November 2007

Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockburne, and the Old Masters
Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard
Morgan Library & Museum, New York City, through January 6, 2008

Night and Day at the Morgan

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

As my title suggests, the views of art represented in these two compact exhibitions could not be more disparate. In Drawing Connections: [Georg] Baselitz, [Ellsworth] Kelly, [Giuseppe] Penone, [Dorothea] Rockburne, and the Old Masters, four "great artists working today" (words ascribed to the Morgan's director in a press release) were invited to exhibit a small group of their own drawings next to Old Master drawings selected by them from the Morgan's incomparable collection. "The juxtaposition emphasizes the conceptual, visual, or technical relationships between them," readers are told, "showing not only what contemporary drawings owe to the art of the past but also how our interpretation of old master drawings is indebted to contemporary practices." But when "drawing" comprises wholly unintelligible abstractions, as in most of the contemporary examples shown, the connections can only be of the most superficial and meaningless kind--as is amply demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Ellsworth Kelly's Pine Branches II (representational in name only) and Jean-Antoine Watteau's Study of a Young Man Seen from the Back, on the Morgan's web page devoted to the exhibition. As for Georg Baselitz's expressionist scribblings, while representational they appear quite crude and opaque next to the virtuosic renderings of the human form by the Italian Mannerist Parmigianino that are on display. Still, this show is well worth seeing, if only for its splendid selection of masterworks--among them, Dürer's Portrait of [His] Brother Endres [other drawings by him, not in exhibition], an exquisite Study for the Head of St. Lawrence (after Perugino), Bernini's Portrait of Cardinal Borghese, and (a modern "Old Master") van Gogh's Wheat Field, Saint-Rémy de Provence.

That last work affords a welcome transition to Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard, an exhibition devoted to Van Gogh's friendship and correspondence with Émile Bernard--an artist (and poet) fifteen years his junior, whom he encouraged at a critical early stage of his career and who became one of the first persons to appreciate and vigorously promote his work. Featuring twenty letters never before exhibited (nearly all of which were written during Van Gogh's most fruitful years in Provence, 1888-89), the show is, despite its title, painted in images as well as words, for it includes twenty-two paintings, drawings, and watercolors that the two artists discussed or exchanged. A crowded museum gallery is hardly the best place to read a lengthy correspondence, but seeing the actual letters [see thumbnails link]--often containing Van Gogh's deftly sketched Provençal impressions, and ranged alongside other works referred to in them--brings the exchange between the two to life with throbbing immediacy.

Two of the most remarkable paintings in Painted with Words are a Self-Portrait (1887, on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), from which Van Gogh's steely blue eyes seem to penetrate into the viewer's very soul, and his idiosyncratically stunning Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), on loan from the Indianapolis Museum of Art--which cannot fairly be judged from its images on the internet but must be seen in person.

By far the best means of perusing the letters, however, is the handsome, richly illustrated and annotated catalogue compiled by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, and jointly published by the Van Gogh Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum. Entitled Vincent van Gogh--Painted with Words: The Letters to Émile Bernard, it includes facsimiles of all the extant letters, supplemented by printed transcriptions of the complete texts (in French), along with English translations. Each letter is preceded by a brief scholarly introduction setting the context, with further explication and background provided in supplementary notes.

As previously noted in Aristos ("Van Gogh at His Eye-Opening Best," January 2006), van Gogh's letters are justly celebrated, and his letters to Bernard are among his most compelling, issuing as they do from the period in which he had begun to hit his stride as an artist. Remarkably, there is very little evidence of the insanity that would soon take his life. Instead, there is a self-assured outpouring of insightful reflection on matters ranging from his infatuation with the colors of the Provençal landscape, the inspiration he took from artistic traditions as diverse as those of Japan and his native Holland, the merits of working directly from life versus painting from the imagination, and his impatience with art lacking in genuine feeling--to avuncular advice to his young friend regarding military service, the importance of a healthy diet, and the benefits of sexual continence. These letters are truly extraordinary documents of a life passionately lived and vividly recorded in both words and images.

The hardcover volume of Vincent van Gogh--Painted with Words: The Letters to Émile Bernard can be ordered from the Morgan Shop, for $50 (plus $9.95 for shipping within the U. S.).