There is no getting around it: Vincent van Gogh is a cliché. The tormented genius, the fantastic colorist, the artist who transformed trees into flames and a starry night into a fireworks display—one has seen it all before on a calendar or two, probably just the other day. Even the notion of how much the clichés overlook is a cliché.
One may not see past the clichés at the Met, despite an exemplary drawing exhibition. One may have trouble even seeing past the other people. If one has visited Amsterdam, between the Van Gogh Museum and maybe a day trip to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterloo, one may feel that one has seen it all before anyway.
Consider it a challenge, to look beyond what one had expected. Consider it a challenge, too, to watch van Gogh exceed his own expectations.
As a starting point, clichés have a decided advantage: many are more or less true. They serve as shortcuts to perception—not entirely unlike art. No wonder they sound so satisfying and yet so annoying: they provide access to art and compete with it.
Surely van Gogh did struggle to survive. Surely he let loose some fantastic work in the process, whether one means that as praise or literally as fantasy. Surely, too, van Gogh dares anyone to sort out the fantasy from the reality. At the Met, one can even trace a career that way, one cliché after another.
Cliché 1: the untrained artist. This cliché might well serve as the biographical roots of van Gogh's other myths: it places him beyond the rules and closer to nature. The Met makes a point of it, too, and the bleak, earnest faces in his early paintings reinforce it. Yet his first very drawings display a tidy professionalism. The foreground figures hold their own, and brushed or chalk highlights add a smooth, convincing light.
Before long, he attends more to the overall composition and continuous space. He drops the washes, relying more on pen and clearing the sky of visible traces. He allows houses, fences, and yards to provide perspective lines and scale. They give van Gogh his first approach to the decentered compositions of other Post-Impressionists, as well as to the puzzle of objects in space. However, they still take a very traditional route.
Perhaps most surprising, he actually cares about these things. In an period devoted to the ideal of a new art, he does not ignore, appropriate, or savage tradition. He starts his obsessive self-education while in the Netherlands, looking to the past for models—especially to Rembrandt and Jean-François Millet. He makes a brief stop in Belgium for some academic training in lumpy nudes. He has what one historian, John Rewald, calls a "feverish passion" for art itself. One can see why he left so many drawings.
He has to learn the primitivism of The Potato Eaters, much as Pablo Picasso claimed that he had so much to unlearn. In the thick black curves coursing through his late landscapes, he can still call on the roughness of a woodcut, but the connection took him years to find. If a devotion to technique points to the past, his passion for art for its own sake and for unlearning belongs to the future.
Cliché 2: the tormented genius. One can hardly avoid this one, since it amounts to the story of his sadly brief life. His art, too, shows instinctive talent, manic productivity, a struggle to let loose, and a need to connect more fully to other artists. He gives a half-crazed turn to what he learns from them, too. By the show's second room, he pushes Rembrandt's etched lines to an overall grid. He looks to nature for some kind of greater truth, whether with the early peasant ideals or, later, the sun and the stars.
On the other hand, the Met plays down this cliché, for good reason. Genius or not, he begins competently but not compellingly. The first few walls do not suggest a great artist, and even Rembrandt's influence holds him back. Many visitors to the exhibition marvel at the thick texture of his early shadows, but they are admiring what he had to give up. One feels grateful for his arrival at last in France, where he immerses himself in Impressionism and Japanese art.
As to madness, that, too, comes progressively, as a kind of fatal discovery. I see no sign of it in those early drawings, and in fact he never stops focusing on the scene in front of him and the work at hand. To modern eyes, his work seems lush, sensual, and highly transgressive. Yet it also shows van Gogh's care for the ordinary. Another historian, Debora Silverman, has traced this dedication to his early years as a Protestant lay preacher, in sharp contrast to Paul Gauguin with his Catholic upbringing and dreams of escape.
Identifying art and madness runs into another problem as well: whatever overcame him disrupted more than nurtured his art, much like Jackson Pollock's drinking. It left him first in an asylum and then dead, and scholars will probably never agree on a diagnosis. In any case, unlike Pollock or Surrealism, he looks outward for solutions, to simple laborers or to the land rather than to the field of dreams. He draws the asylum halls and gardens, but the exhibition comes closer to a madhouse.
