Nikolay Berdiaev, developed eschatological ideas that were influenced by Vladimir Solovev's apocalyptic philosophy as well as the catastrophic 1904 Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the 1914 First World War. Their notions were deeply rooted in the nature of Russian religious consciousness based on Christian eschatology and expressed in folk quests for a land of beauty, happiness, and salvation, and reflected a collective mood resulting from an inner apocalyptic history, the fear of future upheavals, an awareness of the tragedy of personal destiny, and the search for the fulfillment of the world's and of the individual's salvation through spiritual transfiguration.

by Doug King | post a comment

In her biography, Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico's Ruins, Mary F. McVicker traces Breton's life from her birth in 1849 to affluent, upper-class parents in Bath, England, to her death from dysentery, at the age of seventy-four, in Rio de Janeiro. However, it is primarily the last thirty years of her subject's life that concerns McVicker. During these years, Breton left her comfortable home in England for extended periods while she pursued a difficult, and often dangerous, career as a Mesoamerican archeologist. It is an engaging story, and McVicker tells it lucidly in a readable style. As McVicker states at the outset of her book, Breton was not educated to pursue a career. Rather, she mastered the accomplishments deemed suitable for a Victorian lady--singing, dancing and piano, modern languages, riding, drawing, and painting--all intended to increase her desirability as a wife. She did not marry, however, but lived a quiet life caring for her aging parents until first her mother, then her father died, leaving her wealthy and at loose ends at the age of thirty-eight. Almost immediately, she began to travel. She journeyed extensively through Canada, the United States, and Mexico before embarking on a two-year Mexican "grand tour" in 1893, accompanied only by her Mexican guide, Pablo Solorio. Breton probably began traveling for pleasure, and to escape what she considered to be the stultifying atmosphere of English society. However, as the letters and diary entries McVicker cites in her studiously researched book reveal, Breton had a sharp and restless intellect and a deep-seated desire to be productive. She described the long years of her father's retirement in Bath as useless. She had no intention of being similarly unoccupied herself. Struck by the Pre-Columbian ruins she encountered and painted during her tour, she approached the English archeologist Alfred P. Maudsley and offered her services as a copyist. Maudsley sent her to the ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan jungle, to make copies in color of the murals in the Temple of Jaguars. This was the first of many copying projects Breton carried out in Mexico over the course of the next ten years. While Chichen Itza absorbed most of her attention, she also worked in Acanceh and Teotihuacan. In the days before reliable color film, Breton's carefully measured and painted copies provided invaluable records of rapidly deteriorating ancient artworks. However, her engagement with Mesoamerican archeology was not confined to copying. As McVicker notes, Breton found a niche and she exploited it. Realizing that she possessed a useful skill, she used it as a point of entry into a male-dominated discipline that she had long found fascinating. While working in the field, Breton threw herself into the study of Pre-Columbian languages and cultures. Fascinatingly, McVicker reveals that she also served as an informal mentor to the American archeologist Alfred Tozzer, who came to Chichen Itza in 1902 at the outset of his career. In that same year, Breton made her "professional debut" at the Thirteenth International Congress of Americanists in New York City. She was active in this organization for the rest of her life, delivering papers regularly and serving periodically as an officer. She organized the 1912 Congress of Americanists in London and edited its proceedings. Breton also published articles on Mayan art in several scientific journals, including Nature and MAN. Despite her successes, Breton's career as an archeologist was limited in many ways. Her commitment to making herself useful as a copyist--the very skill that won her acceptance among her Americanist peers--ultimately curtailed her own scholarly interests. For instance, although she was keenly interested in the unexcavated mounds at Ake, she had neither the personal nor the institutional resources at her disposal to dig there herself, and her attempts to stir up interest among her colleagues fell largely on deaf ears. Without projects of her own, she was left to assist others in their research. Even after the Revolution in Mexico and the First World War put an end to her fieldwork, her time was taken up with copying Mayan codices in European libraries--copies she made as favors for other scholars. Finally, as McVicker notes sadly in her conclusion, Breton's contributions to the field of Mesoamerican archeology were quickly forgotten after her death