Saturday, September 11, 2010

Van Gogh: part of the Post Expressionist exhibit, opening Sept. 25

Van Gogh. Starry Night. Musée d'Orsay

In a letter to his brother Theo in 1882, Van Gogh wrote:  “There are but three fundamental colours – red, yellow, and blue; ‘composites’ are orange, green, and purple. By adding black and some white one gets the endless varieties of greys – red grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey. It is impossible to say, for instance, how many green-greys there are; there is an endless variety. But the whole chemistry of colours is not more complicated than those few simple rules. And having a clear notion of this is worth more than 70 different colours of paint — because with those three principal colours and black and white, one can make more than 70 tones and varieties. The colourist is the person who knows at once how to analyze a colour, when it sees it in nature, and can say, for instance: that green-grey is yellow with black and blue, etc. In other words, someone who knows how to find the grays of nature on their palette”.

Unfortunately, the block buster nature of the upcoming show will prevent much careful viewing. Van Gogh, whose best work was done at Arles in the 15 months between February 1888 and May 1889, needs and deserves that much. The 100 plus works in this show - plus Van Gogh's reputation as a mad genius - will probably get in the way. Yet, like many other 19th century painter (Cezanne and Gauguin come to mind), he was eloquent about his work, describing it with intelligence, power and yet, modesty. His work, in those eventful 15 months, gives us one of the best known (and sometimes least understood) narratives of artistic development in 19th century art. If I were to offer one piece of advice to those who will visit the museum, please, please, please study the art in advance. The history of this period, biographies of the artists, even well-written critiques are all available. Don't wait until you are there, headphones clamped over your ears, jostling with the crowds for that rare glimpse of what really is a work of genius. The more you know before you go, the more you will enjoy and appreciate.

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces From the Musée d'Orsay: Paintings and drawings. Opens Sept. 25. M.H. de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F. Timed and dated tickets include general admission: adults $25 ($20 in advance); seniors (65+) $17; students with ID $16; free to members and children 5 or younger. (415) 750-3600. www.famsf.org.

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