Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Life of van Gogh

Van Gogh's Street in Auers-sur-Oise from "Unfinished" exhibition at the Met Breuer, Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Review | Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent | With James Briggs as Theo Van Gogh | Directed by Dr. Brant Pope | Theatre at St. Clements

… the price of fame …

The idea is that Vincent van Gogh has recently died and his brother Theo, the art dealer who loved and supported that brilliant artist, was so overcome at the time that he’d been unable to speak at Vincent’s funeral.  It’s two weeks later, and Theo is impelled, now, to tell us what he thinks he knows about Vincent that others don’t. He thereupon sets out to tell us about Vincent’s early life, his development as an artist and his death by his own hand.  It’s hard to make any telling of Vincent’s life dull but that almost happens here because Theo’s recital stays on the surface of the facts as they’re known, and offers no special insight.

Van Gogh's Street in Auers-sur-Oise from "Unfinished" exhibition at the Met Breuer, Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Van Gogh, Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890, painted shortly before his death there in July. Oil on canvas, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, in “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” at Metropolitan Museum Breuer, NYC through Sept. 18, 2016,  Photo MMA.

I say “almost” because van Gogh’s story is so saturated with drama that any account of his life, based largely on Vincent’s brilliant letters, is bound to have some stimulating moments.

For instance:  the audience seemed to catch its collective breath hearing that Vincent was born a year to the day after his mother had given birth to a stillborn son, who also had been named Vincent, so that the artist carried the name of his dead brother throughout his life.  If you didn’t know that – and even if you did – it’s startling.  The play takes up one way among many this has sometimes been considered, seeing a link in it to the theme of resurrection in van Gogh’s thinking and art.

And Vincent van Gogh’s self-defeating and troubled relationships with women including the prostitute Sien, described here in a straightforward way, are always interesting to contemplate.

But what did Theo have to tell us about Vincent that we didn’t know? That Vincent was “not mad.”  Theo emphasizes instead that van Gogh was sick, referring to the diagnosis of epilepsy Vincent received during his lifetime.  For most (though not all) who have considered this, myself included, there’s no argument that Vincent suffered from epilepsy, but what Theo has to say is simplistic, because Vincent’s difficulties went beyond any single diagnosis.

With Vincent van Gogh, there are always multiple causations one can bring to bear in trying to explain his eccentricities, difficulties getting along with others, bizarre behavior, and great suffering.  Dead brother, depressed mother, epilepsy, alcohol, paint fumes, cigarettes, religious alienation, developmental issues, etc.  It’s particularly characteristic of van Gogh that where any one explanation would be plenty to do the job, there are several!  There are disagreements about their various impacts, but it’s over simple to “blame” it all on epilepsy.  And whatever the “madness” may have been, there was probably a dose of that too.

With the charismatic and talented Leonard Nimoy in the role of Theo, the pedestrian character of the script might have been more masked.  Briggs works hard to insert “passion” into the narration, as when he shows us Vincent as a preacher delivering his powerful “stranger on the earth” sermon, but one feels the strain on his capacity as an actor.  With an underlying western accent, and contemporary mannerisms, he’s also unconvincing as a sophisticated European of the late 19th century art world.

The set includes the study of the citified art dealer Theo van Gogh on one side, and Vincent’s more rustic room on the other, with Theo ranging between them.  The floor boards on Theo’s side are varnished and those on Vincent’s side unfinished – a nice touch.  The projection of van Gogh’s paintings onto the back of the set, as if in an enlarged frame, is less successful because the poor quality of the slides does not do justice to the paintings, which come off looking like flat posters.  And it’s just a plain wrong idea to at times manipulate the paintings so they or parts of them are projected backwards.

As the person in the seat next to mine said on leaving, “Well, I learned something.”  But that’s about it.  Which is worth something, but not all that we look for in theater.

Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent produced by Starry Night Theater Company, a play that has toured in other cities, plays in Manhattan at the Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street through June 5, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Art Review | Van Gogh: Irises and Roses | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

… together and apart …

Van Gogh, Irises, 1890, o/c, 36 1/2" x 29 1/8" (92.7 cm x l73.9 cm), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Van Gogh, Irises, 1890, o/c, 36 1/2″ x 29 1/8″ (92.7 cm x l73.9 cm), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the first time the two paintings of irises and two of roses are exhibited together, the way van Gogh conceived them and in the order he painted them, four paintings, but monumental in terms of their importance for the history of art – like just about everything van Gogh did in his short life.

