Monday, November 28, 2005

The Evolution of Line

Van Gogh at the Met

Seeing Van Gogh without colour is like looking at a bonfire that has been laid out but not lighted. Sure, you can admire the precision with which the lines criss-cross, the skilled symmetry of the heaped wood, but you can't help missing the flame itself, the raw power of the fire dancing in vivid tongues from within the dry branches.

But let's begin at the beginning. The first thing that strikes you about the exhibition of Van Gogh drawings at the Met is just how crowded it is. As great herds of people crowd into the six rooms that make up the exhibition to gawk and admire, there's an atmosphere of polite fishmarket, a sort of half-concealed greed that takes over as you jockey for a better view. Being able to see a drawing by yourself is virtually impossible, you're lucky (and probably fairly tall) if you manage to get a full view of the drawing and don't have to piece it together bit by bit from glances caught between the backs of other people. Every step forward requires the kind of concentration you normally associate only with Rubik's cubes - a studied determination to somehow maneouver your way into the one empty space left in front of the painting. M and I managed to get to the museum just as it was opening, so it wasn't so bad - by the time we left, the wait time just to get into the exhibition was 40 minutes.

All of this means, of course, that quiet contemplation of the drawings is not an option. You could stand and stare at a painting for hours, I suppose, but only if you had kidneys of tungsten and were consequently immune to elbow jabs in the back.

So much for gentle ambience. The drawings themselves are, at least in the initial years, exquisite without being spectacular. Which is to say they're beautiful drawings but it's hard to see Van Gogh in them. Much of the initial work consists of portraits done in severe graphite and ink tones, which seem more like Degas', though without quite the same intensity. There are also some glorious landscapes, including one called the Kingfisher (a tiny heart of a bird buried away in a grainy perspective of indifference)

and a luminous Drenthe landscape (emptiness radiating as light). These are wonderful drawings, but they are the drawings of a master who is yet to find himself, a master still tied to the old geometry of planes. Here, as in the drawings that immediately follow, Van Gogh is still using lines that are cleanly, almost insistently straight. If there is any emotion in these drawings at all, it is not so much passion as sparseness, a bleakness of perspective accentuated by the lack of colour.

Here and there, Van Gogh introduces colour (and indeed one of the greatest joys of the exhibit is the way it places multiple versions of the same drawing, some in colour, others not, side by side - see examples below) and the effect is vivid and glorious, though even here the colours do not so much swirl about as arrange themselves in neat, shining legions and oppose each other.

It's only once Van Gogh reaches Arles that you see the drawings change, grow. The strokes seem to become bolder, more confident, but more importantly, it feels as though Van Gogh is finally breaking away from the strict linearity of his early drawings. There is more room for confusion now, the lines mill about, responding more the passion of the artist's hand than to the staider laws of perspective and geometry. This is fascinating evolution to watch, barely visible in Fishing Boats at Sea, beginning to emerge in Wheat Field with Sheaves, achieving some prominence in the Sower and in the swirling Olive Trees at Montmajour,

taking centre stage in Garden with Sunflowers and the leaping fire of Cypresses,

and acheiving its apeothesis in Wild Vegetation and Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman. The difference between these last works and the drawings that the exhibition begins with is a stark one, and bears witness to the phenomenal growth that Van Gogh underwent as an artist in a little under ten years.

All in all, the exhibition at the Met is not as soul-searing an experience as the idea of a Van Gogh exhibition would seem to promise. It is, however, an insightful and engaging exploration of the artistic evolution of one of the greatest painters of all time. The drawings exhibited here and beautiful and alive - and if they seem pale and a little dull, it is only because one cannot help comparing them to Van Gogh's richer, more explicitly passionate paintings. It's a comparison that few works of art could stand up to.

For a look at the complete catalogue of paintings on show at the exhibit, see here.