Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I finally got to see the Van Gogh show at the Philadelphia Museum on Saturday.  Too late to recommend others see it, but not too late to share my impressions and hopefully get yours.

My first impression was that standing in line like cattle for close to 45 minutes is not only tiring but demeaning in a way.  Is that the best way to deal with these big shows?  Could we not be parading around the Museum in a line looking at art instead of being confined to a small space with nothing to do but stare at the back of somebody's head?

By the time I finally got into the gallery my legs were ready for a sit-down.  The space was crowded and my first thought was that I should leave.  What was the use of standing so far away that I could not see the art work?  I got a grip on myself and soldiered on, popping in front of people every now and then to get up close to the paintings which definitely demanded an intimate view.  Even the title of the show suggests that.  As usual there were more people standing in front of paintings that were described in the recorded information supplied by the earphones, so that left much of the art  minimally obscured.  I opted not to listen to the recording as I was there to see and did not want to be distracted.  It is always possible to read about the artist at another time but the physical presence of the art is what I was there for.

And what a presence it is!  How did Van Gogh do it?  Up close, the distance one would assume would be needed to actually paint the work, he could not possibly see the whole work and it is obvious that the whole work was constantly on his mind as the brushstrokes are all orchestrated to design patterns that make the whole composition sing.  Did he have extremely long brushes?  He obviously constantly moved back and forth from near to far as he worked, but still I was amazed at the way the paintings came together from a distance and were so unrecognizable, though fascinating, up close.

 It is no wonder he always needed money, as he must have used entire tubes of paint for each painting. The thickness of the paint and the constant motion the brush strokes display are almost like tapestry, albeit an impossible weave.  I have seen Van Gogh's work many times over the years and yet this show was still a revelation.  One of the haystack paintings brought me to tears.  There was something about the color that was simply sublime.

I only wish it would be possible to see these superb works in a less crowded setting.  I also wish the show did not end in the shop with all the shirts and ashtrays bearing reproductions of the artwork.  I understand the desire to own some part of the art, but it doesn't work.  It is the experience that matters not the cheap imitation you bring home which can only be a reminder of the inability to reproduce magic.