Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape with houses, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
MAASTRICHT - After three days of browsing some of the best artworks ever made, the highest achievements of human hands over the course of human history, something bizarre begins to happen: you stop seeing how spectacular it all is. We all know that experience, of course: visual fatigue, the kind you get after spending a long day at a museum, or trying on a few too many diamond rings.
And then you come across something that stops you in your tracks and rejuvenates your senses, something far beyond the rest.
That is the experience to be had at the exhibition of Van Gogh drawings in the Paper section of TEFAF this year—a selection of 15 works culled from the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, which is currently closed for renovations. The highly sensitive works are rarely on view even at the museum, making this a particularly remarkable treat for TEFAF guests this year—and one well worth visiting.
I personally have always been among those who think of Van Gogh chiefly as a draughtsman who translated his drawings onto canvas, essentially drawing with a paintbrush; and that impression is perhaps why these sketches and studies seem particularly potent, unwrapping the very essence of Van Gogh’s work, peeling his art back to the core of his unique genius. The blue oil and watercolor Landscape With Houses (1890), which forms the centerpiece of the exhibition, for instance, evinces the classic energy and tension typical of the artist’s oeuvre, with the quick gesture of his pencil sketch visible beneath the wash and thrust and curl of blue lines. The page offers a perfect example of Van Gogh’s masterful ability to render depth and space in various shades of a single color, while the drawing as landscape demonstrates his true impulse: abstraction and expression derived through the pure power of line.
Vincent van Gogh’s Worn Out, November, 1882. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
And once this becomes clear, it is easier to see the progression of Van Gogh’s work from his earliest drawings to his last, beginning with Worn Out (1882), one of the artist’s most tender and emotive drawings, in which a working man sketched out in pencil and brown ink rests his head in his hands, his worn-out shoes as tired as the face you cannot see, but instantly understand.
Vincent van Gogh’s The rock of Montmajour with pine trees, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
By 1888, the first signs of the mature Van Gogh were already appearing, as the exhibition at TEFAF makes clear. A cropped branch in the foreground of Park with Shrub (1888) recalls Japanese ink works and ceramics, while in Rock of Mont Majour With Pine Trees from the same year, line clearly begins to take over as the central impulse and focus of Van Gogh’s work. The Sower, an image of a peasant in a field also from 1888, is a masterpiece of draughtsmanship—and one that best demonstrates the idea of Van Gogh’s paintings as drawings performed in paint: the strokes and varying weight of the lines, rapid gestures thrusting across the paper and bursting out in all directions, create volume through a pattern of short strokes. (The work is clearly a study for the painting of the same name, now at the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo.)
Vincent van Gogh’s Tree and bushes in the garden of the asylum, May-June,1889. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
The exhibition at TEFAF also provides insight into the artist’s emotional and psychological states, particularly as his mind began to rumble. The latest works in the show are clearly more frenetic and agitated, such as in Tree With Ivy In The Garden Of The Asylum, rendered in reed pen, brown ink and pencil a few months before his death, and Vestibule In The Asylum, a chalk and oil portrait of the interior of the hospital in St. Remy. In both, the gestures and lines are passionate and intense, as if painted in a fever; and one has a sense of despair and desperation, of Van Gogh’s ravenous need to recreate, as it were, the world he found himself living in—the cornfields and the meadows, the peasants and the crows, the bare-bulbed bedrooms and anonymous asylum hallways—wherever his world was.