DETROIT, Michigan — Vincent van Gogh wasn’t always a cultural rock star, whose paintings sell millions and whose images draw massive crowds to immersive digital sound and light shows that circulate around the globe.
Skeptical critics derided van Gogh’s work in 1913 when 21 examples were included in the famous Armory Show in New York, the pivotal event that introduced the European avant-garde to American audiences. What’s more, museums and collectors kept their wallets closed.
But just 9 years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts became the first American art museum to acquire a van Gogh when it purchased an 1887 Self-Portrait of the Artist in a Straw Hat, capturing the viewer with piercing blue eyes and a troubled expression suggesting inner turmoil.
Detroit’s century-old collecting coup is the focus of a large, immersive exhibition that examines how American audiences belatedly warmed to the red-haired genius of early modern art.
Organized by curator Jill Shaw, director of the museum’s modern and contemporary art department, the exhibition, which is on view through January 22, tells a decades-long history of exhibitions, collections and media response to van Gogh in the first half of the 20th century th century.
By the 1920s, van Gogh’s paintings were so popular in Europe that counterfeiters worked hard to produce fakes. America caught up, however, as initial misunderstanding and ridicule soon turned into enthusiastic acceptance, if not admiration.
“lust for life”
The narrative of the Detroit exhibit ranges from the Armory Show to Irving Stone’s 1934 novel Lust for Life and the 1950 Hollywood film based on the book, in which Kirk Douglas portrays a theatrical, paint-smeared genius driven to self-destruction is caused by insanity.
Thanks in part to film, it can be difficult to shed encrusted stereotypes about the artist. Born in Zundert, Netherlands, in 1853, he came to art after failing as an art dealer, teacher and Protestant minister.
He spent most of his amazingly productive 10 years as an artist, from 1880 to 1890, in poverty and financially dependent on his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh.
Wracked by an undiagnosed mental illness, van Gogh died in 1890 at the age of 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, from a self-inflicted gunshot to the abdomen.
See the artist anew
Featuring 74 works by van Gogh, including some of the most famous and beloved paintings in the world, the Detroit exhibition offers a chance to fully immerse yourself in authenticity.
Seeing so many van Goghs up close conveys, in a way that projections cannot, a sense of van Gogh’s urgent need to convey perceptions of the world that were so sharp and intense that they almost seem painful.
Reproductions can’t quite match this experience, and that alone is a good enough reason to visit Detroit. The exhibition is one of the largest Van Gogh shows in the United States in recent memory and will not travel to other locations.
The show is spread across nine galleries, organized in chronological order of how the artist’s works were filtered through the art market to be included in the permanent collections of American museums.
Among them is The Bedroom by the Art Institute of Chicago, painted in 1889. The museum acquired it in 1926 as part of a donation of 24 works of art, including four alleged van Goghs, one of which was a forgery.
The painting The Bedroom depicts van Gogh’s room in the ramshackle Yellow House in Arles, southern France, where he tried and failed to form an artistic partnership with Paul Gauguin, and then in desperation cut off his ear – or part of it.
Also on view: “L’Arlésienne”, 1888-89, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the powerful portrait of a provincial matron against a bright yellow background; and The Olive Trees, 1889, from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in which clouds, sky, earth, and trees ripple and sway as if shaken by an earthquake.
A slightly different “Starry Night”
MOMA’s Starry Night, which the museum acquired in 1941, is not on display, but a related work known as Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, dominates the final room of the show.
Shaw said she specifically included the Musée d’Orsay painting to contrast its vibrant nocturnal colors and watery reflections with its depiction in Lust for Life.
Clips from the film, shown on a screen in the same gallery, include a scene in which Douglas as van Gogh paints along the Rhone at night while wearing a straw hat decorated with candles. The image suggests the artist became obsessed with his work, an idea Shaw denies.
“It’s pretty crazy to think that an artist would work with candles on a straw hat,” she said. “The painting wasn’t finished when he [van Gogh] was in a mental crisis.”
Shaw said the show, originally scheduled for 2020, was pushed back two years by the coronavirus pandemic. The delay forced her to renegotiate loan agreements with some of the world’s largest art museums. It also enabled her to revise the exhibition checklist and catalog and make important additions, including the exceptionally beautiful ‘Starry Night’ from the Musée d’Orsay.
