HOUSTON — What was Vincent van Gogh’s gift, exactly? To many, his gift was his suffering. To them, he is “Vincent” — the patron saint of psychic anguish, the acme of tortured genius.
But if you like pictures, his real gift (the one he actually gave us, not the one we projected onto him) is very clear. Van Gogh knew how to infuse pictures — and the things within pictures — with life. He let mute objects hold their own in the world alongside things that are alive, which he already loved for being so. And in the process, he played us all into the great game, the cosmic tautology, of an existence in love with itself.
A major van Gogh show has opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with the art primarily from the world’s two greatest van Gogh collections: the Kröller-Müller Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, both in the Netherlands. Beefed up with scattered works from public and private collections in the United States and Europe, the exhibition ranges from his early to late work. It’s not a full-blown retrospective, and not everything in it is brilliant. But that’s at least partly because hardly anything van Gogh painted before the final three years of his life was special.
Highlights include an intense early self-portrait, several stellar drawings, a rarely seen painting of a stagecoach (from Princeton University), a symphonically great late painting of irises and — my new favorite painting in the world — a small, unfinished emerald-green picture of a farmhouse in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, made just a month before van Gogh killed himself. (As soon as I saw it, I wanted to tuck it under my arm and walk out into Texas with it.)
Also worth lingering over is a still life, from the Kröller-Müller, which van Gogh made just days after the extravagant mind-snap that led him to cut off part of his ear and present it to a local prostitute.
As a painting — but also as a response to temporary derangement — it’s a remarkable thing. A table, supporting various objects, is pictured from the viewpoint of someone seated at one corner. So urgently did van Gogh invest what he painted with personal significance that you feel almost obliged to breathe in and out slowly as you name the objects on it:
Four brown onions sprouting green shoots.
An open packet of tobacco.
A burning white candle in a blue candle holder.
A stick of red sealing wax.
A yellow box of matches.
A book on homeopathic medicines.
And a letter from Theo, his brother.
Also, behind the table, perched on a surface we can’t see, a green coffee pot.
And in front, cropped by the bottom left corner, a bottle of absinthe.
These items are all humble. That’s part of their significance. Van Gogh, who had earlier tried his hand at preaching, had recently arrived in Arles, a small town in the south of France. There was a connection in his mind between the humility of his circumstances and his spiritually supercharged sense of mission, his dreams of creative — and communal — resurgence.
But the objects also, given the circumstances, had another role. They steadied him. Here are onions I can eat. The green shoots have extra protein. Here is my tobacco: I can smoke it. Here is coffee, absinthe. A medical book: I will read it purposefully, it may help. And here, in this letter, is Theo. My brother.
Van Gogh’s ear was still bandaged, bleeding, as he painted these things. It was January. Cold.
The table has an awkward pitch to it; its surface seems to float in space. And you’ll notice there are no chairs. Just months earlier, before the mind-snap, van Gogh had in fact painted the chairs, separately.
First his own: a simple rush chair, with a pipe and a tobacco pouch on the seat and a box of sprouting onions on the floor. This is one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Despite the fact that he’s not actually in it, it’s one of the most eloquent self-portraits ever painted.
He also painted Gauguin’s chair. This one was a little more ornate, with curving wooden arm rests. On the seat were two books as well as the blue ceramic candle holder with burning white candle that, like the onions, the pipe and the tobacco, crop up again in the post-crisis still life.
If the candle represents Gauguin, the precariousness of its placement on the table is surely deliberate. Van Gogh knew he had scared Gauguin away. The tension between them had been building for weeks — the result of clashing personalities but also different philosophical approaches to painting. He did not yet know that he would never see him again.
The autobiographical urge behind van Gogh’s painting was important, which is why we acknowledge it. His suffering was important. But even more important is the painting itself, and why it feels so bright, so vivid — as if it were not just an artifact attesting to a long-ago drama, but also something alive in its own right.
How did van Gogh do it? That is the question. Because for the longest time, he was worse than mediocre. His drawing was stiff and clumsy. His painting was dull and belabored. All that he tried looked derivative. You can see this with your own eyes in early drawings of a fisherman and a man with a spade, paintings of a prostitute and a still life with a straw hat.
And then, somehow, van Gogh figured it out. The people around him couldn’t see it, which makes it all the more amazing. But he could. And what is suddenly evident, in just the last few years of his life, is that he had become a painter who, despite all kinds of difficulties, absolutely knew what he was doing.
People talk about the way van Gogh used unmixed colors squeezed straight from the tube, as if he were a pure-hearted child blissfully finger-painting the hours away. But look at the color in that still life and marvel at how carefully he used it to bring the painting alive.
The picture’s dominant contrast is between the complementaries yellow (for the table) and purple (for the background). Complementaries reinforce and calm one another. Van Gogh also uses them on a smaller scale in different parts of the picture: Near the green coffee pot, for instance, he throws in some red dashes and he limns the deep blue of the candle holder with orange.
But just as much as complementaries, van Gogh loved using colors that are adjacent on the color wheel. These combinations are edgier, more agitated. He was always, for instance, using acidic yellow-greens and queasy green-yellows. Here he places the deep red of the sealing wax next to the musky pink on the book’s cover. And he surrounds the deep blue of the candle holder with turquoise and lavender. There are four or five shades of green in the painting, and a similar number of blues.
But enough! Analyzing color is like explaining a joke. The point is that van Gogh used color to enliven the objects he painted and to enliven the painting itself.
He used drawing in the same way. One of the joys of this exhibition is watching the artist convert his awkward, blockish manner of drawing into a supple, expansive and vibrant idiom that works a lot like his handling of color. His signature hatching, for instance, combines the rhythmic, calming effects of repeated parallel lines with the agitated energy produced by constant variations in direction, length, thickness and weight.
A case in point is the show’s greatest drawing: the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Café Terrace on the Place du Forum.” It’s a large pen-and-ink drawing — you’ll probably recognize the image — that van Gogh made a few months before the Kröller-Müller still life.
Cafe customers are eating under an outdoor awning. The picture’s vitality comes from its surface rhythms, which are the product, in turn, of the hatching he used for the cobblestones, the patch of sky and the exterior surfaces of the buildings.
To bring things — even inanimate things — to life, and to make a new living thing in the process. What more could anyone ask of art?
Vincent Van Gogh: His Life in Art Through Jun. 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. mfah.org.