AMSTERDAM — Behind the impressive Vincent van Gogh retrospective that opened last week in two Dutch cities lay an idea to display works that the artist himself might have picked--if he were somehow resurrected and given several million dollars to pay insurance premiums on the collection.
"We tried to select only those works of art that Vincent van Gogh would have shown," curator Louis van Tilborgh declared boldly in a recent interview.
Judging from the flood of critical raves about the centenary show in European newspapers, the organizers appear to have achieved their objective and at the same time managed a little rehabilitation of Van Gogh's reputation as the quintessential mad genius.
Both at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, where 135 paintings are exhibited, and 55 miles east at the lovely, wooded Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller near Otterlo, where 250 drawings are on display, great care was taken to present works that Van Gogh signed or discussed in letters.
The task was not as difficult as it sounds. Despite his so-called "madness"--thought by some scholars to be a form of epilepsy that led to his suicide in 1890--Van Gogh kept a prolific chronicle of his work, mainly in letters to his art-dealer brother, Theo, in Paris, as well as to fellow artists, including Paul Gauguin.
Poring over more than 750 of these letters and using other guides, the Dutch curators came up with a different theme from those at the relatively recent Van Gogh retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1984) and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris (1988).
The Metropolitan show focused on the artist's most productive and advanced period at Arles, France (1888-89), while the Musee d'Orsay show concentrated on his Paris work of 1887-88. The Dutch show, however, goes back to his roots as an artist, beginning with early awkward sketches dating from 1881, and includes the whole body of his work.
Without this different angle, organizers feared they could not attract the 800,000 visitors they need to break even on the $12.5-million, four-month exhibition.
Thus, curator Van Tilborgh, museum director Ronald de Leeuw and Van Gogh Foundation Director Fritz Becht, a Dutch marketing wizard and private art collector, came up with the idea of Van Gogh as seen by Van Gogh--or, as some put it more vulgarly, Vincent does Vincent.
This is something the artist might have liked himself. His letters show him to be an avid self-promoter, acutely aware of both the artistic and market value of his works. Before he took up the brush seriously, he was an art dealer as well as a failed evangelist. In his most productive period he did 43 self-portraits, more than any other famed artist except for Rembrandt, a fellow Dutchman.
In fact, the other underlying theme of the remarkable Dutch exhibition is to debunk part of the myth of Van Gogh as a possessed genius, living on the fine, dangerous cusp between creativity and madness.
By grouping together several versions of the same subject, drawings and studies leading to a final work, the organizers show the discipline and drive that lay behind Van Gogh's art.
At Rijksmuseum Van Gogh, for example, they grouped together on one wall three versions of the artist's bedroom at Arles, considered among his finest works.
The three were collected from museums in Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago. Perhaps the most compelling is the last version, painted at the asylum in St. Remy where Van Gogh was a voluntary patient.
The bluish-green tint he gives the floor in this version (the other floors are reddish-brown) draws viewers into the room with an almost vertiginous urgency, as though they were falling into the canvas.
Grouping the three versions together also allows visitors to appreciate the intense thought he put into each work. Like the other groupings and studies, it urges viewers to take Van Gogh seriously as an intellectual artist.
Reading Van Gogh's biography, there is no doubt that he had his low points, including the time he cut off part of his ear and gave it to a prostitute. But one of the purposes of the twin Dutch exhibitions is to show that there was a clear method to his madness.
"The idea is very pervasive that he was a very associative, mad kind of genius who just went into the fields and painted without thinking," said Van Tilborgh. "Personally, I never believed this. Going through his letters, we got the idea he was most rational. Most of the time he was not mad at all, but an artist who carefully planned his work."
The exhibition at the Amsterdam and Otterlo museums opened on Van Gogh's 100th birthday, March 30, and will close on the 100th anniversary of his death July 29. For the first time at a major European art exhibition, tickets are being sold in advance for specific two-hour time frames at $12.50 each (in the United States, the ticket outlet is Ticketron/Teletron).