Van Gogh’s Contemporaneity

The Postman Joseph Roulin, 1889, oil on canvas, 25½ by 21¼ inches. Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.


At this point, one could reasonably say that Vincent van Gogh has become the Rodney Dangerfield of modern artists. Don’t get me wrong; obviously, his work attracts massive outpourings of attention and love from the public, and it commands astronomical prices on the market. And by now it is a cliché to point out that his images circulate in a seemingly endless variety of reproductions—from dorm room posters and refrigerator magnets to mouse pads and iPhone cases. Nevertheless, they do not seem to command a commensurate level of respect. This is no doubt due to their enormous popularity, which for some (regrettably) argues against taking van Gogh seriously. And it also must have something to do with his role as a tragic figure: the ear incident, the emotional struggles, the untimely death (the details of which still invite endless speculation). The combination of these factors has largely pushed aside consideration of van Gogh as a serious artist, at least among the cognoscenti. With his wildman persona and his work’s expressive underpinnings, he seems utterly a creature of the 19th century. Wherein lies his relevance for art today?

A comparison with fellow Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne is illuminating in this respect. Cézanne is the head to van Gogh’s heart; the former’s deliberate approach and engagement with the theoretical complexities of vision put him much more in line with the conceptualist leanings and restrained affect of wide swaths of contemporary artistic practice (as well as the preoccupations of much current art writing). That’s why it is difficult to imagine, at least at present, a van Gogh equivalent to the 2009 Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition “Cézanne and Beyond.” That show connected Cézanne not only to key modern masters (Matisse, Mondrian and Leger among them) but also to a range of practitioners working today, including Brice Marden, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Wall and Francis Alÿs. Those sorts of contemporary connections just don’t seem as evident in van Gogh’s case. This is less a question, however, of the shortcomings of his art than of our own ability to grasp its full range and resonance.

How might we begin to perceive the continuing relevance of van Gogh and his work? A recent show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, made some headway on that front. As its title suggests, “Van Gogh Repetitions” focuses on a notable aspect of the artist’s practice, namely his inclination to repeat the same image or motif in multiple iterations and formats. The exhibition’s impetus was a comparative study undertaken by curators and conservators at the Cleveland Museum of Art of that institution’s The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy) and the Phillips Collection’s The Road Menders (both 1889)—closely related versions of a boulevard scene. The show eventually grew into a display of groupings of repeated motifs by the artist: three versions of weavers at their looms, four postman Roulins (three painted, one in ink on paper), eight etchings of Dr. Gachet. While copying and repetition were common features of 19th-century artistic practice within both the academy and the avant-garde, van Gogh’s intense embrace of them can already help us shift out of received notions of his work: here we see him not as the painter of nature par excellence, proceeding directly from the motif and striving for the expressive ideal of the original, authentic gesture, but rather as an artist who understood the modern condition of the image as repeating and repeatable and subject to extensive circulation in the form of reproductions. 1 Already, this version of van Gogh is more compatible with the artistic outlook of our own time, in which the strategy of appropriation has become a central device in the artist’s toolkit.

While bringing together a relatively small body of works, the exhibition nonetheless points out the limitation imposed by the common framing of van Gogh’s career. The earliest works included were several in an extensive series of depictions of weavers that he executed around 1884, while living in the town of Nuenen, the Netherlands, where his parents were then residing. In their relatively dark palette and their subject matter—in most cases, a single seated figure working at a loom—these pictures are far, in both formal effect and emotional affect, from the van Gogh pictures that keep museum gift shops buzzing. And this is precisely the point; the most readily identifiable of van Gogh’s images—The Starry Night (1889), the bedrooms, the countryside around Arles and Saint-Rémy in the south of France, the Roulin family portraits—date from only the last two years or so of his life. For a career that was itself relatively short (a scant decade), the representative “van Gogh” is thus woefully abbreviated. The weavers, better known to scholars and specialists, offer a useful corrective. These aren’t the more uplifting depictions of agricultural laborers, sowers and the like, out in sun-drenched fields, but rather workers indoors, in close, cramped conditions, engaged in manufacture. They are also distinctive in that their tools are not particularly up-to-date, an aspect of van Gogh’s approach to representing rural labor that has provided the grist for analyses by scholars like Griselda Pollock and Carol Zemel. 2 Van Gogh’s weavers work on heavy, wooden, antique looms, ones at least a century old by the time he depicted them. If, by that point, power looms and the factories in which they operated had become symbols of industrialization (and of the social and economic changes it brought with it), his treatment of the subject comes off as a kind of politically aware proto-steampunk, a deliberate archaization of the mechanical.

