He cut off just a teeny bit of his ear, just the lobe."
Cornelia "Connie" Homburg wants to set the record straight. The curator of the coming blockbuster Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard, which opens this weekend at the St. Louis Art Museum, constructs the exhibition around her central thesis, which confronts the popular conception (or misconception) of the world's most famous artist. Seated in her SLAM office, Homburg radiates scholarly ambition. Not often does an art historian have the opportunity, or the ammunition, to topple a popular myth.
Proclaim that Picasso treated women badly or that Pollock peed in the bed, and nobody -- except in those tightly enclosed art circles -- really cares. But van Gogh is an art star of a magnitude that has outshone and outlasted all others for more than 100 years. Even those who have never set foot in a museum, who couldn't differentiate between an iris painted by van Gogh and one painted by O'Keeffe, even the most art-illiterate know a bit about the life of van Gogh. They can even sing a few bars of Don McLean's "Vincent" without knowing it refers to an actual painting.
Homburg, her blond hair cut in a crisp boyish cut, listens to the general synopsis of the van Gogh myth: lonely, insane, unrecognized, poor, cut off his ear, committed suicide and now his paintings are worth millions. It's a frail, pathetic outline of an artist's life, yet it's a sketch that has grown to the proportions of archetype, with figures such as Egon Schiele, Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat fitting the mold. The recent Nick Drake revival conforms to the van Gogh plot. The number of artists -- or people who at one time in their lives thought they were artists -- who have carried the van Gogh dream of tortured, misunderstood genius as justification for their bad art and bad manners is incalculable. "The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you" wasn't referring to van Gogh but to anyone in the worst moments of adolescent self-pity.
Homburg is poised to debunk all that. A sturdy, exuberant woman, she hears the van Gogh litany and retorts in her German accent, "They know something of the life, not the work. And a lot of what they think they know is not correct. Van Gogh was not insane. He did not cut off his ear. He did commit suicide -- intentionally or not, we're not quite sure."
She's had it with the romantic-victim scenario. She can barely recite it anymore: "All that driving power and the energetic genius and blah-blah." Homburg wants to get to the facts of the life, not the retelling of the myth. "Van Gogh had epilepsy," she notes, "and had attacks aggravated by an intense nervous system, very bad nourishment, too much drinking and smoking."
And it wasn't the whole ear. "This whole dramatic gesture was just a very minor part," although she does have to admit, even if it was just the lobe, "it was still a pretty astonishing thing to do."
The title of the SLAM exhibition reveals some of Homburg's theme. Van Gogh is not depicted as the isolated artist but as one associated with other artists of his time. The "petit boulevard" was van Gogh's own phrase for his contemporaries, the artists who were not being shown on the "grand boulevard" in Paris, where the popular impressionist painters' works were displayed. Homburg situates van Gogh among a group of ambitious up-and-comers frequenting the bohemian digs of Montmartre, men who would become part of the postimpressionist all-star team, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin among them. A telling inclusion of the exhibition is a drawing by Lucien Pissarro depicting van Gogh in conversation with a top-hatted dandy. In truth, van Gogh talked to people; in myth, he only wrote to his brother and fought with Gauguin.
"For me, one of my great amibitions is to show van Gogh in the context of the other artists, to make him more one of these great, innovative, ambitious avant-garde artists who wanted to achieve stature in the art market that was thriving," says Homburg. Van Gogh made contacts, networked, discussed among his peers ways of getting off that petit boulevard. The members of the group were both colleagues and competitors. Each kept an eye on what his compatriots were doing. They stole, borrowed, appropriated ideas and styles and gestures. Each thought about how to position himself among the rest, how to develop a signature brushstroke or subject matter that would "pronounce, "This is me,'" says Homburg. Already in the 1880s, the modernist call was to make it new and to make it unique. "You had to have your own identity," Homburg says, and van Gogh studied, observed, calculated and worked to create his own as strenuously as the rest.
This van Gogh is a far cry from the man depicted in the film classic Lust for Life, based on the bestseller by Irving Stone. In Technicolor, a bare-chested Kirk Douglas (van Gogh as sensitive hunk) filled the canvas with paint as if purging his very soul. Yet even an uneducated glance at a van Gogh painting reveals a work that took time and craft to make manifest: the application of layer on layer of thick pigment; a thoughtful consideration of composition; a plan followed to evoke the sensation of dynamic, passionate energy.
Painters of the Petit Boulevard provides a view of contrasting styles and shared ambitions. One of the more stark comparisons can be seen in the portraits of Mme. Roulin, the wife of van Gogh's friend Joseph Roulin, the postman in Arles -- one painted by van Gogh, the other by Gauguin during his brief sojourn to Provence. Van Gogh's portrait is loud, vibrant, full of depth and movement, with a frenetic background. Gauguin is more calm, decorative, flat, with softly layered colors and muted lines. To Homburg, these paintings reveal distinct artistic sensibilities and strategies rather than feral expressions of personality burst onto the canvas.
Homburg says the making of the van Gogh myth began immediately after his death. His suicide occurred when tragic artists were all the rage: "The 19th century was perfect for mad artists. It was something that came out of the romantic idea of the genius.
"Van Gogh died exactly at the moment when he's getting to be known. In the last few years of his life, people were really paying attention. In the avant-garde circles, people would come and look at work in Theo's home [Theo was Vincent's brother, his financial support and a Paris art dealer]. There was talk about exhibitions. People were starting to want his work."
Then, at the age of 37, after painting for only 10 years, says Homburg, "He dies in a dramatic fashion." And that drama immediately begins to be told by his friends and associates. A year after the death, one of the petit boulevard, Emile Bernard, publishes an article about van Gogh. "So already," says Homburg, "in the very beginning there is this interest in the personality of the artist, in the personal life -- or, should I say, "persona,' because it's not about the real person. In the first years of his death, that persona is brought up again and again and again."
And with the publication of Vincent's letters to Theo in the early 20th century (by Theo's widow, who had her own agenda), and Stone's novel in the '30s, and the film version in the '50s, and the subsequent pop renditions of van Gogh in all forms of media, the myth took on substance.
Since the 1980s, however, with the mother of all blockbusters, Van Gogh at Arles, new scholarship has begun to uncover a painter driven by ambition more than demons. The artist Homburg wants the public to learn about is still a troubled and passionate character, an interesting character but not so unlike his contemporaries and, inevitably, not so unlike most of us.
But don't expect that myth to die anytime soon. That misunderstood genius is not so unlike the myth many of us have of ourselves, the one we encounter in our worst moments of adolescent self-pity.
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