After Vincent ; A new show reveals how Van Gogh’s transgressive art and life inspired the early Impressionists. Sue Hubbard wants to know why such an important exhibition isn’t coming to Britain?
You will have to go to Amsterdam or New York if you want to see it as it is not coming to London. But it’s worth making the effort for the paintings in this exhibition are stunning and a constellation such as this is not very likely to be put together again in a hurry. For this is the first show to highlight the impact of Vincent Van Gogh on the German and Austrian Expressionists. There are almost a hundred paintings, prints and drawings from the Van Gogh Museum and Neue Galierie in New York, as well as loans from international museums and private collections, some of which have not been seen in the public domain for a long time.
Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat and Artist’s Smock, 1887
For many, Van Gogh is the quintessential bohemian artist who cut off his ear and painted swirling sun flowers but here we see, through the juxtaposition of his impassioned paintings with those of the younger generation of German Expressionists, the influence he had on that early 20th century movement and, as a result, later on the American abstract expressionists and artists such as Pollock and de Kooning. As the art historian Werner Haftmann remarks, Van Gogh was “forever on the brink of the abyss, courting disaster” so that his example became “a hidden force behind the whole outlook of modern artists”.
For in his audacious high-wire paintings he demonstrated that art was not simply a study of the visible world but an expression of the artist’s internal emotional response to what he saw. It was his departure from the slavish copying of nature to penetrate the deeper underlying truths of existence that created the break with the nineteenth century shackles of realism. In the words of the Expressionist poet Ernst Blass “…Van Gogh stood for expression and experience as opposed to Impressionism and Naturalism. Flaming concentration, youthful, sincerity, immediacy, depth, exhibition and hallucination.” He was, as Max Pechstein claimed, “Father of us All.”
After his death it took some ten years for Van Gogh’s paintings to emerge from obscurity, particularly as his greatest champion, his brother Theo, was also dead. While in France the Fauves, such as Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck responded to Van Gogh’s vibrant palette, it was in Germany and Austria that Expressionism took hold like a whirlwind in both art and literature. Here young artists were seduced not only by his mark making and colour but also by the dramatic and unconventional story of Van Gogh’s life. A dedicated network of dealers and critics promoted his work, despite the chauvinistic opposition of some of the conservative art establishment who saw it as un-German. His vibrant colours and animated brushwork spoke directly to the young Brücke (Bridge) artists in Dresden and the Austrian Expressionists in Vienna as they tried to break free both from the constraints of the bourgeois salon and from Impressionism. Whether Van Gogh would have accepted this role of guru is uncertain. For his distortions of line and energetic brush marks were his own passionate response to the world and nature, and he always saw himself as a realist.
The exhibition is divided into four parts: Van Gogh and Die Brücke, Van Gogh and Der Blaue Reiter, Van Gogh and Vienna and Van Gogh and (self) portraiture. The artists who founded the Brücke group in June 1905 – Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl – came from a background of the decorative arts and met while studying architecture at the Technical College in Dresden. Deeply influenced by Jugendstil (the German equivalent of Art Nouveau.) they took their name – the bridge – from a passage in Nietzsche’s seminal text, Thus Spoke Zarathustra – “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal”. These young artists wanted to affect both a renewal of art and life in order to break the stifling conventions of their age. A contemporary photograph at the opening of the exhibition shows one of them dancing naked in his studio, while others depict nude sea bathing and a youthful Kirchner with Erna Schilling lounging in his studio under tented drapes. It was all very bohemian but as the painter Erich Heckel claimed, “what we needed to get away from was clear to us…where we were heading for was not so clear”.
What Van Gogh showed the Brücke artists was how it was possible to move away from an Impressionist perception of nature and reveal the underlying life force that mirrored their interest in Nietzsche’s vitalist philosophy. A number of them also felt a strong identification with Van Gogh’s ‘outsider’ life story as can be seen in Kirchner’s edgy Self-Portrait with a Pipe, based on Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, which is shown here for the first time since disappearing into private hands. For Max Pechstein it was not the agitated brush work, but Van Gogh’s palette that he appropriated. In his wonderfully insouciant portrait, Young Woman with a Red Fan, he echoes (and transposes) the bright green and reds of her dress and hat, which Van Gogh used in his portrait The Zouave, turning them into flat areas of complimentary colour.
Van Gogh’s influence was also felt in Munich by the looser group of painters known as the Blaue Reiter that gathered round Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, editors of the Blaue Reiter Almanach, an ambitious publication of art theory and writing. Though unlike the Brücke group, who remained more faithful to figuration, the Blaue Reiter group tended to move towards abstraction and never really developed a collective style. It was their quest, as Kandinsky said, for ‘inner’ compulsion and an anti-materialism that held them together, though direct echoes of Van Gogh can clearly be seen in their use of colour and in the psychological intensity of their paintings.
Murnau Street with Women, 1908
When Van Gogh’s work was discovered at the turn of the century Vienna was the dazzling capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite being rigid with tradition it had a strong avant-garde that emerged in the fine arts, literature, philosophy and, of course, in the writings of Freud. Van Gogh’s paintings were a huge influence on the generation of artists, who like their German contemporaries, were turning their backs on naturalism. Even the decorative Gustav Klimt was affected by seeing Van Gogh’s work in 1906; while Van Gogh played a seminal role in the development of the visual language of Oskar Kokoschka and the nervy lines of Egon Schiele.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Van Gogh gave the Expressionists a new painterly language which enabled them to go beyond surface appearance and penetrate deeper essential truths. It is no coincidence that at this very moment Freud was also mining the depths of that essentially modern domain -the subconscious. This beautiful and intelligent exhibition places Van Gogh where he firmly belongs; as the trailblazer of modern art.
Vincent Van Gogh and Expressionism is at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 24 November 2006 to 4 March 2007
Published in The Independent