The overpowering presence of biography in the general reception of van Gogh, given an early, decisive boost by Irving Stone’s novelized Lust for Life (1934) and its later screen version by Vincente Minnelli, has effectively shaped the image of the artist as one who savored direct contact with the natural world and its forms—its sunflowers, its wheat fields, its starlit nights—all the while submitting them to his own powerful, expressive vision. Yet, in point of fact, van Gogh was markedly conversant with, and at home in, the realm of mechanical reproduction, dating back to even before he decided to become an artist. When he was just setting out in the professional world in the 1870s, family connections to the art market (his uncle and namesake, Cent, was in the art business) helped him land a position with the prestigious Goupil & Cie gallery, which maintained branches in various European cities. Goupil, which would also come to employ Vincent’s younger brother Theo, was not only a commercial powerhouse but also one of the primary firms responsible for developing a market for reproductions of works of art in the 19th century. Goupil operated a photographic works in Asnières, on the outskirts of Paris, where it employed proprietary printing processes to churn out art reproductions, including compilations of works that had been exhibited in the annual Paris Salon. Indeed, Goupil was the publisher of materials pivotal to van Gogh’s development and his experience of artistic repetition: Charles Bargue’s collections of lithographed drawing exercises, including the Cours de dessin and Exercices au fusain, from which the artist-in-training diligently copied in order to teach himself how to draw.

Vincent’s time in Goupil’s London office was crucial to his immersion in yet another sector of the culture of mechanical reproduction. As chronicled extensively in Martin Bailey’s 1992 exhibition catalogue Van Gogh in England, it was during the artist’s three years in the British capital that he discovered, and fell in love with, the black-and-white illustrations in popular printed publications like the Illustrated London News and The Graphic. 3 A decade later, in his early years of fashioning himself as an artist, van Gogh would write to his friend Anthon van Rappard,

I do assure you that The Graphics I now have are amazingly interesting. More than ten years ago I used to go every week to the display case of the printer of The Graphic and London News in London to see the weekly publications. The impressions I gained there on the spot were so strong that the drawings have remained clear and bright in my mind, despite everything that has since gone through my head. And now it sometimes seems to me as if nothing lies between those old days and now—at any rate my old enthusiasm for them is now greater rather than less than it was originally. 4

Van Gogh was referring to a 21-volume set of bound issues of The Graphic that he had recently bought at auction. This was his largest purchase of the kind but certainly not the only one, as he made regular purchases of back issues and individual sheets, mounting selected ones on paper backings to better preserve and organize them.

To say that van Gogh was passionate about the work of these English illustrators would be an understatement. His missives, particularly to van Rappard, are filled with detailed descriptions of specific images and rapturous praise for their makers’ efforts, reflecting his attraction both to the social consciousness evidenced in these pictures and their simple, bold rendering. This latter facet of Van Gogh’s personality would have found ample room for expression in our own time: it is easy to imagine him haunting the aisles of a comic book shop, rifling through back issues stowed in mylar sleeves; or regularly posting on an online forum, debating the relative merits of one artist’s work over another’s. In other words, particularly in his exhaustive, exhausting, at times rambling letters, which convey his clear enthusiasm for and attentiveness to the minutiae of the forms of popular culture, van Gogh emerges as the essence of a distinctively contemporary type: the ardent, devoted fanboy. (Although it no doubt would strike some as a perverse comparison to make, in the tone of his letters and his disquisitions on illustration van Gogh often reminds me of the portly, ponytailed Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” animated series—both of them evincing a preoccupation with the fine shadings of pop culture paired with no small degree of social awkwardness.) In his correspondence, he will move from declaring that prints from the early years of The Graphic “form a kind of bible for an artist”  5 to weighing in on the comparative merits of illustrators like Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl and Arthur Boyd Houghton—now almost unknown to us—to bemoaning the decline of the craft of wood engraving. His particular brand of fandom was of the type shaded with nostalgia, as he preferred back issues to the current crop and extolled the black-and-white drawings that had appeared a decade or more prior, all the while lamenting the decline of illustration in the present day. For him, this devotion to popular imagery wasn’t an end in itself but rather a motivation for his own art, as evidenced in another letter to van Rappard: “I assure you that whenever I’m a little downhearted, my collection of woodcuts gives me fresh heart to set to work myself.” 6

