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Vincent van Gogh
The Painter on the Road to Tarascan

Installation view of "Vincent's Choice: The Musee Imaginaire of Van Gogh" at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Installation view

Installation view, with Despont's recreation of Van Gogh's studio

Ary Scheffer
The Agony in the Garden
Dordrechts Museum

Jean-François Millet
Shearing Sheep
ca. 1860
private collection

Vincent van Gogh
The Sheep Shearer (after Millet)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Thierry Dupont
Vincent's Choice
by Brook S. Mason

"Vincent's Choice: The Musée Imaginaire of Van Gogh," Feb. 14-June 15, 2003, at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Thierry W. Despont, the acclaimed New York architect and designer who has turned his talents to the residences of such moguls as Bill Gates, Conrad Black and Calvin Klein, is now dabbling in museum shows. Not just any show, but one dedicated to the most popular artist of all time -- Vincent van Gogh.

It's true that Despont is not completely new to museum work, for he designed the period interiors for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles not so long ago. But this new art-world alliance of Despont and van Gogh is well worth a closer look. Despont's design of the current Van Gogh Museum exhibition, "The Muse Imaginaire of Van Gogh," pays homage to the Dutch artist on his 150th birthday.

While museum shows dedicated to van Gogh have been capturing the spotlight over the past several years, this exhibition is no mere retread. A highly cerebral yet moving examination of the artist, the show features many of the more than 1,500 paintings that we know van Gogh was aware of -- paintings the artist cited in his thousands of letters, or pictures he clipped from the London Illustrated News and kept in his scrapbooks, or prints or other artworks in his own personal collection. "Very few artists have left such a comprehensive documentation of the very art inspiring them," says John Leighton, director of the museum.

"The show is an intimate look at Van Gogh's artistic output by examining in depth the very pictures that influenced him," says Despont. This aspect of the artist's oeuvre had never before been featured in a significant manner. "One could say that the artist himself was the exhibition curator," says Despont.

Yet how did Despont land such a plum museum assignment? "We had the concept of the show but the material was so diverse, it was difficult to obtain any coherence," says Dr. Andreas Blhm, the museum head of exhibitions and display, who approached the architect more than two years ago.

Despont arranged close to 200 pictures both chronologically and thematically. The show begins with religious pictures, such as The Agony in the Garden (1839) by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). A reproduction of this work hung in Van Gogh's room in Dordecht. The presence of such ponderous pictures underscores Van Gogh's lifelong interest in depicting suffering and compassion.

Despont goes far beyond the usual show-and-tell component of standard museum shows. One section, for instance, duplicates the look of the late 19th-century Paris salon. Pictures hang in traditional tiers against walls dressed with the requisite deep red fabric and an elaborate cornice molding.

Despont also installed a recreation of the artist's final studio in Arles. A peek inside reveals the actual Japanese prints the artist had hung in his own studio. The very smallness of the space compared to the brilliance of his pictures is remarkably sad.

The exhibition also underscores the emotional impact of Jean-Francois Millet on Van Gogh. Millet's 1850 The Sower reappears in Van Gogh's 1888 The Sower with Setting Sun with its searing backdrop. And both artists made portraits of a sheep shearer. If anything, this show highlights the extent to which Van Gogh turned to legendary painters of the past.

In addition to the predictably influential Rubens and Delacroix, Van Gogh also turned to his colleague Emile Bernard (1868-1941), who began his career as a follower of Van Gogh's friend Paul Gauguin. Bernard's The Blue Coffeepot is echoed in van Gogh's similar still life rendition of the same subject.

Despont's curatorial hand is everywhere evident. For instance, he placed Van Gogh's famous self-portrait of 1888 alongside Rembrandt's self-portrait from London's National Gallery, and it's clear how Van Gogh captures an identical pose and light source. Talk about van Gogh taking a lesson from his own Dutch Old Master.

Overall, this show dispels the common notion that Van Gogh was foremost a troubled figure. He's deeply complicated and his life was filled with layers of meaning. He is an artist on a visual and emotional quest. The fact that he could embrace Japanese prints with their oblique positions and minimalist figures was highly radical.

What was the biggest surprise for Despont? Learning the extent of the artist's taste. "Van Gogh was incredibly sophisticated in terms of both his work and what he read," says Despont, who considers seeing and handling the artist's scrapbooks one of the high points of his own life.

Equally astonishing for Despont was the artist's oeuvre. "He painted 10,000 pictures in a decade; that's two a week," says Despont. Considering that Despont is a painter also (he garnered a solo exhibition at Marlborough's Chelsea gallery in September), his understanding of the artist's phenomenal output is right on target.

One thing is definite this show will elevate Despont even higher in the haute art museum world. Is a museum building design on his list of aspirations now?

"I would love to do a museum," says Despont. He believes the experience of designing this show has given him greater insight into what a museum should be.

Stay tuned for this designer's next foray into the museum world.

P.S. But if you do celebrate Van Gogh's birthday, which is Mar. 30, with a trip to his namesake museum in Amsterdam, be certain to include a side trip to the Krller-Mller Museum, which boasts 87 van Gogh pictures, many of them iconic works. Their holdings of the artist's drawings are superb.

The Kröller also has Europe's largest sculpture garden. The more than 200-acre estate is studded with Maillol and Rodin right up to Roy Lichtenstein.

In the meantime, Abrams has published a deluxe catalogue of this groundbreaking exhibition. Van Gogh's Imaginary Museum: Exploring the Artist's Inner World (320 pp., $49.95 hardcover) includes 196 color illustrations and no less than 10 essays by Van Gogh specialists.

BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.