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The painter of the future will be such a colourist as has never yet been,” Vincent van Gogh predicted shortly before he killed himself in 1890. No one understood his work and he had sold just one painting. Yet within 15 years, his prophecy came true. Matisse and the Fauves in Collioure, the Brücke artists in Dresden, the Blue Rider group in Munich, the Viennese school: between 1905 and 1910, in avant-garde centres across Europe, painters liberated colour from the bounds of realistic constraint to produce an art focused not on naturalistic depiction but on inner vision – the state of the soul. None of this would have been thinkable without the lonely, tormented example of van Gogh.
How extraordinary, then, that it has taken a century, and belated American money and interest, to mount an exhibition saying so: Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, co-organised by New York’s Neue Galerie and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. A show packed with iconic and lesser-known stunners, it is an example of the symbiosis between art market and inter-national museums that is particularly strong at times of soaring prices. Expressionist masterpieces, too long ignored internationally, gain both historical gravitas and economic value here as Van Gogh’s descendents.
Collector Ronald Lauder, who founded the Neue Galerie in 2001, is a driving force behind the 21st-century craze for expressionism which has seen record prices this year for Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and others. Several such sexy bestsellers are in the show, which gives the fullest account yet of expressionism available outside Germany, and emphasises it convincingly as an art for our times: instant impact, violent distortion, shrill chromatic dissonance, apocalyptic mood. Yet still van Gogh steals the show.
Even today, what he called his “terrible lucidity” pierces anew in all its strangeness and religious fervour when original paintings hang in fresh settings and fresh company. Face to face with a work less familiar in Europe such as the Phillips Collection’s “The Road Menders”, with its massive cropped trees and shimmering Arles street, you see how van Gogh’s quest for emotional truth hung on colour, and especially on yellow – “a sun, a light, which for want of a better word I must call pale sulphur-yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!”
Thus the attraction of the south, superbly illustrated in the great Arles paintings here. “Field with Flowers in Arles”, “The Yellow House”, “The Zoave”, “The Sower” unravel how all his work, not only landscape, played on Provence’s strong sensations “of gold of various tints, green-gold, yellow-gold, pink-gold …bronze, copper, in short starting from citron yellow all the way to a dull, dark yellow colour like a heap of threshed corn”.
For van Gogh, “colour expresses something by itself”. Against the sandy floors and flaring lights of the Arles “Night Café”, he tried in the crimson interior and billiard table “to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green”. That portrayal of intense experience in relation to the exterior world is what makes “Sunflowers” the most famous still life in history and “Wheatfield with Crows”, with its shorthand dashes and frenzied dabs of sky and sheaves, one of the most turbulently affecting landscapes. Transferred to the human countenance, the fraught, honest scrutiny of motif gives portraits too, especially the late self-portraits – “Self-portrait as an Artist”, “Self-portrait with a Straw Hat” – a seriousness and human scope that recalls van Gogh’s countryman Rembrandt.
Some two dozen van Goghs of this quality are here, headily interlaced with works by the expressionist painters who took his high-pitched associations between colour and emotion as the basis of their own art. He was, said Max Pechstein, “father to us all”. Pechstein’s “Young Woman with a Red Fan” is clearly modelled on van Gogh’s “Zoave” portrait, using the same striking colour contrasts and bold frontal pose. Another Brücke artist, Kirchner, took van Gogh’s “Painter on the Road to Tarascon” as the basis for his blistering coloured woodcuts “Peter Schlemihl’s Wondrous Story”, about a man who sells his shadow. Kirchner made the series in 1915, after a wartime breakdown left him with an identity crisis from which he never fully recovered – he committed suicide in 1938. His choice of this van Gogh self-analysis – Francis Bacon made several variations on the same work at a key moment in the 1950s – is significant. The influential German critic Julius Meier Graefe had recently published his biography of van Gogh, crystallising the story of the artist as tortured genius; this mesmerised the expressionists as the self became their great experimental subject.
Meier Graefe bought van Gogh’s “Lovers: The Poet’s Garden”, in 1893 – the artist’s first work to enter a private collection – and as soon as he saw it in Dresden in 1905 Kirchner responded with a similar composition of a foregrounded couple, steeply receding perspective, towering trees and light-streaked sky in “Moonrise, Soldier and Maiden”. Kirchner’s bright, broken brushwork and slashes of colour are rooted in van Gogh. Later, his style became more gothic and flamboyantly sexual, but early work such as “Bed of Flowers” – resembling van Gogh’s “Garden in Auvers” – show clearly how in Germany van Gogh was the indispensable conduit between 19th-century romanticism, with its interplay of nature and the spiritual life, and 20th-century expressionism.
The same transcendentalist line runs from van Gogh to Kandinsky’s abstraction, which the Russian developed in Munich, working alongside Blue Rider artists Franz Marc and August Macke – his “Vegetable Fields”, with wild pink and purple contrasts, sharp diagonals and spatial distortions, also refers to the Arles landscapes. Marc and Macke died in the first world war; the flu epidemic at its end also carried off Schiele: all young artists whose blaze and idealism were, like van Gogh’s, cut short.
The relationship between Schiele, an artist of line rather than colour, and van Gogh, is a thrilling surprise here. Like his fellow Austrians, Richard Gerstl – another suicide, aged 25 – and Oskar Kokoschka, whose heavily impastoed psychological portraits – “Hirsch as an Old Man”, “Rudolf Blümner” – drip with a neurosis shared by subject and artist, Schiele interpreted van Gogh via Freud. His “Autumn Sun”, recently discovered in France and exhibited here for the first time since 1937, is juxtaposed with its model, van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”: a moving example of artistic homage and of how, in the huge painting of wilting, tumbling flowers, their colour fading, Schiele transforms van Gogh’s luminous intensity into an image of doomed beauty and end-of-epoch decadence. The work was painted in 1914, and is among several which extract from van Gogh a fateful tone; Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Landscape”, Otto Dix’s “Sunrise”, where an enormous sun shrivels a staccato-painted earth flecked with scattering crows, an answer to van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows”.
This show includes compelling documentary evidence – letters, books, catalogues – of the Germanisation of van Gogh in the nationalistic years before the first world war, when, as Kirchner wrote, German art sought “to fly with its own wings – we have a duty to separate ourselves from the French”. Its canvas-by-canvas comparisons, on the other hand, are not always persuasive and can be maddeningly didactic, pedantic or just wrong. Klimt, the jewel in the Neue Galerie crown, owes his decorativeness to art nouveau and symbolism rather than van Gogh, for instance, and, beyond a pervasive general influence, nothing justifies “Yellow House” as a model for Kandinsky’s abstracting “Murnau Street”. This is however an exhibition which wears its scholarship and its mission on its sleeve, and, like the art it celebrates, is not afraid to over-state its case, boldly, colourfully, with pleasure and conviction.
‘Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism’, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, to March 4. Tel +31 20 570 5200. Neue Galerie, New York, March 23 to July 2 2007. Sponsored by USG People