Toward the end of the 19th century, in France, lots of sophisticated, citified artists were looking outside their own culture for inspiration. They explored Japanese prints, crude medieval woodcuts and the "primitive" arts of Brittany and other remote corners of their world. They even started noticing the works of untrained outsider artists such as Henri Rousseau.
Vincent van Gogh, by the time he was making his mature work, was as sophisticated a radical as any of his peers. With all the powerful van Goghs we've seen in recent years, it's become almost routine to point out that he wasn't the clueless lunatic of Hollywood legend. And like his urbane peers, van Gogh was riffing on outsider art.
It so happens that his preferred outsider was named Vincent van Gogh.
That's one of the fascinating revelations of "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings," a major show that opened Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is, amazingly, this country's first substantial survey of the artist's works on paper. It includes 113 pieces made with graphite, charcoal, and pen and ink, along with a handful of watercolors and a very few oil paintings thrown in for comparison.
By surveying virtually the whole of van Gogh's career, the Met show lets us see the fascinating "mistakes" and accidental innovations that the Dutchman made as he taught himself to draw. And then it shows us how an increasingly mature and self-confident van Gogh realized the radical potential of his earlier errors.
An early drawing of a marsh, which van Gogh made in pen and ink in 1881, already has a few of the trademark features of the paintings he was making when he died less than a decade later. The soft, gray, vaporous scene, which you'd expect to see rendered in washes and smudged lines, is built up instead from a web of tiny strokes of ink. Hardly any of the surface is left unmarked: The same little dashes that render the twigs on drowned bushes are used to indicate the trunks of distant trees as well as the fluff of clouds. Imagine each of those strokes of the pen as a flick of the brush, as in the artist's most famous later works, and you get a clue to where van Gogh went wrong -- and then so right. Instead of making a clear distinction between how drawings and paintings work, as classical training would have demanded, the artist let his misguided early pen technique infect what he did with a brush.
The "problem" that afflicted the young van Gogh was that he lacked the resume of your standard cosmopolitan artist.
Van Gogh grew up in rural Holland, the son of an evangelical pastor. His knowledge of art came from an uncle who was an art dealer in The Hague. Van Gogh worked for him, and then in the London branch and Paris headquarters of a major gallery called Goupil, which had bought his uncle's firm. Van Gogh learned to look at art, and love and understand it, before he learned to make it: His self-trained hand was coupled with a well-schooled eye, and maybe that was what let him go on to see the potential in his own awkwardnesses.
After being fired from Goupil, van Gogh did stints as a teacher, a bookseller and a preacher to the poor, before deciding, at 27, that an artist's life would suit him best. He took a stab at getting some professional training: He looked up a cousin, Anton Mauve, who was a major talent in the polished Hague School of landscape painting, and spent a few weeks at the Antwerp art academy. But by then he was too set in his own ways for much of what he learned to stick. It was still van Gogh's own looking, rather than what other people tried to teach him about making, that conditioned his artwork.
It was looking that must have made that swamp from 1881 turn out the way it did. Van Gogh was a big fan of English newspaper engravings, which specialized in depicting the down-and-outs he cared so deeply for. And engravings, by definition, are made of a web of tiny lines designed to carry ink: For an area to register as more than simply blank, it has to be marked up. Those scratchy engravings were "reproductive" -- they would mostly have been based on drawings or even paintings done in a perfectly normal style -- but van Gogh either didn't know that or, more likely, chose to ignore it. He simply liked the fuzzy look of those printed illustrations, and chose to duplicate it in his drawings. A trained hand might have used charcoal or ink to smooth out all those rough engraver's edges -- but van Gogh's eye could see a future in them.
Even two years later, in a foggy northern landscape done in smudged graphite, black wash and gray watercolor, van Gogh can't help adding some rigid line. The dark sky to either side of a setting sun is rendered as a series of bold vertical stokes, which stand in awkward contrast to the smoothly graded tones that rule the rest of the surface.
After a few years' stay in Paris, and then a trip to southern France, van Gogh had developed his own way with paint. By 1888, he'd taken the taste for a certain kind of lively, almost arbitrary mark that had evolved in his drawings and transferred it to oils. Instead of smoothly translating the world into a consistent system of colored dabs, as leading artists such as Monet and Seurat were doing, van Gogh famously set his brush free to make whatever kind or shape or size of stroke it wanted to.
Once van Gogh had really begun to break free in paint, it fed back into his drawings. Van Gogh's drawing style suddenly opens up to allow dots and blobs and rings and curlicues of ink, on top of the dashes he'd started out with.
It's not so much that he's working in a standard sketching mode, roughing out an image of the world in manic strokes of ink. In many of his pen drawings, the view has already been outlined in pencil lines that just peek out from underneath. Rather, van Gogh is using inky marks to fill in and complete and energize a picture whose structures he's already settled on -- the way a skilled painter might work up the final surface of a canvas.
Not knowing, or perhaps caring, that drawing and painting are supposed to follow different rules, van Gogh tried to make one match the other.
There was economy involved: Vincent's younger brother Theo, who worked in Paris to support the jobless artist, could sometimes barely scrape together enough money for fancy paints and canvases, so Vincent occasionally tried to make ink and paper take their place.
Working alone in far-off Arles, van Gogh also had to find a way to let his colleagues and his brother know about the progress he was making. By developing a way of drawing that could also stand for what he did in paint, van Gogh could use the mails to keep them up to date. A few of the ink drawings that van Gogh did as records of his innovative landscape paintings, after he had painted them, actually have the missing colors written in as words in their blank spaces. Many others show him inventing a novel range of wild marks that render coloristic energy as line. (Both systems work much better than when van Gogh tries to "color in" his drawings with even watercolor washes. Without the graphic verve of his brushstrokes -- which descends from the graphic power of his earliest drawings -- van Gogh's art falls asleep.)
In some ways, van Gogh's later landscape drawings are almost more far-fetched than his paintings of those years. They have a frantic energy that overrides traditional ideas of legible subject matter and coherent composition. The most extreme of them prefigure Jackson Pollock, or the bewildering complexities of landscape photos by Lee Friedlander.
Even in portraits, where you'd imagine subject matter having greater sway, van Gogh's drawings flirt with capriciousness. Van Gogh's famous painting called "The Zouave" is pretty great and wild, but his drawing based on it is truly an amazing thing. The painted sitter's tarry black jacket becomes a series of bold diagonals, the "green" of the wall behind him is a mess of thinner verticals, the thick impasto of the painted face becomes a fine polka-dot pattern -- like some kind of stubbly beard that happens to extend from neck to forehead -- and the red color of the hat is replaced by a wildly exaggerated version of the crosshatched weave of its fabric. Even the irises of the man's eyes, which on canvas are just a few dabs of colored paint, in the drawing become doughnuts of diverging rays spreading out from the black pupils. Details left out of the painting -- the weave of a fabric, the fine lines in an iris -- are put back into the drawing, in highly exaggerated form, to compensate for its missing colorfulness.
Van Gogh's self-taught line is more than up to the task of standing in for paint. Even when that paint is as great, and as sophisticated, as the mature van Gogh's.
Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., through Dec. 31. Call 212-535-7710 or visit www.metmuseum.org.