What Today’s Museums Can Learn From Van Gogh

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What Today’s Museums Can Learn From Van Gogh

CHICAGO — As much as we rightfully worship at the altar of Vincent van Gogh, he has been grist for the blockbuster for an awfully long time. Is there any more juice to be squeezed from his decade-long career? 

While the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented his cypress trees this summer, the Art Institute of Chicago put forth Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape, which looks at a tiny, formative slice of his career in 1887 when he spent three months visiting Paris suburbs with Georges Seurat, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac, and Charles Angrand. Co-curated with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, this undertaking illustrates how these artists explored the terrain of the “in-between” (not rural, not urban) while also inspiring one another to experiment with post-Impressionist painting techniques. The exhibition lingers over technique and formal processes without taking much interest in the changing social spheres that industrialism wrought or attempting to broaden interpretative frameworks. 

The fringes of the city where these artists crossed paths offered new recreational areas that abutted new factories. The redesigning of Paris by Napoleon III and urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann several decades earlier had displaced 350,000 people. Entire medieval swaths of the city were bulldozed. This population was largely working class. They drifted to the outskirts, near the factories, where rents were cheaper and new bridges (one pedestrian, one railway) offered easy transportation to and from the city. The area where van Gogh painted, Asnières, was a three-mile walk from Montmartre. Nearly every day for three months, he carried his paint equipment across the bridge. Over 12 weeks, he made 40 paintings, 25 of which are on view. 

Emile Bernard, “Iron Bridges at Asnières” (1887), The Museum of Modern Art, New York (image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

Although the exhibition distributes paintings by each of the five artists throughout and weaves a narrative of co-experimentation, for clarity and marketing, van Gogh gets the full title and banner treatment. On the day I visited, in a series of constructed rooms with minty green walls and a wide hallway with a timeline, mostly White visitors in sporty attire milled under the watch of mostly Black museum guards. It did not take long for the many rippling paintings of the River Seine to feel out of step with what museums have promised in the wake of Black Lives Matter (remember all those manifestos?). While every exhibition need not reassess historic and contemporary ills, to revert back to tried and true academic curatorial practice, seemingly without stretching toward broader insights, feels retrograde, if not a little lazy. Van Gogh and his cohorts were actively searching for new means to translate modern culture. Why aren’t we working as hard to revise the delivery of our interpretations? Why aren’t we taking risks? 

These artists, as well as the Impressionists before them, abutted puffy clouds in blue skies with plumes of smoke from distant factories in an ominous exchange leading up to our current compromised skies. The art historian T.J. Clark in his 1984 book, The Painting of Modern Life, describes artists being drawn to these regions beyond Paris as artist outsiders looking at a new class of “shifters” — not proletariat, not bourgeoisie, but petite bourgeoisie who have “no class to speak of … to thrive on their lack of belonging … the connoisseurs of its edges and waste lands.” That sounds like an interesting premise right there — the notion of society’s terminal outsiders, the artists, contemplating others who fall out of established social strata and end up in contested zones of existence. 

Each artist approaches the locations of Clichy, Asnières, Courbevoie, Gennevilliers, La Grande Jatte, Levallois, and Saint-Ouen with some overlap but many differences. Van Gogh seems interested in what connects these spheres, such as roads, bridges, and pathways. In “View of the Pont d’Asnières” (1887), he paints the bridge he walked across to arrive at this locale. There are a few lone rowboats and solitary walkers across the expanse, coming and going. Midday, still and overcast, is infused with pinks and blues. He tries a hand at divisionism, in which each color and brushstroke is emphatic but orderly. He had been looking at Japanese woodblock prints such as Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake” (1857) and absorbing the techniques of his peers, feeling out the experimentation that would soon lead to his best work at Arles. Van Gogh had moved from Antwerp to Paris a year prior and his previous paintings, such as “The Potato Eaters” (1885), were dark. The drastic formal shifts under the influence of Monet and these new colleagues came with force. 

Vincent van Gogh, “The Restaurant Rispal at Asnières” (1887), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (photo courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services, Jamison Miller)

As these artists took Impressionism into the more analytical language of its parts — dabs and dashes of high-pitched color, more assertion of the mark and process — they seemed to lose interest in social content and focus on the making, the process, the rapid translations. Spaces feel void. Few people occupy the paintings. Scenes edged by factories, such as van Gogh’s gorgeous “Factories at Clichy” (1887), hint at the strange bedfellows of smokestacks and pastoral expanses but offer little commentary other than a remote mood. Van Gogh and the others come across as conscious of the art market. Perhaps this is why some of the paintings seem to lack verve. Or perhaps the nature of the in-between generated a hollow presence. 

Van Gogh was an inquisitive and able learner, not a loner, nor an impassioned lunatic. The man could draw. He made studies, wrote insightful letters about process, mastered perspective, and made it look easy. His “Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières” (1887) defines the grass with simple, sparse lines, the trees with whorling, smudgy gestures, and the geometries of buildings with soft exactitude. It’s barely there and all there at the same time. 

To be fair, the Art Institute of Chicago did not completely shirk its duties to think beyond the art historical canon. Loren Wright, assistant director of interpretation, draws interesting parallels between the suburbs of Paris and Chicago’s South Side, focusing on the work of contemporary artist Amanda Williams, whose 2015 Color(ed) Theory project involved painting abandoned houses with colors influenced by products or places marketed to or used by Black consumers, currently and historically. Wright’s leap from the 1880s to Williams’s artistic embrace of a contemporary urban scape and its history feels fresh, inspired, and appropriate. If this kind of associative research could be implemented into the exhibition itself, perhaps we’d be getting somewhere. 

Charles Angrand, “The Seine at Courbevoie: La Grande Jatte” (1888), Larock-Granoff Collection (image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through September 4. The exhibition was curated by Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Eleanor Wood Prince Associate Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Bregje Gerritse, researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

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