"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam"--an exhibition of 70 paintings opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--is the biggest show of works by the immensely popular Dutch artist to come to town in three decades. As might be expected, the long-awaited, heavily promoted event has set off an epidemic of Van Gogh fever. Hailed as a blockbuster long before advance ticket sales started, the exhibition is expected to pack in 900,000 visitors during its 17-week run.
But even as the staff prepares for the onslaught at LACMA West--the museum's annex in the former May Co. building, where "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" will be installed--the museum's curators are making additional plans to feed the fever. So are their colleagues at other local institutions.
And they are putting out the word: LACMA West isn't the only place in Los Angeles to see Van Gogh. His work and that of French Impressionists and Postimpressionists from the same period can be seen all over town in permanent collections and special exhibitions.
Beginning Jan. 21 at LACMA, those who leave "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" wishing to know more can learn about one aspect of his work by strolling over to the Pavilion for Japanese Art, at the east end of the museum's campus, where "Van Gogh and the Japanese Print" will be on view through May 16. In organizing the show, Robert Singer, the museum's curator of Japanese art, and associate curator Hollis Goodall have assembled about 35 works to illustrate the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Van Gogh.
Like several of his celebrated peers, including Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh was fascinated with the strong colors, striking compositions and exotic subject matter of Japanese printmakers such as Hiroshige and Hokusai. Van Gogh also read about Japan and envisioned it as a utopian paradise. Sometimes the visual results of his studies were relatively subtle, as in dignified portraits of ordinary workers or Japanese-flavored bridges in Provencal landscapes.
But the print show will focus on clear evidence of Van Gogh's interest in Japanese art, both in prints that he reinterpreted as paintings--including Keisai Eisen's "Courtesan," Hiroshige's "Rain on Ohashi Bridge" and "Blossoming Plum at Kameido Shrine"--and in images he collected. Photographs of related paintings by Van Gogh will be displayed alongside prints from his collection so that viewers can compare them.
LACMA has no paintings by Van Gogh in its permanent collection, but visitors can see a few works by his illustrious contemporaries in its galleries of Impressionist and Postimpressionist art. Gauguin is represented by two colorful landscapes, "Swineherd, Brittany" and "The Red Cow," painted in 1888 and 1889, respectively, when Van Gogh created many of his late trademark works. Among Impressionist paintings on view are Monet's "Beach at Honfleur" and Paul Cezanne's "Still Life With Cherries and Peaches."
Although LACMA temporarily will be Southern California's Van Gogh Central, local art aficionados know that the best place to see works by the artist and his circle day in and day out is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Simon collected broadly over a period of about 35 years, but he began with Impressionism, in 1954, and never lost interest in the movement or its sequel, Postimpressionism. A few years before his death, in 1993, Simon still spoke with great enthusiasm about the Van Goghs in his collection.
Van Gogh's career was short but very productive, and his style evolved quite rapidly. The Simon collection contains relatively early works, painted in 1885 in the Netherlands--including a frosty landscape, "The Parsonage Garden in the Snow," and a dark portrait, "Head of a Peasant Woman With a White Bonnet"--as well as later, vividly colored portraits of the artist's mother and a peasant farmer. Another late painting, "The Mulberry Tree," depicts a tree with brilliant yellow foliage, fairly bristling with energy.
Simon also amassed one of the nation's largest and best holdings of Degas' work, including pastels, paintings and a unique set of bronze master casts of ballet dancers and horses. Many examples are on view at the museum in recently refurbished galleries, along with paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro.
While Simon was collecting many of these works, one of his finest Van Goghs got away, but it didn't go far. In one of many efforts to redefine his art holdings and raise money to buy still more art, Simon sold Van Gogh's 1889 painting "Hospital at Saint-Remy" for $1.2 million at a 1971 auction. The buyer was none other than oil magnate Armand Hammer, another major Los Angeles collector.