10/14/2005

The Evolution of a Master Who Dreamed on Paper - New York Times

SHORTLY after he landed in Provence in February 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about a beautiful sight. He had spotted "a ruined abbey on a hill covered with holly, pines and gray olives." It was the old abbey on Montmajour, a crumbling fortress and tower atop a rugged outcropping with an immense vista of vineyards and wheat fields. By July, van Gogh climbed the hill. The mistral, the strong seasonal wind, had kicked up, making it impossible for him to plant an easel and paint without his canvas shaking uncontrollably, not to mention the mosquitoes that the wind swept in...

But van Gogh boasted to Theo that while "not everyone would have the patience," he could draw. Made with a scratchy reed pen on large sheets of Whatman paper, his Montmajour drawings come about two-thirds of the way through the survey of van Gogh's drawings now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

They translate sky, rocks and plains into a swarm of swirls, dots, jabs and scratches. Foaming, cable-knit patterns imply the heaving gusts of wind rustling olive branches and bending gnarled olive trunks; whispery, microscopic speckles, endless numbers of them, mimic the quality of dull light on receding fields as they evaporate into the horizon. You can even sense color - the dark brown of the earth, the yellow and lilac fields and gray-blue sky - in van Gogh's black and white.

To say these pictures required a kind of monkish devotion to draw is in part to reiterate his inherited Dutch Reform ideas about nature and the revelation of God. Nature was virtually supernatural to him. There is no better proof that he wasn't the mad hatter of movie legend than these painstaking tributes to sublime countryside - as Robert Hughes once put it about van Gogh's paintings, "if sanity is to be defined in terms of exact judgment of ends and means and the power of visual analysis."..

You can still picture van Gogh, bookish and fastidious, pouring out his thousands of letters and drawings, private diaries in words and images, sent to his brother and to a few trusted friends, providing him with a stability that he evidently could find nowhere else in life. The Protestant preacher's son, he dutifully recorded his constant labors with pen and paper.

The Evolution of a Master Who Dreamed on Paper - New York Times

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