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Van Gogh Unplugged
by Walter Robinson
Not too long ago, the pop music world discovered a new passion for "unplugged" concerts, in which rock bands turned off their amps and played their hits on acoustic guitars. Unplugged, musicians were able to return to their musical roots, giving new clarity and authenticity to the craft.

Now, the museum world is following suit, beginning with "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings," which has gone on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 18-Dec. 31, 2005. Organized by Colta Ives and Susan Alyson Stein, the show includes 113 drawings, complemented by only a handful of paintings.

This is van Gogh unplugged, so to speak. In place of the artist’s famous electric swirls of vibrant pigment, we have the measured, even meditative marks of the simple reed pen. "It’s van Gogh with none of the excuses that lots of wet paint covers up," said Brooklyn Museum curator of European paintings Elizabeth Easton.

Hard as it may be to believe, drawings by a single 19th- or 20th-century master rarely rate an entire museum exhibition. Similarly, 20 years ago, when H.W. Janson and Robert Rosenblum published their influential survey, Art of the 19th Century (1984), drawings went altogether unmentioned. The current van Gogh show may well be the first of many. "Ask the Met to follow this up with a show of Ingres drawings, or drawings by Leger," said 19th-century art scholar Charles Stuckey.

The exhibition clearly traces van Gogh’s all-too-short career, a trajectory that famously took him from minister to madman in a brief ten years. In 1880, at age 27, van Gogh abandoned his hopes of joining the clergy and took his brother Theo’s advice to become an artist, a profession he pursued with earnest devotion until his suicide in Auvers in July of 1890.

Van Gogh methodically set out to learn his craft. Early drawings, like Sorrowing Woman (1883) or Man with a Hoe (1885), show the influence of the images of peasants and manual laborers done by Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet. Van Gogh’s expressive portraits of the salt of the earth are all the more effective for the awkwardness of his renderings.

The final three works in the exhibition, scenes of vineyards and houses done largely in blue, contain the writhing lines that are more familiar from his paintings, and that all too easily suggest the agitation that has been popularly associated with van Gogh at least since Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 biopic starring Kirk Douglas.

In between are dozens of exquisite reed-pen drawings in brown ink of fields, villages and the seacoast, all done in "a virtual fireworks of hatches, dots and curlicues," in the words of exhibition curator Colta Ives. In these works, all trace of van Gogh’s purported "madness" has vanished. Van Gogh’s work gradually opens up, presumably in response to Japanese prints and Impressionism. The drawings of landscapes and villages made of dots and dashes are positively sublime, as ridiculous as that sounds.

Van Gogh made more than 1,100 drawings, and many of them remain in private hands. Two of the stars of "Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" were only recently on the auction block, and several other works have clear auction records (and, since they remain in private hands, could well appear for sale in the future). Herewith, some examples:

The highest price ever gained at auction for a work on paper by van Gogh was achieved by his 1888 landscape of hay fields in harvest, Harvest in Provence, done in reed and quill pens with touches of watercolor and gouache. It was sold by the trust of the late Mrs. J.B.A. Kessler for £8.8 million (about $14.7 million) at Sotheby’s London on June 24, 1997; the buyer was an anonymous telephone bidder.

But the picture came to auction a second time, at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 5, 2003, where it sold for $10,312,000. As Artnet Magazine auction correspondent Stewart Waltzer wrote at the time, the price may not have left the anonymous owner dancing on air. Times had changed.

A simpler version of the same view, without the touches of color, was given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon in 1965.

The spectacularly large Cottage Garden (1888), a hallucinogenic but specific array of flowers and foliage, was offered for sale by buyout king Teddy Forstmann at Christie’s New York on May 14, 1997, with an estimate of $9 million, and was sold after the auction to the present owner (who is anonymous). The work had previously sold at Christie’s New York on Nov. 14, 1990, for $8.36 million. This drawing is reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of the Met exhibition.

Van Gogh’s emblematic Boats on the Beach, Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer (1888) was originally sent by the artist, like many of his drawings, to his brother Theo van Gogh, and passed to his son Vincent Willem van Gogh, and was later sold by his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. The drawing sold at Christie’s New York on May 5, 1988, for $5,062,500.

Arles: View from the Wheat Fields (1888), one of three versions of the same drawing van Gogh made for his brother Theo (the other two went to fellow artists Émile Bernard and John Russell), sold at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg in New York on May 7, 2001, for $4.4 million. The drawing is a veritable catalogue of brushstrokes that describe the fields in harvest in the foreground and the newly industrializing city on the horizon.

The British Rail Pension Fund bought van Gogh’s Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888) for its famous pool of art investment in 1978, selling it at auction at Sotheby’s London on Apr. 4, 1989, for £2,310,000 ($3.9 million). Another drawing from the same series is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A drawing of Wheat Field with Sheaves that van Gogh made in 1888 for John Russell -- a similar drawing in the Met show, done for Émile Bernard, is now in the collection of the Berlin State Museum -- was sold at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 8, 1994, for just over $2 million.

A drawing of The Yellow House, done in 1888 on the verso of a letter to Theo and measuring a little more than 5 x 8 in., sold to a Minnesota private collection (as the exhibition catalogue has it) at Christie’s London on June 24, 2003, for £845,250 ($1,418,204).

Van Gogh’s A Corner of a Garden in the Place Lamartine (1888) is surprisingly modern, suggesting a New York School composition in its overall arrangement of patches of different calligraphic marks. The drawing sold at Sotheby’s London on June 27, 1995, for £430,000 ($683,081).

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.