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When does a hanging of just four paintings constitute a powerful exhibition? When those pictures happen to be allegorical canvases of overripe flowers by history’s most Instagrammed, photographed, and postcarded painter.
If there ever was an artist whose insanely popular work demands that it be scrutinized in careful detail, that man is modern art’s Dutch secular saint, Vincent van Gogh. A figure whose stripped-down style and pumped-up suicide made him the all-time poster boy for creative self-sacrifice, van Gogh has spawned scads of false familiarity in modern times. Partly because of his rare epistolary habit — no other artist has left anything like the 980 letters he swapped with brother Theo — audiences generally think they know everything about him. Then there are the steamy biographies and biopics; when it comes to the cliché of the painter’s tortured genius, the public is all ears.
Van Gogh’s tragic story line largely overlooks the artist’s most enduring contributions: his paintings. Gussied up by blockbuster museum exhibitions, multimillion-dollar auction prices, and masscult claims to old-time mastery and therapeutic self-expression, the physical objects rarely break free from their velvet straitjacket. But that’s exactly what four deceptive-looking paintings manage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses.” A show that brings together two still lifes of flowers from the Met’s own collection (a bouquet of irises and another of roses) with a corresponding canvas apiece from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (irises) and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery (roses), the display practically lets the pictures speak for themselves. Unlike earlier van Gogh exhibitions at the Met — most notably the Reagan-era spectacular “Van Gogh in Arles” — “Irises and Roses” proves the anti-blockbuster in every way.
Created in an explosion of optimism in May 1890, a little more than a year after he cut off his ear and mere weeks before he checked himself out of an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, van Gogh’s pictures of spring flowers poured pints of brawny physicality onto four modest-size, rectangular canvases. Painted from bouquets the artist cut from the institution’s blooming gardens, the images were rendered in quick, forceful strokes and in strong, contrasting colors. (Owing to his use of an unstable red pigment, the violets and pinks have faded to blue and white.) Van Gogh elaborated on his exuberance in a letter to his sister Wil: “The last days in Saint-Rémy I worked like a madman. Great bouquets of flowers, violet-colored irises, great bouquets of roses.” Now that’s spring fever.
Taken individually, each of the Dutchman’s painted sprays enacts a lesson in aesthetic fundamentalism. The Van Gogh Museum’s contribution, cobalt-colored irises contained within a background of swirling daubs of gold paint, brings to mind nothing so much as a Christlike halo. The National Gallery’s droopy roses are lifted by an eddying pattern of faded white and green waves. The Met’s twosome likewise brings black outlines, gnarled brushwork, and prominent impasto — not your typical Mother’s Day bouquets, in other words. As a suite, the paintings make up a final chapter in van Gogh’s life: He died two months later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Far from the dappled flowers of detached Impressionism, viewed together the four canvases capture sacramental modernism at its sacrificial birth — art as evangelical feeling.
To further emphasize van Gogh’s strength of purpose, the presentation at the Met unites the canvases’ shared horizon. Hung in a straight line, they appear much as they might have when nailed to the walls of the artist’s cell. Despite van Gogh’s posthumous fame and the current valuations of his works — the artist’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, painted in June 1890, sold at auction in 1990 for 149 million of today’s inflation-adjusted dollars — these still lifes eclipse the status of billionaire pictures. They constitute an abbreviated via dolorosa. An interrelated passion narrative composed of four Stations of the Cross, van Gogh’s vivid paintings of crestfallen flowers represent correspondences between human emotions and the natural world, while at the same time introducing new secular symbols for life in death.
On a wall facing the quartet, the Met displays a slideshow that reveals how van Gogh’s colors have faded over time. But “Irises and Roses” chiefly celebrates what has stayed the same for these and other paintings: — their intensity, modesty, and doggedness. Despite the artist’s popularity, these qualities buck easy consumption. Call them van Gogh’s secret.
Van Gogh: Irises and Roses
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
Through August 16