in 1923. Her career had unfolded during a period when the line between amateur and professional was still fluid--particularly in the relatively neglected field of Mesoamerican archeology. By the 1920s, this was changing. In their struggle to promote their own professionalism, a new generation of Mesoamerican archeologists shied away from anything that smacked of amateurism. As a woman without a university education or an institutional affiliation, Breton seemed too much like a dilettante for her work to be publicly acknowledged, even though her copies were, in many cases, the only accurate records of artworks whose colors had faded away completely. Breton's career has many parallels to those of American and English women artists who were similarly struggling for professional status around the turn of the last century. Like these women, she had to find a balance between the freedom and mobility she needed to do her work, and the restraints of decorum. She also had to fight to establish herself as a respected peer among (sometimes resentful) male colleagues, and she used her friendships with other women in her field to strengthen both her own position and theirs. Playing up this point, McVicker makes much of the fact that Breton knew and liked the so-called Red Rose Girls of Philadelphia. This group included Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley, who met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went on to study together with the American illustrator Howard Pyle. In 1900, they established an unconventional household in which a fourth female friend kept house while the three artists pursued highly successful careers. Breton knew the Red Rose Girls through her cousin, who lived in Philadelphia. It is very likely that she admired their courage and creativity, and that she respected them as fellow professionals. It is unlikely, however, that she considered herself their colleague. An obvious criticism of McVicker's worthy project is that, by working so hard to frame Breton as a fine artist, the author is simply mis-categorizing her. Breton was a technical artist. Her paintings, though beautifully made, were not intended as fine art, nor were they exhibited as such during her lifetime. Rather, they are precisely measured and colored renderings of Mayan art, which Breton considered part of her scientific research. Breton's paintings, a number of which are illustrated in color by McVicker, can be instructively compared to the prints of Frederick Catherwood, the British illustrator who accompanied the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens on his travels through Mexico in the late 1830s and early 1840s. His pictures of Mayan art and architecture, while accurate, are imbued with a thoroughly romantic sensibility. In them, ruins and figures often emerge from jungle foliage, half-shrouded in .dramatic shadows that add to their aura of mystery and sublimity. Breton's goals were quite different. She sought to document her subjects scientifically rather than to interpret them artistically. Even when landscape features appear in her paintings, these elements are kept to a minimum, and the light falls evenly, elucidating rather than obscuring her subjects. Breton's paintings, like her scholarly articles, are essentially descriptive. Clearly, she had a sense of herself as a pioneer in a burgeoning field, and she was aware that her work--both written and painted--could serve as the groundwork for later studies. McVicker might have fruitfully compared Breton's career to those of other late-nineteenth-century women who worked as scientific illustrators, most notably the English botanical painter Marianne North. Although McVicker does mention North, it is only in passing. In fact, the parallels between North's career and Breton's are striking. Like Breton, North was a wealthy, unmarried woman who found her vocation after the death of her parents, when she was forty years old. Also like Breton, she offered her services as a copyist to prominent scientists, including Sir Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin. Over the course of thirteen years, North traveled to every continent as well as several Caribbean and Pacific islands, making precise and beautiful paintings of local flora. In the process, she discovered several new species. In the early 1880s, North installed more than eight hundred of her paintings in a special gallery at Kew Gardens in London. Breton may have seen them there. It is even more likely that she read North's autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1892. Significantly, this was just two years before Breton embarked on her own career as a copyist. Despite minor flaws, McVicker has written a thorough and very interesting study. The importance of her book lies in what it has to say, not only about Adela Breton, but about women's place in the historiography of both Mesoamerican archeology and scientific illustration. Like Breton herself, McVicker offers her readers a beautifully crafted, descriptive work. It will no doubt serve as a basis for more extensive studies that explore the foundational roles women played in these fields.

