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Night and Day, Van Gogh Is the One This Weekend

Art: In what the museum calls an unprecedented event, the exhibit is open round-the-clock for its final days. Even experts are unable to explain why the artist has such an amazing appeal.

May 16, 1999|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 4:25 Saturday morning, a bleary-eyed Kevin Rampton inched forward in a long line of black-clad hipsters, tortured artists, suburban housewives pushing baby strollers, assorted procrastinators--and his dad and older brother.

Like about 40,000 other people in Southern California this weekend, the tow-headed 10-year-old was braving almost unbelievably humongous crowds--and ungodly hours--to get into the marathon final viewing of the Van Gogh exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Clearly, he was one of the few who wasn't exactly there willingly.

"I told them this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," dad Charles Rampton said, grinning mischievously as Kevin and his 16-year-old brother David yawned and rubbed their eyes on each side of him. "And this was the only time slot we could get."

Within moments, however, the Palos Verdes fourth-grader had perked up noticeably as he stood, transfixed, in front of one of the master's oil paintings, "A Park in Spring."

"Neat," said Kevin, his hands dug into his black jeans pockets and a museum headset blaring factoids about Van Gogh into his ears. "I like the colors."

From dusk until dawn and back to dusk again, a widely varied agglomeration of art lovers and the just plain curious expressed similar thoughts of admiration and joy as they made their way through "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam."

The 63-hour, round-the-clock marathon was held to squeeze in as many Van Gogh lovers as possible before the exhibit returns to Amsterdam. The sold-out show ends tonight at midnight.

The collection of 70 paintings spans Van Gogh's prolific, turbulent and tragically short life as an artist, from his first dark paintings of peasant life in the mid-1880s to landscapes punctuated with images of life and death that he put to canvas after leaving his self-imposed confinement in a mental hospital in 1889.

When Van Gogh fatally shot himself in 1890, months after selling his first painting, he was virtually penniless and unknown as an artist.

But on Saturday, he was a superstar.

"I am in awe," Sylvia Williams, 27, said at 6 a.m. as a new batch of patrons streamed into the gallery.

In awe of the paintings, the Glendale kayaking instructor said. But also of the crowds.

"It's like an artistic Woodstock," she said. "They're coming in droves."

Less enthusiastic was Leslie Malwah, one of dozens of museum employees conscripted into working the final blowout weekend. She spent the wee hours counting the patrons as they straggled out of the gallery and into the gift shop where they loaded up on discounted Van Gogh paraphernalia. "I think it's crazy," she said, shrugging. "But they seem to like it."

Indeed they did.

The late-night post-nightclub throngs--including TV sitcom star Fran Drescher and her entourage--gradually gave way to wave upon wave of genuine art lovers, who wandered the five LACMA West rooms of the exhibit in a hushed and reverential awe.

They peered and squinted closely at the subtle shadings of "A Pair of Shoes" and the thick, textured strokes and bold colors of "Wheatfield With Crows." Then they would step back from the glass-protected paintings, take them in in from a distance and murmur approvingly.

It was an eerie, but certainly orderly, spectacle.

A respectful silence was broken only by mass yawning, the shuffling of hundreds of feet on thick carpet and the muffled voice of the Van Gogh chronicler coming through the museum headphones.

The marathon capped the most successful show at the museum since the "Treasures of Tutankhamen" in 1978, with a projected viewership of about 820,000 people during the Van Gogh exhibit's 17-week run.

The show's popularity might have eclipsed even that, museum President Andrea Rich said, but initial complaints about overcrowding prompted the museum to limit viewers to about 600 at a time, for about an hour each.

Van Gogh "just holds something special for people," Rich said. "It is quite extraordinary."

She described the round-the-clock schedule as the first ever. One London museum did an all-nighter recently for a Monet exhibit, she said, but no one has ever tried to keep a museum open for an entire weekend to accommodate such a pressing demand.

So why was everybody practically breaking down the museum doors, even as the sun was rising, just to spend an hour looking at paintings?

Neither Rich nor curator J. Patrice Marandel nor anybody else could put their finger on it, or why Van Gogh was drawing such a wide variety of people who said they normally don't go to museums.

His sublime, groundbreaking and varied technique was certainly an attraction, as was the emotional intensity of his slice-of-life subject matter.

But most museum-goers who passed through the doors late Friday and early Saturday said that, clearly, those placed second to Van Gogh's now-legendary struggles with so many demons--of unrequited love, poverty, despair, yearning for validation and in the end, mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide at 37.

"Through all of his madness, all of his happiness--all of his life is here," said Michael Pease, who returned with his brother Richard almost three decades after their father took them to the last Van Gogh exhibit at the museum.

Both men looked positively chipper, and jubilant, as they meandered through the still-packed rooms. It didn't matter, Pease said, that the only tickets they could get were for the 6 a.m. slot.

"To know that it was here and miss it? I would lose my soul," said Pease, a Westchester construction business owner. "This is what art is all about."

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