Vincent van Gogh and his art have spawned a vast industry of worship and imitation reams of books and articles, movies, plays, songs, poems, Web sites, T-shirts, puzzles and even a "Great Artist Series" Barbie doll dressed in a sunflower. Pilgrims travel to weep in the room where he died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, and leave ashes and mementos at his nearby grave. There is a Pin the Ear on van Gogh game; a mug with a detachable handle shaped like an ear. Van Gogh can arguably also be held responsible for the glut of sunflowers that decorated everything from hair clips to wastebaskets a few seasons ago.
It is partly as a result of van Gogh mania that an exhibit of paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is coming to the National Gallery Oct. 4 to Jan. 3, offering this city a chance to experience its own version of the madness. The National Gallery has already dispensed nearly 215,000 advance passes, and expects heavy demand for the 1,800 to 2,300 additional tickets to be released every morning during the exhibition. Even scalpers have gotten into the act, selling the free tickets for as much as $50 for opening day.
"We don't usually do art exhibits," said Danny Matta, the owner of Great Seats Inc., a ticket brokerage in College Park. "But many of our regular clients wanted them. This is basically a service for people who don't want to wait in line."
"Surveys have shown that van Gogh is the most recognized artist in the world," said Eric Jackson of Anderson Consulting, which is underwriting the exhibition for a sum he would not disclose. That recognition appeals to the Fortune 500 CEOs and CFOs who are his company's main clients, Jackson said of the decision to sponsor the show.
Monique Hageman of the Van Gogh Museum says the artist's appeal is "because of the letters he wrote. So we know a lot more of him than of other painters of his time. Everybody wants to make a romantic life of what we know of him from his letters."
Built to accommodate 60,000 visitors a year, the 25-year-old Van Gogh Museum has been attracting more than 15 times as many. With a single elevator and one staircase, viewers face long lines, especially during the high-tourist summer season.
"A million people a year, and toilet facilities designed for 60,000," museum spokeswoman Marjelle van Hoorn said.
Because it must close for eight months to complete renovations prompted by this popularity, the museum (which was started by van Gogh's nephew, the son of his beloved brother Theo) agreed to loan 70 of its 200 paintings to the National Gallery.
Van Gogh mania perhaps reached its height in 1990, when "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" was sold at auction to a Japanese paper magnate for a record $82.5 million. That sale occurred 100 years after the impecunious artist died, shortly after painting the picture of his homeopathic physician, a man he thought sicker than himself. Given the vicissitudes of the art market, however, it is best to consider the value of the collection coming here as "priceless." Security will be extremely tight. Van Gogh has the dubious distinction of being among those artists who have been the target of art thieves and insane desecrators.
The National Gallery will have its share of memorabilia for sale 64 items ranging from 50-cent postcards to a $139 vase, all of which have been approved by the Van Gogh Museum as suitably tasteful. The profits go toward subsidizing the gallery's publications.
In its more virulent forms, van Gogh mania goes way beyond 50-cent postcards.
"It's a peculiar global community of enthusiasts that all share the same kind of fever," said David Brooks, a Canadian computer expert who maintains the Web site www.vangoghgallery.com. "There is something indescribable that possesses you. . . . The majority of people, you couldn't show them a Vermeer and they would know what it is. But you show them 'Starry Night' or 'Bedroom' and they know who he is. Why are people so fascinated with Elvis or James Dean? It's the tragic flavor to their story. . . . It touches people." It touched songwriter Don McLean in 1972:
Now I understand
from "Vincent," 1972 hit song by Don McLean
There are plenty of opportunities to buy a van Gogh.
One firm advertises, "Vincent van Gogh oils on canvas of famous old master available as hand-painted high-grade reproductions to decorate the den or office." It offers a variety of convenient sizes, for $100 to $615.
It's more than romantic inferences about van Gogh's life and his appeal as a misunderstood and lonely artist who turned out to be great that have turned him into such an icon. It's more than his brilliant art, his "canvases of fire, burning visions . . . enormous suns above the fields as hallucinatory monstrances," as one admirer wrote in 1913. And it's more than marketing and the fashion echo that resonate with the advent of extravagant prices. It is probably all these factors together that have made the Dutchman so phenomenally popular.
"Some of the van Gogh myths of the past century must have been myths for people to live by, ideas to fulfill a spiritual need at a given time," wrote critic Tsukasa Kodera in "The Mythology of Vincent van Gogh."
Brooks's Web site has gotten more than 228,000 visitors in less than two years, and he receives 15 to 20 e-mail messages every day from van Gogh enthusiasts around the world. Their interests and concerns range from the parochial to the profound, but they reveal to some extent the intensity of van Gogh's appeal. They, like other aficionados, often refer to the artist simply as "Vincent," as though he were an old friend.
"Does anyone have any idea where Vincent got the gun? Is it possible he stole it from Dr. Gachet?" asked one correspondent. (No one knows where he got the weapon with which he killed himself.)
A woman is curious about the girl's hands in the painting "La Mousme, Sitting" which "appear somewhat elongated the right hand more that the left. But the left hand appears almost withered deformed, somehow. Does anyone know the story behind this?"
Another woman is looking for a print of "Wheat Field With Crows." "It is grand and moving; its imagery means a lot to me as I have lost a dear friend by his own hand last summer." That painting, which will be part of the show here, has been incorrectly mythologized as van Gogh's last before his suicide, largely because director Vincent Minnelli used its ominous imagery as such in his 1956 film about the painter, "Lust for Life." No one knows exactly which work the increasingly distressed and prolific artist painted last.
"Lust for Life" is just one of more than 85 feature films and documentaries about van Gogh from 19 countries, according to Kees Pinxteren in "The Mythology of Van Gogh." They range from fictionalized dramas to Dadaist parodies to a one-minute humorous exegesis in Dutch called "The Bedroom." Van Gogh has inspired scores of novels, biographies and critiques, as well as sappy poetry. Painters, from the prominent to retirees copying postcards, have imitated or interpreted him for decades.
Perhaps the most dedicated van Gogh worshipers are those who travel to the many places he lived in the Netherlands, England, Belgium and France. It can take two weeks to visit all the sites in Holland alone.
In Arles, where van Gogh lived in the famous Yellow House (his painting of it is in the National Gallery show) and where he worked for several productive years, there is a McDonald's restaurant with plastic sunflowers and a tile replica of "The Night Cafe." The Cafe van Gogh, also in Arles, is more upscale it has silk sunflowers.
The Japanese have a particular affection for van Gogh, and many travel to his grave northwest of Paris to leave the ashes of their own dear departed. The graveyard, where Theo is also buried, gets some 300,000 visitors a year, who leave poems, drawings and, as is the custom in some cultures, food for the journey beyond.
Over 100,000 a year trek to the nearby Auberge Ravoux, where van Gogh spent his last days. A Belgian businessman bought the inn in 1985 with the notion of creating a grand museum and shrine. At this point, he has restored the building and allows groups of no more than five to climb the narrow stairs. For an admission fee of about $12, they can view the cheerless, now empty garret in which van Gogh died. Dominique Charles-Janssens compares the inn to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, a near holy place of reflection and homage.
"People often cry in the room," said Janssens. "It is so emotional, so spiritual. It's a place of pilgrimage where people reflect on their life as much as Vincent's."
Staff writer Eric Brace contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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