Stealing the Mona Lisa, 1911

by Doug King | post a comment

Mona Lisa, also referred to as La Gioconda, it is an oil painting on a poplar wood panel, is now regarded as the most famous portrait painting in the world. Owned by many monarchs, including Francois I, Napoleon, Louis XIV etc. The artwork was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506. It is now located in Louvre museum. This famous painting actually was stolen by theft on Aug. 20, 1911 from the wall of the Louvre. You can imagine what happened next, France closed thier borders, the head of Louvre museum were laid off, many people were suspected including Gauillaume Apollinaire as well as Pablo Picasso who had nothing to do with the crime. As time went by, people though the painting may be already in other countries or the worst result was destroyed. As a matter of fact, the painting didn't leave France until the thief Vincenzo Perruggia contacted an art dealer named Alfred Geri in Florence in order to sell it. It was also Geri who called the police and finally the artwork was returned to the Louvre. This crime was on the list of top 25 crimes of the century of Time magazine. About the thief - Vincenzo Perruggia He was born in Dumenza, Varese, Italy, was considered to be the greatest art theft of the the twentieth century due to the stealing of Mona Lisa. He was in prison only for several months for this crime. DSCF0011.2

Abstract expression of American nationalism: the work of Jackson

by Doug King | post a comment

IF COMMENTS SUCH AS: 'too pre-rationalised', and, 'not fashionable', are today seen as sufficient grounds in which to dismiss art-work then it would be reasonable to dismiss such institutions whose ideologies not only unquestioningly accept the conservative value of traditional art history, but perpetuate the whole system. Recent art history has been structured upon the 'irrational', the 'subconscious' and 'instuition', claiming to contain reference to the work alone, an 'inner state', a 'spontaneous manipulation of materials', claiming also to exist without any kind of representation of the outside world other than an 'organic', abstracted reference to 'nature'. I shall examine this kind of art language in connection with the historical artist Jackson Pollock, as his work was and still is described in the above manner, by himself and by critics. This essay could also be seen as a review of the recent Jackson Pollock documentary on the South Bank Show. Some artists like Susan Hiller  utilise the concepts I've referred to positively, incorporating other notions, challenging the orthodox, and bringing light to wider possibilities. In contrast, there are those who remain within the confines of tradition, as if working within stagnant pools; any move forward is stifled by the limitations of the tradition within which these artists work. As women it is our responsibility to question art language and the inadequate historical structure in which it operates. The terms 'irrational', 'subconscious' 'intuition', 'inner state', 'spontaneous manipulation of materials' 'organic' and 'nature' are all words which also refer to conventional perceptions of 'passive' and 'feminine'. It is difficult for us, as women, to use these words without misconception, yet when connected with such historical movements as Abstract Expressionism (portrayed as the instigators of this type of language/art practice association), the meaning of these words is suddenly seen as a 'positive', 'macho' convention. The individuals interviewed on the Pollock programme consisted of friends, a relative, a critic, a dealer and the artist Lee Krasner. Pollock's image was discussed, references were made to his family history, his origins in Mid-West America, his male ancesters being cowboys, and how whilst living in New York Pollock created a mythology from his cowboy origins. In relation to the actual making of his paintings Pollock created an allegory between the motion of the paint, applied from a stick, and the movement of a lasso in action. He saw himself as a contemporary cowboy and this attitude entered his life-style in general. He built up an image which was, so to speak, 'bought' by the art world and was somehow considered relevant. Consider the connotations of the cowboy in relation to European/American history and Indian culture where the encroachment upon Indian heritage, land and liberty reflects an unjust story of cruelty, oppression, violation and murder. It was explained how Pollock had been influenced by Indian sand paintings. On the subject of cultural definition and origins the dictionary defines culture as: 'Cultivating a state of manners tsste, and intellectual development at a place, artificial rearing.' Pollock could be described as continuing within the vein of artificial rearing, in his cultivating of the cowboy image and being influenced by Indian sand paintings. But the dictionary definition of culture is nothing more than a false justification, condoning western bourgeois societies' capitalist consumerist attitude which absorbs meaningful ideologies existing outside its framework, only to misrepresent these cultures within itself so creating a superficial representation, while the people who actually live these cultures are silenced. In this instance it is the American Indians, but this process equally extends to other 'minorities' who also have a history of being misrepresented by western society: I am including here the misplaced cultures of class, race and gender. Under these conditions it is therefore only reasonable to state that culture can only exist outside tradition; tradition simply being a process of artificial rearing. As the South Bank Show continued, it was explained how the Abstract Expressionists felt that they had to compensate for being painters and writers, as to their minds their approach reflected a female sensitivity. (This notion, is not only offensive to women by its definition of female as 'feminine', but in the way that female association is considered a negative aspect.) So the Abstract Expressionists attempted to counteract their misconception by indulging in stereotyped, male-orientated life-styles, deriving from so-called 'free-thinking', beat generation activities, indulging in such pursuits as heavy drinking, coupled with attitudes which amounted to nothing other than the violation of women. In short, they described themselves, and were described by those interviewed as 'macho'. This kind of attitude gives rise to many questions about the very foundations of art practice and the mythologies which evolve around them. In this case we can see how the Abstract Expressionist movement encouraged the invisibility of the women artists of that time. But the programme neither examined or raised these issues. We are all well aware that 'macho' is a carefully constructed illusion, a fascistic concept to aid patriarchal gain at the exclusion of the visibility of women. Visibility not as in the 'feminine' which perpetuates the 'macho' condition, and is in itself a 'macho' illusion, but visibility in the sense of equality. It is not enough to present a section of history in the way that this Pollock documentary did, as if part of an unproblematic accumulation of events. A clearer conception can only be obtained as a representation, that is in itself a struggle in progress, part of an on-going discourse, rather than a presentation which regards itself as a completed and profound statement in isolation. In contrast, for example, with Judy Chicago's struggle,  Pollock's 'struggle' highlights his dependence and solidarity with traditional right-wing American society of which he was so strongly a part until eventually he even begins to embody the failure of that system. Unable to live up to his 'genius' reputation, unable to develop his work, full of self-doubt, in the sense that he is 'struggling' to keep up with the pressure to produce more and more work, to meet the demands of the art market, whilst competing with a younger generation with 'new' ideas, Pollock simply slopes into drunken states of self-pity and depression making statements such as: 'there was Matisse, Picasso, and then there was me'. This illustrates how he upholds the system that destroyed him. His lack of intelligence and state of confusion is also glorified into an establishment 'rebel-without-a-cause' syndrome, whilst in reality he was a victim, the kind of victim it is impossible to sympathise with. His suicide car-crash (risking the lives of two female passengers) during a bout of self-indulgence, was an action which was praised by his friends, for 'Jackson created the perfect death: the suicide while driving in a fast car created the perfect romantic image of the artist'. Shortly after his suicide, the commodity value of Pollock's work increased. Jackson Pollock received a great deal of financial and moral support throughout his artistic life-time. Any artist would have been as capable to produce a selection of strong works under these conditions. Many artists produce strong works with very little funds. I don't think that it is right that anyone should be financially limited but, in the light of this, Pollock had everything and nothing. He was simply a painter of the State. His understanding of his own work was limited, he did not acknowledge the content of his subject matter (the way he manipulated the paint, the cowboy history, 'macho' etc.), examine its origins and meanings, or question why he received so much state funding. (We are touching on questions about responsibilites of the artist). Maybe Pollock was a success in terms of the establishment, but it does not necessarily follow that he was a successful artist in his own right. autumn-rhythm

