Doctor My Eyes

John Haber
in New York City

Cézanne to van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet

Remember van Gogh's portrait of Dr. Gachet? Vincent van Gogh had a teeming imagination and a lot of demons, but also a ruthlessly trustworthy eye. He could almost be a man of medicine. So surely a famous portrait will lead one to a real person, with a complex role in van Gogh's life?

At least the Met thinks so. The resulting show, though, banishes too many demons—and accepts too much unimaginative art. Still, for all the hype and lousy work, it made me wonder all over again at the difference between the clinical imagination and the modernist one. Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Gachet (Musée d'Orsay, 1890)

Truck stop

Somewhere between a humble, dedicated country doctor and a homeopathic crank, Gachet lived in the south of France, surviving Vincent van Gogh for decades. Somewhere, too, between the avant-garde's most loyal backer and an esthete with an overblown idea of himself as patron, Gachet treated van Gogh in his last year. The painter had sought freedom from the mental asylums and art scene around Paris.

With the selfishness, incompetence, and dedication to art that characterized his entire life, Gachet collected van Gogh and others in the Impressionist circle. One sees much the same mix in Gachet's own awful attempts at art. He not only pronounced van Gogh dead but sketched him on his deathbed. The sketch has the value of documenting the exact cause of death. Forget suicide: van Gogh's head must have been run over by a truck.

Gachet bought extensively from Cézanne before 1873 when he was closest to Camille Pissarro, when even today one might have had trouble seeing the great painter that Paul Cézanne was to become. Gachet encouraged other students of art to copy Cézanne's Modern Olympia, too, again showing his foresight into an emerging art. I have sometimes considered that wild painting just a phase the poor 32-year-old from Aix had to go through!

Gachet knew Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well, although also a bit off their peak. (Interestingly, one does not see scads from another southerner, Paul Gauguin. Perhaps Gauguin was off colonizing the South Seas for the European canon.) He also heavily patronized Cézanne's friend Armand Guillaumin, otherwise a footnote in art history. The rest of his circle, such as Blanche Derousse or Gachet's son, hardly merit even footnotes.

I went to the Met's show expecting a museum of bad art, and I got it. I also hoped for a bit of fun on that account. The Met buries the fun, I fear, in its usual self-importance, and crowds of tourists dutifully soak up the Met's vision. There they were, hopefully seeking Impressionism at one remove. Make that two removes, counting the overblown claims on the wall labels.

The big show draws generously on the d'Orsay in Paris. It includes as many copies after the great ones as curators could find in Gachet's circle. Derousse actually made me look forward to Gachet's and his son's own oils and etchings.

The museum of bad art

Actually, the Met has an interesting goal: it hopes to recreate a circle of artists on the make and a genius in crisis. It also wants to claim a debt in both to the man of the hour, Gachet. As a result, however, it misses a chance to show what made art of that time so great.

Copies hang on their own walls, with works clustered by artist. That arrangement helps maintain the impact of van Gogh's best work, but it forces anyone interested in the differences a copy or outright fake makes to take some long, unproductive walks. One should not take so easily for granted the distinction between a copy and the original. Postmodernists might even prefer to confuse them.

Are there lessons to be learned anyway, other than about the Met's old boosterism? One is that the d'Orsay never de-accessions anything! Another is to keep one's sense of humor touring a museum.

Certainly another is the thrill of the finer works barely two rooms away, in the permanent collection. (Of course, it lies just past a gift shop.) Gosh, wait five years, to see what Cézanne's command of a painting's background could do. As his foreground strokes thin out a bit, they start to enter the depth of a landscape or the patterned wall behind a still life. Suddenly, Cézanne gave compositions a whole new space in which to vibrate and a new tactile reality. One has seen Modernism's first decades indeed.

The biggest lesson of all, however, is in those copies. I wanted to go to a show like this with a good teacher, someone who can pick apart the bad art as much as praise the good. What goes wrong—or rather, what goes right in modern art? The Met lacks the courage to ask, but the work cries out for it.

One still tends to see modernity through the eyes of the formalists and their postmodern opponents. The first still shout "flatness," while the latter cry "social structure." They both have a way of associating Modernism with the rhetoric of certainty, as clinical and sentimental as the good Dr. Gachet himself. Something here is missing.

Modernism's overheated mind

These works announced a new concept of privacy. They took art, like van Gogh in his sad, final refuge, apart from Parisian society. In fact, they move away as well from the wide open spaces of the Provençal countryside. One sees hidden backyards, castaway fruit, and the twisted smiles of neighborhood children.

As for flatness, matching the surface patterning is exactly what the incompetent copyists did wrong. They missed the texture of paint and depth of shadow. They missed how objects in a van Gogh or Cézanne bounce off one another, like ideas flitting through an overheated mind. Romanticism had already seen the world as colored by the mind. Now the relationship between artists and what they see becomes even closer. A mind starts to take shape only through what it shares with others.

A painting is not simply a record of the artist's imagination, for subjectivity comes into question. The artist steps aside, trusting formal structure to take over a painting, trusting, too, that a work's density and difficulty will one day live in the hands of others. Meanwhile, the work has the artist's consciousness all over it. The result is a triple loss of certainty, a questioning at once of the world, the self, and art. It looks forward even to Jackson Pollock's terror as he stepped outside the dance of his own paint.

Before Dr. Gachet, the Met has asked before how a collector built a heritage for modern art in France, with Edgard Degasand Degas's collection. The back and forth between subjectivity and society continues today as well. It explains why those beasts called Modernism and Postmodernism seem to depend on one another to survive. It means that Modernism never simply died or simply had one birth. Late van Gogh marks just one moment in its birthing. So, decades before, did Gustave Courbet.

At the end of his life, Robert Lowell struggled not to be caught between fact and error: "The painter's vision is not a lens, it trembles to caress the light." For Gachet and his pupils, art still stumbles rather than trembles.

In modern life, from Manet's rough Paris nights to Courbet's starved villages, it became harder and harder to move without stumbling or trembling. There was no time left and little dignity for a corner of sunlight to escape off on its own. There was no time for van Gogh to die before he became a mute sketch in the hands of Dr. Gachet.

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The Collection of Dr. Gachet ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 15, 1999. I owe the deathbed diagnosis to Dik F. Liu.


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