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VAN GOGH CENTENNIAL : VINCENT VAN GOGH; Paintings and Drawings By Johannes van der Wolk, Ronald Pickvance, E. B. F. Pey, Evert van Uitert, Louis van Tilburgh and Sjraar van Heugten (Rizzoli International Publications: $90, two volumes; 628 pp., illustrated)

September 30, 1990|ARTELIA COURT | Court is an artist and writer who lives in New York

In the summer of 1890, Vincent van Gogh fired a pistol into his chest, and died. The centenary has been marked by several new books about the life and art that preceded that sad act.

"Vincent van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings" is a handsomely boxed pair of catalogues for two major exhibitions of paintings and drawings mounted earlier this year in Holland and selected from the Van Gogh collections at Amsterdam and Otterlo--the two largest in the world--as well as from international lenders. The exhibitions were unique, and these are superior catalogues indeed, priced at a pittance for what they contain.

For the plates alone we are already in the debt of generous editors, a fastidious printer (Arnoldo Mondadori, Milan) and scores of others who contributed to this project. All of the 133 oil paintings and 248 drawings on exhibit are illustrated here with excellent color plates that allow us actually to see the complexity of Van Gogh's color and hand, even in muted works. Many items in the "Drawings" catalogue--which includes watercolor, gouache and chalk pieces--are new because so little of the work on paper has traveled. And some of the most familiar canvases in the "Paintings" volume seem new because we so seldom encounter them rendered this well.

Van Gogh's extraordinary "haste to secure a place for himself in the contemporary art world" led him to set himself quotas and create some 1,100 drawings and 900 paintings in a brief 10 years. Nonetheless, as art historians Louis van Tilburgh and Evert van Uitert explain in their opening essay, he felt most of this accumulation was just the husk of a small and meaty oeuvre : the distinct group of works that represented him best and that he wanted viewed as a group.

Given the huge popularity of Van Gogh's still-lifes and landscapes, it may surprise readers to find that the heart of this special oeuvre consisted of "portraits and figure pieces, the genre he was so eager to pursue throughout his life, but in which to his dismay he was only moderately successful." The exhibitions were designed to convey the artist's concept, so these volumes contain an exceptional selection of portraits--including second versions of some canvases such as "La Berceuse," which Van Gogh whipped up and modified to serve as appropriate payment for his sitters--as well as a magnificent selection of his work in other genres.

Van Gogh freely mixed media as diverse as bread crumbs and aniline dyes, but one of his greatest romances occurred when he "discovered" an arcane, 15th-Century drawing material, "Italian chalk." (Chalk with a soul, he called it in a letter to his younger brother Theo.) There are long, absorbing notes on each painting and analytical essays on various historical topics from a number of scholars, including one by E.B.F. Pey on the neglected but rich subject of craft and physical materials in the drawings.

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