Yellow and violet, pink and green — complementary colors.  How strong an intensity can I achieve by cramming together colors at the opposite end of the spectrum? is a question van Gogh asked himself.  And behind that: how can I convey the clashing intensities of experience?  He answered with these four great flower paintings.

Van Gogh, Irises, 1890, oil on canvas, 29" x 36 1/4" (73.7 cm x 92.1 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Van Gogh, Irises, 1890, oil on canvas, 29″ x 36 1/4″ (73.7 cm x 92.1 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

He had just recovered from one of his violent epileptic-like attacks.  Gathering the flowers in the garden of the asylum at St. Rémy — a spare room in the men’s ward was his studio — he painted them in early May 1990 just before heading north to Auvers, where he (most likely account) ended his life two months later.

Near death and full of joy:  in this as in everything, “van Gogh concerned himself with the holding together of things that are most fully opposed.”*

Van Gogh, Roses, 1890, o/c, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: MMA

Van Gogh, Roses, 1890, o/c, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: MMA

You may be surprised, then, that the effect of the exhibition is not one of thrilling color juxtapositions: the paintings have faded considerably, and the colors are now far from van Gogh’s original intent.  He noted that paintings fade like flowers but these have survived with less of their original color intensity than others of his works because he used some particularly fugitive pigments — how quixotic.  How paradoxical:  he knew, but did it anyway.

Van Gogh, Roses, 1890, o/c, 36 5/8" x 29 1/8" (93 cm x 74 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Van Gogh, Roses, 1890, o/c, 36 5/8″ x 29 1/8″ (93 cm x 74 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

And they faded fast:  as early as 1907, when his mother died, the once pink roses in his painting of Roses on a wall in her home were described as “white.”  The fading of colors over time is clear in a montage (below) included with the exhibition of several dated images of the Roses. Dated photos show fading from pink to white of van Gogh’s roses (apologies for the violet tint in the photo but you can see the progressive fading in relative terms).   Because of their linear strength as well as color, the Irises have maintained their power better than the Roses, particularly the vertical Irises in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Dated photos show fading from pink to white of van Gogh's roses

Dated photos show fading from pink to white of van Gogh’s roses

The combined composition of the four paintings, together as conceived, is a counterpoint of rhythms and a teasing play of opposites.  Vertical horizontal horizontal vertical, a b b a,  plays off against irises irises roses roses, a a b b.   He unifies the four paintings with a table edge, like a horizon line, but, as with the background, he varies the color of the table, a clear example of his sacrifice of naturalism for his expressive, even abstract, use of color.

Oppositions of violet and yellow, pink and green, vertical and horizontal, spiky “male” irises and fluffy “female” roses “of a hundred petals,” linear and painterly.   And life and death.  Weary stalks veer off from sprightly new blooms.  Through color, composition, subject content and the touch of the brush in paint, all of van Gogh’s paintings are a, symbolically, paradoxical compression of the obdurate opposites of existence.

Detail of van Gogh's Irises, Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Detail of van Gogh’s Irises, Metropolitan Museum, NYC

And everywhere are van Gogh’s arrestingly passionate brush strokes, that aggressive impasto he so thoroughly possessed.  There’s no fading there!  (I wish, though, that viewers, talking would stop gesturing toward them:  those impasto peeks are fragile.  The effects of this kind of gesturing led the Museum of Modern Art to place van Gogh’s The Starry Night behind glass, at a loss of impact.  (So please, don’t do it!)

The exhibition’s organizers have taken the opportunity to document van Gogh’s careful study of color theory, and have applied scientific techniques to analyzing his pigments and practices.  Their discoveries are conveyed in a fascinating series of photos and other media, the montage of the fading Roses among them.  How fascinating to see a digital reconstruction of what the colors in these paintings would have looked like when van Gogh first took them off his easel.

When van Gogh left the asylum in St. Rémy, three days after completing the last Roses,  the paintings were still wet  (what a vivid, exciting thought) and so were sent on to him later in Auvers, arriving toward the end of June.  After his death, July 29th , they were dispersed.  This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see together these paintings  that, like his series of Sunflowers painted in Arles two years earlier, van Gogh conceived as a whole.


Van Gogh:  Irises and Roses will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through August 16, 1915.

Yvonne Korshak, “From “Passions” to “Passion”:  Visual and Verbal Puns in The Night Café,” in Van Gogh 100, ed. Joseph D. Masheck, Hofstra University, Greenwood Press, 1996, page 40.

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