Van Gogh's Van Goghs was an exhibition of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, from the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam. The Van Gogh Museum set up the exhibition to help cover the cost of a major renovation and expansion, and to exhibit the paintings during that expansion. Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, was shown at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from 4 October 1998 to 3 January 1999 and at the Los Angeles County Art Museum from 17 January 1999 to 4 April 1999.
I saw the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, during my freshman year at St. John's College, in Annapolis. It blew my mind. I had seen reproductions of van Gogh's art all my life. In books, for the most part, but also in the muddy, washed out slides in A.P. Art History, from which we were supposed to appreciate the greatness of the art. I had seen his paintings in the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the MoMA, and the National Gallery of Art.
I appreciated that they were good art, but that was before I stepped into Van Gogh's Van Goghs.
It was a cool late fall or early winter day, a Saturday, the only time that I really had free from classes and studying. A friend of a friend had gone there early in the moring to get tickets - I think she had been waiting in line since 5 or 6 in the morning. I arrived with my friends at about 9, and we talked to the friend, who had a bunch of timed tickets for about 11. So we wandered around for a couple hours, until the apointed time. At that time, we went into the National Gallery and waited in line for another half hour. Then we were able to actually see the show.
I was psyched. There I was, just about to enter the big van Gogh show, the show that having been to would make me cool, 31337, and all that. So I walked in. There they were, the paintings I had heard so much about, the slides I had stared at, the photographs I had studied. And nothing. I walked through the exhibit, looking at everything, perhaps wandering quite a bit faster than I might have normally, looking for "the really good stuff". I saw them. I saw the masterpieces. Lots of people in front of them, but I am tall, so I could see over, no big deal. But even these paintings did not impress me much. I arrived at the end of the exhibit, and turned around - I wanted to look at the show again. As I began wandering back, it all began to make sense.
Each of van Gogh's paintings is but one of a group of ideas. They are significant individually, but are much more significant as part of a group of images. They provide context for each other and allow insights into the mind of the artist that you cannot see when looking at only one painting. Many of the paintings were done in a couple days. In an exhibiition like this, when you can put so many days together, you can see things previously invisible. When there are 70 paintings together, you see whole new worlds.
That group of paintings, those 70 works, they changed a lot. I didn't see it so much at the time, but soon afterwards, I started drawing a little bit more, I started looking at my surroundings differently. I am not going to say that this is the reason I am now an art major - many other things have lead to that. But Van Gogh's Van Goghs made a difference - shows like it are important.
Surely I would look at this show differently if I saw it today. Van Gogh's Van Goghs is a combination of good paintings and masterworks - the masterworks shown because they are masterworks, and the others chosen for the insights they provide into the masterworks, or because of artistic merit of their own.
I wish I could remember more about specific paintings - most of my memory now is emotional - how van Gogh changed the way I saw things, and how I felt. It woke me up and made me see things, at least a little bit, through his eyes. Which is what art is supposed to do.
The paintings in the exhibition, listed in chronological order:
There is also a catalog of the show, with the same title, ISBN 0-89468-237-7 (paperback) and ISBN 0-8109-6366-3 (hardcover).