Public Conversation between Glenn Phillips & Veaceslav Druta

by Doug King | post a comment

This program introduced the work of Outpost's resident artist, Veaceslav Druta. Curator Glenn Phillips discussed individual video works with the artist and stimulated a conversation around his ideas, perceptions, and various projects that are developing in Los Angeles. Sunday, May 18, 3 pm Glenn Phillips is Senior Project Specialist and Consulting Curator in the Department of Contemporary Programs and Research at the Getty Research Institute. He is curator of the exhibition California Video, which is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum until June 8. He has also organized the exhibitions Photographs of Artists by Alexander Liberman (Getty Center); Time/Space, Gravity and Light (Skirball Cultural Center); Marking Time (LACE.); and Evidence of Movement (Getty Center). He is co-editor with Thomas Crow of the book Seeing Rothko, which was published in 2005. He has organized a number of video series at the Getty, including Pioneers of Brazilian Video Art 1973-1983; Surveying the Border: Three Decades of Video Art about the United States and Mexico; Reckless Behavior; and Radical Communication: Japanese Video Art 1968-88. Prior to the Getty he was Assistant Curator for Special Projects at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he worked on a number of exhibitions, including No Wave Cinema; The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000; the 1997, 2000 and 2002 Whitney Biennial exhibitions; Bitstreams: Art in the Digital Age; and Tony Oursler: The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified. Now based in Paris, Veaceslav Druta is from Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. After completing his studies at the University of the Arts, Chisinau, Republic of Moldova in 1998, Druta attended Le Fresnoy, a national studio of contemporary art in Tourcoing, France (2002-05) and the research program, La Seine, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France (2004-06). He creates interactive situations using video, performance, music, and sculpture. He views his works as objects and situations that allow him to establish interaction with people. Druta's work has been seen at Museum of Art, Zilina (2007); Centre Pompidou, Paris France (2006); International Biennale, Lasi, Romania (2006); CitySonics, Transcultures, Mons, Belgium (2005); Le Fresnoy, Tourcoung, France (2005), to name a few. Veaceslav Druta is a resident artist at Outpost for Contemporary Art from April 28 - June 1, 2008. Please contact Julie Deamer, Director, Outpost for Contemporary Art, at (323) 982-9461 or (323) 899-3533 or email at julie@outpost-art.org for more information.

