Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
(212) 879-5500

October 18, 2005–December 31, 2005

Vincent van Gogh Cottage Garden 1888 reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19-1/4 inches Private Collection, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden 1888 reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19-1/4 inches Private Collection, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are about 1,100 Van Gogh drawings in existence and this exhibition includes 113 of them. Art historians have spent many years analyzing the work of Van Gogh but he remains an enigma. How and why did he make some of the best drawings of the twentieth century? Different aspects of Van Gogh’s life factor into his graphic genius: his personalized religious response to natural forms, his devotion to the observed motif, his deep appreciation of literary naturalism and biblical allegory, and his early immersion in the world of art. Three of his uncles were art dealers and Van Gogh joined the business at the age of 16. He was a careful reader of art journals before he became an artist and he studied and owned a number of artist prints. His close analysis of artistic forms began early in life.

After he was dismissed from a temporary position as a lay evangelist in the Belgian coal-mining district of Borinage he turned his back on organized religion for good, but this did not dispel his profoundly contradictory religious impulses. Van Gogh was a minister’s son raised on the bible, taught the bible to schoolboys, interpreted it before congregations, and was a theology student up until 1878. Before making the transition from freelance preacher to full-time art maker Van Gogh was “homesick for the land of pictures.” From the late 70s until his death in 1890 he pursued art making with a quasi-religious fervor: “I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”

Although he was adamantly against painting biblical narrative and purely imaginative compositions, and frowned upon his peers who did, he wanted his art to console viewers. Van Gogh believed that religiosity could only be genuinely expressed through a humble realism. He reread and greatly admired the books of the naturalists the Goncourt brothers and Emile Zola, atheistic spirits one and all. In his mind they made close observation of the material world, including the ugly parts, a morally superior act. Zola’s novels appear in more than one painting by Van Gogh, and the text of these novels focus on the textures of real environments, and not on allegory or fantasy. Recording the details of a place made for great art in Van Gogh’s mind. At the same time, as Van Gogh indicated in a number of his letters to his brother Theo, he projected his memories of passages and characters from books he had read onto his real world experiences. Reading clearly gave him solace and made his isolation tolerable. His imagination was more at ease in literary realms.

Formally speaking, the late drawings reveal that Van Gogh’s understanding of linear perspective allowed him to squeeze as much emotionality as possible out of each composition, whether he was drawing a complicated panoramic view or an empty corner of a walled in field of grass and hay. Outlining and graphic filling or what Robert Hughes called “a tapestry of microforms” replaced chiaroscuro in his late drawings. The unstable spatial relationships and consistent changing of direction of the dots, staccato strokes, and whorls, which all vary in size, make for a turbulent and unrelenting surface. What art historian Fritz Novotny called the “dynamism contained in the staccato rhythm of a broken flow of lines,” is present in almost all of the drawings made during the last few years of Van Gogh’s life.

In many of the drawings from 1888 and 1889, including Olive Trees, MontmajourRocks and Trees, MontmajourCottage Garden, and The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, Van Gogh perfectly balanced expressive and descriptive mark making. In the drawing Cottage Garden the limited number of marks Van Gogh used to create this compelling rendering of observed facts grace it with a seductive vibratory energy. He uses a variety of circles, curved lines, straight lines, and dots to delineate a frothy mass of flora and fauna, open sky with bright sunlight coursing through it, and fences and houses. By playing sparse areas off of busy areas in a breathtakingly rhythmic way he suggests a three dimensional space. Like a number of Impressionist painters Van Gogh loved to challenge himself by trying to render large patches of organic forms that avoid specificity and were constantly reconfigured by the elements, wind especially.

The Pointillists also clearly made their mark on Van Gogh but his use of stippling wasn’t an all over principle or part of a formalist doctrine, but was one of the graphic tools he had at his disposal, used to its fullest effects to delineate space, light, and surface texture. There is a reason why Picasso’s praise of Van Gogh was never qualified. Van Gogh’s uncanny graphic intensity was not simply the by-product of mental disease, expression run rampant. Van Gogh teaches us that a drawn line is not just a drawn line. He instilled his line with veracity and an energy that continues to elude classification. His graphic resources, stippling, cross hatching, a barrage of multi-directional slashes and whorls, were always contained in smartly delineated compositions, and Van Gogh also chose startlingly original subject matter, a lone pair of shoes, a dramatically sloping hole in the ground. His ability to frame wild expanses of plant life allowed him to avoid the pitfalls of horror vacui, present in so much outsider art.

By carefully modulating the direction, shape and size of a limited vocabulary of hand drawn marks, Van Gogh convincingly evoked a variety of textures and forms and vistas. He was masterful at playing dot and circular form off of line or slash and his nuanced and commanding outlines of forms are products of a finely tuned imagination. His outlines are vibrant summaries of forms that are thoroughly convincing and hold our attention without resorting to self conscious distortions. The drawings in this exhibition convince us to take up our pencils.