It occurs to me that, in this way, van Gogh would have been at home in the 21st century—not mostly, or at least not only, because his psychiatric or medical problems would have been more readily identified (and, hopefully, treated), but also because his characterological attributes are consonant with the current cultural climate. He shares traits with the bloggers and social media mavens who flourish in the digital world: indefatigable, at times obsessional, and, most important of all, logorrheic. Consider the popular caricature of users of websites like Reddit, which bills itself as “the front page of the Internet.” Socially awkward (and potentially hygiene-challenged) men in their 20s and 30s living in their parents’ basements and ruminating over the minutiae of a certain subsector of culture—Star Wars, computer gaming, bronies, Japanese anime, or what have you—are, upon reflection, not that far from what van Gogh was like. If, like them, the artist is generally portrayed as a loner and social outcast, in fact he consistently sought out human connections, even as his interpersonal and emotional difficulties got in the way of establishing them. He repeatedly tried to reach out to others: in a series of ultimately abortive love affairs with women, in his up-and-down relationship with Theo, in his associations with a succession of artists including van Rappard, Émile Bernard and, most famously—or infamously—Paul Gauguin. (Not to mention that social awkwardness is no longer the obstacle to success it once was, as attested to by the burgeoning ranks of computer nerds-turned-Silicon Valley tycoons.) He was also not averse to doing similar networking in the professional realm. This was the case, for instance, when he executed a lithograph of The Potato Eaters (1885) before he had even finished work on the painting, sending the print off to Theo in Paris with the hopes of drumming up interest in the forthcoming canvas—an early attempt at building an artistic brand.

In other words, van Gogh’s character and approach accord with the particular combination of intimacy and distance emblematic of our online age. 7 And his desire to transmit his art through a social network of sorts served as a basis for his interest in repetition. His habit of giving away and sending off works to friends, family members and associates often resulted in multiple versions of the same painted motif. Other repetitions, particularly his memorable drawings in reed pen, were meant to keep correspondents apprised of his activities by providing them with small-scale renditions of painted works. One of those drawings, a picture of Joseph Roulin included in the exhibition, is both a portrait of a friend—the postman who had become a companion to the artist in Arles—and a gift for a friend, since it was sent to Bernard, one of van Gogh’s regular correspondents. Hence the annotations at the bottom, which note the color scheme of the canvas on which it was based. Often, the rendering varies significantly from one drawing to another, even when the same motif is being repeated, as if a single picture were being translated into distinct visual dialects depending on the intended recipient. For instance, van Gogh sent different versions of Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888) to Bernard and John Russell. In Bernard’s version, the foaming turbulence of the tide is matched by the active pose of the foreground sailor, while that figure’s more relaxed posture in Russell’s version finds its complement in a comparably calmer sea. (The repetition did not end there, since there is a third version that went to Theo.) For Vincent, repeating an image was a means of circulating it in the world, sending it through communication channels to a social network that, one hoped, might distribute it still further (even if this was largely an unmet goal in his case). Remember this the next time you post an image to social media or attach one to an e-mail, most fittingly if the latter is sent to several recipients at once. Who knows—it might even be a van Gogh.  

CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Van Gogh Repetitions,” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, through May 25.

MICHAEL LOBEL is a professor of art history at Purchase College, State University of New York.