In the art world, to repeat oneself is often synonymous with being washed up, recycling a few good ideas you had 20 or 30 years earlier and have now branded for popular success. Public art is often very repetitious, as is most commercial hackwork, pictures of cottages on flower-dappled shores with moon-kissed mountains in the background. ¶ The word “repetitions” in the title of a new van Gogh exhibition at the Phillips Collection means something very different and is not at all about exhausted inspiration or cynical marketing. Van Gogh’s repetitions were more akin to variations on a theme, in a musical sense, a process of reinterpretation, refinement and experimentation through which the artist explored new possibilities in a portrait of a friend, a picture of his bedroom or a scene of road workers toiling beneath thick, shady trees. ¶ The Phillips Collection exhibition began with the last of these three “repetitions,” two paintings van Gogh made in 1889: “The Road Menders,” owned by the collection, and “The Large Plane Trees,” owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The two works explore the same visual material, a line of venerable trees that seem to be pulling the earth upward with a combustible energy. Beneath them, dark-clad townspeople pass on their daily business while men labor at repairing a torn-up street.
The two paintings were seen together in Cleveland in 2005 but have not been paired in Washington until now. Reuniting them was the germ of this larger show, which explores the role of repetition in van Gogh’s oeuvre, and how his self-conscious use of the term should refine our larger sense of him as an artist, revising the old canard that he was simply crazy and worked only in fits of frenzied inspiration. Rather, the curators argue, repetition — by which they mean refinement, evolution, development, variation — played a central role in his painting and drawing. He was, “Van Gogh Repetitions” insists, an artist like most other artists, capable of much more than one-off displays of pure, unthinking creative spontaneity.