The loans supported the Detroit Museum’s mission to understand how van Gogh, who is believed to have sold only a handful of artworks in his lifetime, became such an icon.
When he died, van Gogh left most of his work to his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh, who died less than 6 months later and left everything to his then 28-year-old widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and her young son Vincent Willem van Gogh.
As evidenced by the exhibition and its richly illustrated catalogue, the van Gogh family tirelessly promoted van Gogh’s work in Europe and America, initially having more success on the Continent than in the United States
The van Gogh family loaned 85 works for exhibitions in the United States between 1913 and 1920, of which only three, from a 1920 retrospective, were sold to a single American private collector.
Heartland museums take the lead
This record underscores the unusualness of the Detroit museum’s purchase in 1922. The exhibit makes clear that when it came to American museums collecting Van Gogh, the Midwest tended to lead the way rather than large city museums on the East Coast.
After purchasing it in Detroit, the Art Institute of Chicago gifted his three authentic van Goghs in 1926, along with a fake and later discredited still life made by an anonymous forger.
The next four Van Gogh purchases by American museums were from heartland institutions, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (1932); the Saint Louis Art Museum (1935); and the Toledo Museum of Art (two works in 1935).
By breaking into the Van Gogh market, the museums competed with private East Coast collectors who were already in the hunt and also contributed to the acceptance of van Gogh in America.
Among them was Katherine Dreier, a later benefactor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, who in 1912 acquired van Gogh’s 1890 Adeline Ravoux, a portrait of the innkeeper’s daughter at the Ravoux Inn where van Gogh lived Auvers-sur- Oise in the weeks leading up to his death.
In 1939 the painting entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which made it available to the Detroit exhibition together with a van Gogh drawing “Landscape with a Wheelbarrow” from 1883.
For viewers familiar with van Gogh, organizing the exhibition can be challenging, as it mixes and brings together works from different periods of his artistic career while telling the story of who bought what and when.
This clashes with the actual chronology of van Gogh’s work itself, which evolved over 10 years with a strong sense of direction from the somber palettes inspired by the Hague School, a group of contemporary Dutch painters, to the artist’s embrace of light and color after him met the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in Paris in 1886.
For example, the first room of the exhibition focuses on 11 of the 21 van Gogh paintings that were shown at the Armory Show in New York and later traveled to places like the Art Institute of Chicago.
The gallery features Cleveland’s Adeline Ravoux, glowing like stained glass, on a wall opposite Beer Tankards, 1885, painted in dark moody brownish tones typical of the earlier phase of his career.
However, halfway through the show, the mood calms down as the art market’s possible enthusiasm for the late, colorful phase of van Gogh’s art fits into the chronology of his artistic development.
The final rooms of the exhibition display amazing collections of mature van Goghs from the years 1886-1890, culminating in captivating portraits and radiant vistas of wheat and poppy fields.
demonstration of strength
An underlying message of the exhibition, based on the impressive loans it has negotiated, is that just over a decade after coming close to disaster, the Detroit Institute of Arts is once again able to host exhibitions of the highest quality – and level of difficulty to organize.
In 2013, Kevin Orr, an emergency manager appointed by then-Michigan Gov. Rock Snyder, proposed the shocking idea of selling artwork from the DIA’s municipal collection to settle Detroit’s bankruptcy.
A year later — after widespread criticism of the idea of selling art to pay the city’s bills — a federal bankruptcy judge approved a “big deal” that saw foundations, private donors, and the state of Michigan raising $800 million to finance the Museum to transfer and its collection to an independent charitable foundation.
Thanks to that move and the proceeds from a 10-year real estate levy in Michigan’s three southeastern counties, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb, the DIA is in its strongest budgetary shape in decades.
The Van Gogh exhibition is a display of institutional vigor and a museum eager and willing to build on its strengths. This is good news for Detroit and the entire region around it.
What’s happening: “Van Gogh in America”
Venue: Detroit Institute of Arts.
Where: 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit.
When: Until Sunday, 22.01.
Entry: Museum admission: $14 for adults; The Van Gogh exhibit is $24 Tuesday through Thursday; $29 Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-7900 or go to dia.org.