Vincent Van Gogh at The Morgan Library

A letter to Émile Bernard from Vincent Van Gogh

* * *

Any museum that devotes an exhibition to the neo-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is guaranteed boffo box office receipts. Few artists have achieved as much posthumous celebrity or, rather, had it thrust upon them.

Myth has all but engulfed the man. Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, put it into motion. Having absorbed lessons in marketing from her late husband, Theo, an art dealer in Paris, she ensured that the best paintings entered influential collections for, as she put it, “the sake of Vincent’s glory.” Her emphasis on autobiography didn’t go unnoticed: Critics accused her of promoting van Gogh’s work as “the illustration of [a] sorrowful life-drama.”

Irving Stone’s biographical novelization, Lust for Life, and Hollywood’s subsequent adaptation of it built upon and confirmed the cliché of the tortured artist. Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of an impassioned madman is an exemplar of scenery chewing. Songwriter Don McLean followed up “American Pie” with the bathetic “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” And so it goes. Who doesn’t know about the painter, his troubled psyche and the ill-fated ear?

You’d think an august institution like the Morgan Library would be above crass commercialism, and you’d be right. Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Émile Bernard is an intimate exhibition, an antiblockbuster focusing only tangentially on art-making. Though it contains roughly two dozen paintings, watercolors and drawings by van Gogh and his friend, the painter and poet Émile Bernard (1868-1941), the letters are the thing: They explore subjects as various as living in the country, the artist’s life and Degas’ reputed impotence.

Organized by curator Jennifer Tonkovich, Painted with Words is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the correspondence between the two painters. It features 20 of the 22 known letters written by van Gogh to Bernard. (Of the two not included, one is known only through a lost photograph; the other is in the collection of the Fondation Custodia in Paris.) A letter written to Paul Gauguin is included as well, not least because it includes a sketch of Bedroom at Arles (1888), among the Dutch painter’s signature works.

The two men met in Paris at the atelier of Fernand Cormon, a painter both men studied with—or so Bernard, not always the most reliable of sources, tells it. Their friendship began in earnest when they regularly frequented Julien Tanguy’s art supply store, a hangout for painters.

Bernard struck up a concurrent friendship with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and subsequently became a fixture of the avant-garde scene. He would introduce van Gogh to its petit boulevard painters—a term coined by van Gogh to distinguish his new friends from the more established Impressionists.

Bernard and van Gogh shared fiery temperaments (Bernard was booted out of Cormon’s studio for bad behavior), but they differed in political philosophies. The younger artist—Bernard was 15 years van Gogh’s junior—was an anarchist and didn’t care much for his friend’s communitarian impulses. Nonetheless, they formed a bond based upon nights spent drinking and whoring. Van Gogh treated his friend as an apprentice as much as a peer. How Bernard responded to his friend’s paternalism is unknown: None of the letters to van Gogh exist.

Viewers unable to read French will have to rely on translations provided by the Morgan, but even then it’s a challenge. Van Gogh’s handwriting is as manic and insistent as his scrabbled draftsmanship. The sheets of paper are small and crammed with unceasing, tightly wound script. Here and there you’ll find thumbnail sketches. A few of the corresponding finished works are on display: the painting Orchard Surrounded by Cypresses and pen-and-ink drawings like Wheatfield With Setting Sun and A Street in Saint-Maries (all 1888).

Van Gogh had definite ideas about art. In an 1877 letter, he inveighs against working in a studio: “One [does] not learn very much as far as painting goes … not much that’s good in terms of savoir vivre.” Along the way he criticizes a Bernard self-portrait (“although all in all it is frightfully you”) and extols military service as a means of becoming a great artist—that is “if you emerge from it.”

Elsewhere van Gogh exhibits acute self-awareness about his painterly “roughnesses”: “I’m inclined to think that the result is sufficiently worrying and annoying not to please people with preconceived ideas about technique.”

Van Gogh states with strange ambiguity that the “artist’s neurosis” is exemplified in the stories of Moses and illuminated by “the study of Christ.” He was prone to romantic analogies, as when he compares the painter’s life to “a butterfly” whose “field of action [is] one of the innumerable stars, which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life.” Whatever you say, Vincent.

He’s more to the point discussing Old Masters, particularly his Dutch forebears. “The character of the Dutch,” we learn, “is that they invent nothing, that they have neither imagination nor fantasy.” He lovingly describes the sky in a Paulus Potter canvas as “forlorn … [and] heartbroken in the tender immensity of a wet meadow.” He chastises Bernard for not having a “sufficiently clear idea when it comes to Rembrandt” and describes Vermeer, in a beautiful turn of phrase, as an “incomparable sphinx.”

Bernard wasn’t much of an artist. The paintings and drawings on display are, at best, those of a sophisticated amateur; they leave a dull symbolist aftertaste. His enthusiasm and energy was, one feels, devoted largely to van Gogh’s work. Bernard organized exhibitions of the pictures (a checklist he designed for one of them is at the Morgan), wrote articles about the work and shared the letters with critics. Like van Gogh-Bonger, he concerned himself with the artist’s place in history—and therein lies his true legacy. Painted with Words touches upon that accomplishment with understated and scholarly aplomb.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 2, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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