My Cousin Vinny

A new show reveals the relationship between van Gogh and his contemporaries in Paris

A few weeks ago, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's story on the opening of Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard at the St. Louis Art Museum, one interested attendee claimed that he came to the exhibit with one question: "Why is this guy who led such a terrible life and only sold one painting during his lifetime -- why is he No. 1?"

Though it may seem odd to rank artists like Billboard pop stars, it's actually an accurate reflection of how the art world works. Art is a business, just like any other, but its products are so attractive that it's easy to forget the economic reality that drives the industry. It's a business built on star power, and its biggest stars are the ones who have suffered from effects of ill health, or penury, or the crushing weight of their own genius. The world loves a suffering artist and distrusts the successful, well-adjusted one.

In the history of modern art, Vincent van Gogh has become the reigning icon of the suffering genius and one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of art -- to put it bluntly, he's No. 1. Van Gogh's art is rarely discussed apart from his life; as a result, it seems impossible to understand van Gogh's paintings as anything other than the perfect index of his life history. Their curving, swirling lines look as if they were born of the artist's fevered low points; the impasto brushstrokes are as raw and unrefined as the man himself; the riotous colors could only be the product of this wildly imaginative, absinthe-addled, epileptic mind.

The current exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum is enjoying record attendance because of its prominent featuring of van Gogh's work. But Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard is not actually about van Gogh the suffering genius. The exhibition attempts to pluck van Gogh from his proverbial lonely garret, place him in a specific historical context and examine his relationship to his artistic colleagues and an emerging artistic avant-garde.

Dr. Cornelia Homburg, the St. Louis Art Museum's curator of modern art, organized the exhibition. Homburg knows quite well that art superstardom can detract from understanding art history. Her superb effort from 1999, Beckmann and Paris, made striking points about Max Beckmann's interests and artistic ambitions that had been all but lost to history. With Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard, Homburg invites us to consider van Gogh as one of a handful of artists clustered around Paris's Montmartre district during the late 1880s. Van Gogh considered himself one of the artists of the petit boulevard, in contrast to the established Impressionists of the grand boulevard. Besides van Gogh, this group included Paul Gauguin, his synthetist colleague Emile Bernard, the neo-Impressionists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, and such other contemporaries as Charles Angrand, Louis Anquetin, Camille Pissarro, Lucien Pissarro and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Modest in scope and manageable in scale, the exhibition is arranged by subject matter, with rooms devoted to portraits, nightlife, landscapes and scenes of Paris. The canvases are arranged "on the line" (at perfect eye level) and set fairly close to one another, in a style reminiscent of late-19th-century exhibition practices. Another delightful nod to such practices is the bold choice of wall colors: one room is periwinkle, the next deep purple and the next goldenrod. The insistent colors on the walls heighten the effects of the colors on the canvases.

Seeing these works "in the flesh" leads to some surprising revelations and visual delights. Georges Seurat's practice of painting pointillist frames around his works, in pieces such as "Study for 'Chahut'" (1889), is humorous but also quite telling about Seurat's approach to his art. And although Seurat and Signac use the pointillist technique of dividing colors into thousands of discrete dots, their figures and forms never threaten to dissolve -- on the contrary, they feel rather solid, with an almost classical weight to them.

The same can be said about the pointillist experiments of Lucien and Camille Pissarro. Camille Pissarro's "Haymakers Resting" (1891), although vibrant in color, maintains the earthy solidity of works by earlier artists, such as Jean-François Millet. Lucien Pissarro's "Cathedral of Gisors" (1888) is so finely wrought it evokes the idyllic landscapes of Claude Lorraine or Nicolas Poussin.

In terms of landscape, the boldest experiments belong to Gauguin, Bernard and van Gogh himself. But their experimentation takes wildly different forms. Gauguin and Bernard produce scenes that border on the surreal. Gauguin's "The Yellow Tree" (c. 1892) and Bernard's "The Cliffs of Yport" (1892), with its pink precipices and red cow, are masterworks of the oddly alluring, somber synthetism both artists experimented with during this period. On the other hand, van Gogh's landscapes, including "Wheat Field with Cypresses" and "Olive Orchard" (both from 1889), look as if they're ready to vibrate right off the canvas, their busy brushstrokes lining up like iron pilings drawn to a magnet.

The gallery focusing on "Entertainment and Nightlife" offers up the most delectable, widest sampling of art in the show -- and the images are the most revealing about life on the fringes of polite Parisian society. Bernard's "The Hour of the Flesh" (1885-86) captures the cold anonymity with which men and women negotiate business and sex. Toulouse-Lautrec's "At the Café La Mie" (1891) gives a glimpse into the lives of café drunkards, drawn and droopy-eyed. And a series of small pen and watercolor pieces by Bernard captures humorous, telling vignettes of café life.

The most haunting image in this room -- and even, perhaps, in the entire exhibition -- belongs to Anquetin. His "Woman with a Veil" (1891) is absolutely stunning: A woman wearing a boa and a spotted veil looks beguilingly out at the viewer; half of the painting is occupied by the shadowy image of the woman's reflection in a mirror. The woman's face glows with the unearthly light of the night café, and the odd composition owes something to the work of the brilliant draftsman Edgar Degas. There is hardly a more modern work in the exhibition.

The opportunity to see so many works by the little-known Anquetin is one of the nicest achievements of this exhibition. The show also allows for a fuller consideration of Bernard, who is unfortunately often overshadowed by his more glamorous colleague Gauguin. In fact, the exhibition's accomplishments are numerous, allowing for amazing comparisons and revelations that just aren't available in the standard art-history texts.

But in spite of its breadth, in spite of its achievement of contextualizing van Gogh among his avant-garde colleagues, inevitably this show will be remembered as "the van Gogh exhibition." Perhaps that's unavoidable. People want their van Gogh; apparently they always will. But if you go to this show and don't come away with something to say about the other artists, you've missed the point of the exhibition and an opportunity to broaden your understanding of the history of modern art.

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