Van Gogh's bedroom

by Doug King | post a comment

One of the best-known and most beloved artists of all time, Netherlands-born Vincent Van Gogh came to painting late in life. In 1886, when he was 33, he settled in Paris, France, where he was influenced by the art of the Impressionists and became familiar with the work of Japanese printmakers. Near the end of his life, he moved to Aries in the south of France. He lived, as he wrote to his brother Theo, in "a little yellow house with a green door and green blinds." In Arles, Van Gogh created 200 new paintings and over 100 drawings(check out our Van Gogh reproductions), using swirling brush strokes and vibrant colors. Sadly, Van Gogh suffered from mental illness and ended his own life at the age of 37. His art survives and is treasured by museums and art lovers all over the world. Bright Lighting In this painting, Van Gogh's room is very bright and warm. There are no shadows. Van Gogh painted this room four times. In the other versions of this painting, the colors are much darker. The light in each version seems to reflect a different mood. Paintings Within the Painting Van Gogh Bedroom On the right-hand wall is one of Van Gogh's self-portraits. The picture above the head of the bed is an image of Van Gogh's painting Rocks with Oak Tree. Pairs and Balance The objects in Van Gogh's room are paired to give the painting balance and rhythm. There are two chairs, two doors, two pillows, and two portraits on the wall. The picture over his bed echoes the mirror, and even the bed and table seem paired. Straight Lines Notice the many straight lines used in the floor, the squares on the walls, and the legs of the tables and chairs, Is the chair in the front the same size as the one in the back, which seems far away? The shift in perspective in the room is almost dizzying. The Artist's Room Van Gogh's personal belongings fill the room. His clothing hangs neatly on a rack; his towel hangs on a nail. Each object is in its place, as if the artist has just stepped out for a few moments. Understanding the Painting Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his brother Theo: "This time it is simply my bedroom, only here color is to do everything." Van Gogh's vivid, rich colors were inspired by the Mediterranean sunlight in the south of France. His paintings are known for their color and thick brush strokes of heavy, unmixed paint. He applied the paint in swirls and vivid dots, using lots of angles and corners, and colors that do not easily blend. These effects combine to produce an atmosphere of bounded energy and emotional intensity.