Cliché 3: the wild colorist. Of course, his color takes a few years to get going, but the Met makes the case for bearing his paintings in mind. It displays selected drawings alongside comparable scenes in oil, mostly from the museum's permanent collection. I tended to start with the drawing and then return to it, after the painting. It often came as a shock to recognize in its inked lines a burst of white or color that I had not seen before. Sometimes, van Gogh also labels his sketches with the names of colors, enhancing the association.
Still, the cliché sits oddly with a drawing exhibition, especially since he rarely draws in color. As the reliance on color names for cues suggests, he does not even conceive of the traces in his drawings as the equivalent for color. The artist who once spoke of his colors as expressing "the terrible passions of human nature" simply found another means of expression. Again, technique matters, including the technique of drawing. His shift from loops and fluid cross-hatching coincides with his picking up a reed pen. He keeps exploring art for its own sake and the limits of the visible.
Cliché 4: drawing as inspiration. With van Gogh, drawings come fast and furious, and one tends to think of the medium anyway as a window onto an artist's soul. A Rococo academic such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze may become accessible in his drawings—even downright modern. With van Gogh, however, one has at best a limited window. He turns to art relatively late, and almost no drawings exist from his crucial last year in Arles, when he focused more on color and paint. The drawings also show little beyond landscapes, including his few but highly perceptive portraits.
The exhibition becomes largely the record of one astonishingly productive year, 1888. He thinks more about color. He adopts the broad, crisp dots and dashes of Post-Impressionism—unsystematically, of course. His marks enter the skies again, although without concern for a uniform surface or a logical, natural basis to vision. Each area of the page, whether sky or land, can have its own pattern, with more and more violent collisions at the edges. Unlike perspective lines, the dashes allow each field to spiral outward, as if the sun or the sky had its own pattern of growth.
Even so, one has a further surprise. One looks to drawings for the origin of a mythic genius, and yet many come only after the corresponding painting, not as a work in germination or in progress. Artists have many reasons to copy their own paintings, in drawings or as prints. It can mean more income, for one thing. van Gogh uses copies as gifts, too, to nurture his relationship with fellow artists. Yet I prefer to see them as one more sign of a dedicated artist, always taking stock, always trying to assess what he has done, how he has done it, and where it may lead.
Cliché 5: the visionary. For a final cliché, to sum up all that came before, consider what might set him apart from his contemporaries. Compared to Claude Monet, for example, he has the appeal of the great artistic persona, imposing his vision on what he sees. Compared to Paul Cézanne or Georges Seurat and Seurat drawings, he has the spontaneity and the courage to let loose, rather than reassembling every shape and every perceptual cue. Here van Gogh stands comfortably between Monet's connection to the past and Cézanne's to the future, with less questioning of each.
However, Monet's objectivity does not necessary mean an artist's withdrawal from the scene. It does not translate so easily into a respectful naturalism. One sees his style and imprint on Modernism in the near uniformity of his surfaces, the near erasure of subject matter, and the near subordination of one scene to works in series and in an artistic movement. Conversely, Cézanne takes every struggle personally. When he adopts entire scenes from Edouard Manet or Camille Pissarro, it suggests a struggle to understand himself in relation to his elders. Whether facing a female nude, a plaster cupid, a mountain, or his wife's blank expression, he keeps letting his investment show.
Unlike Monet, van Gogh always works his surfaces up from recognizable objects, and he pays his dues to older artists. Many early drawings take their diagonal shadows from the lines of grass or wheat. Unlike Cézanne, he wants to share everything with others, whether in letters to his brother, drawings dedicated to fellow artists, or housekeeping with Gauguin. His exuberance, like his disturbing color, also brings him closer to a generation past Cézanne, with Henri Matisse. Perhaps his drawing teaches that the myth of an artist's absence from or presence in his work hides so much, like Matisse's bathers hiding in the reeds, because each presumes the other. Drawings, which promise to take one to the very origins of his genius, may instead dispel the myth of origins, but they reveal how much van Gogh put into his art.
"Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 31, 2005.