If Vincent Van Gogh were alive and painting today, he might still cut off his ear, but he would surely not be ignored. In fact, he would probably be invited to Joan Mondale's for lunch. He dressed rather badly to be invited to dinner.
Things have changed drastically since the days when it was natural for a dedicated and revolutionary artist to starve unknown in a Paris garret. If Van Gogh's old friend Gauguin were alive today, he would no doubt have gotten to Tahiti on a traveling fellowship.
But this change is recent.
Until a few years ago, many first-rate American artists were still unknown and starving. (The only alternative was to be unknown and teaching.)
But today the situation is reversed.
It was not the innovators and revolutionaries who were being ignored - good or bad, their every move was being eagerly watched by dealers and collectors, and chronicled by curators and critics. It was the quiet, hard-working traditional craftsman, the poetic, nature-loving artist who couldn't make a living in the trendtossed '60s. "Innovate or Die!" might well have been engraved over the door of every art school in the country. Just plain good art led to oblivion, or so it seemed.
Such thoughts on the fickle nature of fame in the arts precipitated by the first posthumous show of Leonard Maurer's work, just opened at the Bader Gallery, 2124 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Maurer was a shy and gentle man, master of the craft of woodcut and drawing, who was preoccupied with the sea, the birds, and books, which he collected avidly.
He lived and taught in Washington for decades, showing frequently at Bader and elsewhere. But when he died two years ago at the age of 64, he had never had any real attention or commercial success - except for a later series of woodcuts based on portraits of James Joyce, Marcel Proust and others, which sold out.
He refused to enlarge the original edition of 50 because he felt it would be dishonorable. He could have sold dozens, if not hundreds more. Claes Oldenburg, meanwhile, was selling photo-offset reproductions of his drawings, which Oldenburg signed and numbered.
The Bader show is a small sampling from the many watercolors, drawings and prints Maurer left behind. It is enough, however, to give a feel for the range of this enchanting artist, from the funny and jazzy "Dancers" and so-called "Experts" to the dark, brooding self-portrait made one year before his death. A watercolor called "Bird & Moon" is surely one of his gems; a woodcut consisting wholly of a quote from Japanese woodblock master Hokusai might well serve as his epitaph: It is signed, "Old man mad about drawing."
Maurer will, rather belatedly, be given a retrospective jointly at the Phillips Collection and at American University in the fall of 1979. It brings to mind the fact that several other Washington artists have also come dangerously close to having posthumous retrospectives. Alma Thomas, who died a few weeks ago, was 77 before the Corcoran so honored her with a show that had as much to do with a show that had as much to do with social change as it had to do with art. Howard Mehring, one of the best painters this city has ever produced, just made it under the wire. His death at 47 last week was just months after his first retrospective at the Corcoran.
Washington audiences for art have grown a great deal in sophistication of late, and increasingly seem to have the courage to buy what they like. Wouldn't it be nice if more of this city's institutions honored its best artists while they were still alive, whether they happened to be in fashion or not?
New spaces, as well as old faces, were much in evidence this week, with the Inter-American Development Bank's handsome new street-level gallery at 801 17th St. NW topping the list of noncommercial spaces newly available for showing art downtown.
The inaugural show comes appropriately at a time when the art of old Latin America is being emphasized in two fine exhibitions of Mexican treasures at the Museum of Natural History and at the Hirshhorn. The Inter-American Development Bank show makes clear that contemporary art is also alive and well corporate support there is playing an important and intelligent role.
In 1971, the large paper manufacturing company called Carton y Papel de Mexico, decided to give original graphics as year-end presents to favored customers instead of shipping the customary Christmas case of scotch. They commissioned severl artists to do editions of 150 each. The program proved such a success that sister companies in Venezuela and Colombia began to do the same. More than 200 images have been commissioned of as many artists since that time - 30,000 prints in all - and the IDB show features a selection of 65 of them, from 23 nations.
The art is of a high order, with unfamiliar names, refreshing images and, happily, less U.S. influence than one might have expected. Each visitor will no doubt find favorites: mine include Jose de Monte, Delia Cugat and Antonio Segui of Argentina; Cuevas and Pedro Friedeberg of Mexico; and Jacobo Borges, Pablo Obelar and Alejandro Otero of Venezuela. Otero is the artist who designed the handsome kinetic sculpture which graces the Hirshhorn side of the Air and Space Museum.
Among the Americans and Europeans included - for these paper companies are, in fact, sister companies of the design-conscious Container Corporation of America - are Milton Glaser (former director of design for CCA), Antonio Saura of Spain, Bezdykian Assadour of France, Hans Richter of West Germany and Jan Cremer of the Netherlands. The gallery is open weekdays 10 to 5, and this show continues through April 14.
Elias Felluss, founder and director of the Washington Art Fair, (Art '78 will take place at the D.C. Armory May 3-8) and publisher of Galleries magazine, (a valuable guide to the Washington gallery scene) has now opened headquarters for all of these enterprises and more at 1800 Belmont Rd. NW.
On Saturday, night he also opened the Felluss Gallery at the same address, where he says he will be "attempting to involve Washington in a broader esthetic" by introducing nonobject had performance art.
"Art" is surely not the word that best describes he silly goings-on last Saturday night - a surprise game of strip poker played with loaded dice before a video camera and Polaroids (which you can buy if you like). Several other dealers appropriate loaned garbage cans for the occasion.
The "Fluxus" group which perpetrated the event (they are early denizens of SoHo and latter-day Dadaists) say that the point was "to intensify the absurdity of such cultural 'institutions' as the 'opening' itself, in this case by turning the audience into the show. It was an idea whose time had come - but 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, "Look Art," films and tapes on Tuesday evenings from 7:30 to 9:30, through June, are being shown at the gallery. The current offering is John Chamberlain's "The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez," through April 25. Admission is free.