Pursuing the elusive van Gogh

by Doug King | post a comment

WHO CAN RESIST trying to solve the mystery of Vincent van Gogh's life and work? We continue to be haunted by this Dutch Reform clergyman's son, who failed to qualify as a pastor, was rejected as a missionary, and turned to art as a second choice when he was 27. He died at 37, and so had barely ten years to move from his first lesson in painting to his final masterpieces. Why did his work not sell during his lifetime, though his paintings now command prices of $80 million or more? Why do crowds of thousands and hundreds of thousands come to see his work? We now have two new opportunities to better understand van Gogh: the current traveling exhibition of 70 van Gogh paintings, and a recent book on van Gogh's "spiritual vision." While their home museum undergoes expansion, 70 of van Gogh's paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam were exhibited at the National Gallery from October 4 to January 3. They have now traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum where they will hang until April. Then they return to Amsterdam, likely to travel no more. During the exhibit's tenure in Washington, D.C., crowds gathered before dawn at the Constitution and Sixth Street entrance to the National Gallery. Some brought lawn chairs, some sat on the sidewalk, some huddled together in conversation. Most hoped to get a few of the free tickets available each day for visitors to the ten rooms of van Gogh paintings. A few simply collected tickets to sell to the highest bidder. On one of my visits I listened in on the conversation between a mother and her daughter, an art history major who stood ahead of me: Mother: "So, honey, why did he cut off his ear?" Daughter: "He had problems, mom." Mother, sympathetically: "Don't we all, honey." That may be a clue to part of the mystery. The drama of van Gogh's life continues to fascinate us. He is what Henri Nouwen called a "wounded healer." Nouwen once confessed to me, "It seems like all my life Vincent van Gogh has been my own spiritual guide. It's as though he went through it all, the failures, suffering and joys. You know he understands, and puts all that into a painting just for you." My own stroll through the Washington exhibit allowed me to join other devotees of van Gogh's work. After a five-hour wait, the first 300 in line get inside to pick up tickets and see the exhibit with those who reserved their tickets months ago. It is as though those 70 paintings from Amsterdam were traveling evangelists come to feed the hungry and comfort the anxious. People move through the ten rooms set aside for the exhibit. First come the earth-colored paintings from van Gogh's Dutch period. People stare at his earliest efforts, studies of peasants, a basket of potatoes, a still life with bottles and jars, a thatched hut, the parsonage where Van Gogh lived with his family in the Dutch town of Nuenen. But it is the Potato Eaters that gathers a crowd unwilling to move on. The painting gives one the sense of being in the intimate, lamp-lit space at table with a weary peasant family. There is the strange sense that this meal of steamed potatoes, eaten in quietness and gratitude and shared with the viewer, is sacred. The steam creates a halo and sheds light on the people's faces and hands, themselves the color of potatoes. The painting suggests that one ought to seek significance among simple people, in the simplest moments of their days. Soon one is in the rooms of Paris paintings. Van Gogh spent February 1886 to February 1888 in Paris, sharing a Montemartre apartment with his brother, Theo, manager of an art gallery. Here he learned to use brilliant colors, copying the impressionists around him and studying the hues of flowers. A crowd gathers, nevertheless, around one more earth-colored canvas, A Pair of Shoes. This is the painting that inspired Martin Heidegger to write The Origin of the Work of Art. Van Gogh seems to have turned two worn shoes into an icon. Perhaps he is inviting viewers to dare walking in another's shoes for a day. Many people at the exhibition seem to be discovering a new favorite, a golden canvas of quinces, lemons and grapes. The light spills over to the frame. Van Gogh seems to invite us to see these pieces of fruit as centers of meaning, illuminated from within. Other viewers linger before a small painting of a flowerpot filled with chives. It has the power to stop people in their tracks. Van Gogh's copy of a Japanese woodcut reminds us that Japanese art and Buddhist aesthetics caught the artist's attention. One goes on to van Gogh's paintings from the town of Aries in Provence, the sunny south of France. A single sprig of blossoming almond in a glass of water, portraits of children, the yellow house where van Gogh lived, his bedroom--all become centers of attention for the crowds of viewers. Van Gogh presents his own daily life as a spiritual journey he wishes us to share. Then a room of paintings done during the artist's stay at the asylum in St. Remy, just miles north of Aries. He had begun to have attacks that many doctors now believe were epilepsy, and he voluntarily entered the asylum for possible treatment. Paintings of a wheatfield under the sun, an emperor moth, butterflies with poppies celebrate the simplest corners of nature as revelatory spaces. No wonder some have seen van Gogh as a 19th-century St. Francis. Van Gogh left the asylum to return north and be closer to his brother, his brother's wife and the child they named "Vincent." He spent 70 days in a village outside Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, and during those 70 days he painted 70 masterpieces: gardens, wheat, a golden evening sky. On a wall by itself, as one leaves, is the painting that has most fascinated people for many years: Wheatfield with Crows under a Stormy Sky. Paths move to the right, left and directly into the wind-tossed wheat. This may be the field where van Gogh, sensing new attacks coming on, shot himself rather than take more of the money Theo ought now to be spending on his new family. The ripe wheat in the painting reminds one of a letter van Gogh wrote to Theo: "I feel so strongly that it is the same with people as it is with wheat, if you are not sown in the earth to geminate there, what does it matter?--in the end you are ground between the millstones to become bread. The difference between happiness and unhappiness. Both are necessary and useful, as well as death or disappearance" (Letter 607). Outside the exhibit, some compare notes on favorite paintings, some are perplexed that the exhibit contains no sunflower painting, no portrait of Dr. Gachet, no postman, no Starry Night. I overhear two artists who have studied every brushstroke of the canvases. One says, "I don't understand him any better, but I did get a lesson to take home. Even if some of our paintings are as bad as a few of those, keep painting. We may get some masterpieces yet." Kathleen Powers Erickson's book is a second key to understanding van Gogh. The author, currently a freelance writer and photographer, did her van Gogh study as a dissertation at the University of Chicago. It is a "dueling dissertation," which responds to the dissertation done in Amsterdam by Japanese scholar Tsukasa Kodera, who later published Vincent van Gogh: Christianity Versus Nature. Erickson seeks to refute Kodera's thesis that van Gogh finally deserted Christianity for the worship of nature. Her correction of Kodera's work is convincing. Facets of van Gogh's Christianity certainly did remain with him in one transformation or another all his brief life. Erickson emphasizes the influence of a Dutch school of liberal theology (Groningen), the Bible, and the devotional reading of Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress on van Gogh's religious perspective. Unfortunately, despite its contributions, Erickson's book uses too narrow and flawed a net in seeking to capture the elusive van Gogh. She claims to write the "first systematic account of the history of diagnoses of van Gogh's illness," and to give "a definitive diagnosis." To use the word "definitive" is reckless a century after van Gogh's death, and it is possible to claim that this is the "first systematic account" only if one omits the 300-page book by Wilfred Niels Arnold published in 1992, Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity. Erickson also ignores Judy, Sund's powerful volume, True to Temperament: Van Gogh and French Naturalist Literature (1992) in her discussion of van Gogh's debt to naturalist literature. These omissions lead me to conclude that Erickson's almost ten-year-old dissertation has not been updated to take account of the key works that have added to our knowledge of van Gogh in the intervening years. Further, Erickson's failure to take seriously van Gogh's debt to Japanese art or his exploration of the possibility of being both a Christian and a "simple monk worshiping the eternal Buddha" (Letter 544a) further hampers her view. Van Gogh had more knowledge of Eastern art and religion than Erickson admits. I also lost confidence in Erickson when she spoke of van Gogh's painting of "Gauguin's chair with his pipe resting on it," a strange confusion of van Gogh's painting of his own simple chair with pipe and his painting of Gauguin's more ornate chair with candle and books. A further problem is her description of a key painting, Starry Night. She states, "The church is the only building in the landscape that does not reflect the brilliance of the stars above.... It is completely dark." But anyone who has seen even the poorest print of the painting knows that the church's tower, roof and walls all reflect the beautiful blue and white lights of the heavens. It is also amazing that Erickson's editors have her translate even a four-word Latin expression into English, but leave a score of sentences that bolster her major points in Dutch without translation. In spite of these problems, I would enjoy debating with Erickson her view that van Gogh, while in the asylum just the year before his death, returned to his religious roots, and that this is reflected in his subsequent three (and only) paintings of traditional religious subjects: the Pieta, The Raising of Lazarus and The Good Samaritan. She has convinced me that we should look at those three paintings more carefully, but I would like to attempt to convince her that van Gogh was more of a Calvinist that she thinks, whether Calvin spoke through van Gogh's sometimes anti-Calvinist "Groningen School of liberal theology" or not. In my view, van Gogh is in fascinating agreement with Calvin's theology of art, a theology that freed religious art of its reliance on traditional biblical subjects. Calvin's request that artists "paint only those things which the eyes are capable of seeing" and avoid attempts at painting "God's majesty" (Institutes, Book I, Chapter 11) resonates with artists like van Gogh, who sought to locate the sacred in the ordinary things of the world. The Bible and religious art were not simply to be supplemented by this new art. The new artist was to be a prophet painting a new Bible for a new age. Only when copying earlier artists whom he admired did van Gogh paint traditional religious scenes, and even then in only three of his dozens of copies of the works of others. "There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make men rejoice," said Calvin in a sermon. These words present a view of art that explains one more bit of the van Gogh mystery. It is not in his three isolated copies of religious works by Rembrandt and Delacroix that van Gogh's genius is to be found. It resides in his rejoicing in a blade of grass, in his painting of Augustine Roulin, a postman's wife, as a "saint" worthy of being placed on an altar. Rejecting his friend Emile Bernard's paintings of the Annunciation, Christ in the Garden of Olives and the Adoration of the Magi, van Gogh gives his description of a truly religious art: "I bow down before that study, powerful enough to make a Millet tremble--of peasants carrying home to the farm a calf which has been born in the fields" (Letter to Bernard, B 21). The depth of his religious vision is to be found in nativities that happen among ordinary folk today, and the closer to earth, the better.

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