Van Gogh and Maggs: A Visit to the National Gallery, by Linda Leith

Odd that the first image you see when you go to the National Gallery to see Van Gogh Up Close (to September 3, 2012) is a gigantic blow-up of a reproduction. And yes, a reproduction allows us to zoom in on details we might otherwise miss, see them up close, but still, a reproduction.

This is a fecund show, full of the intensity and drama of earth and sky, and much of it is familiar, including the National Gallery’s own “Iris.” Who has not seen posters of some of Van Gogh’s paintings? Who has not heard how Vincent suffered for his sanity and tried to set us free? Who has not seem grainy newspaper reproductions of sunflowers and hayfields fetching princely sums at auction? Van Gogh is an iconic figure, the Che of the art world. We have learned to see the beauty in his work. We have reduced it to dollars and cents and celebrity.

The purpose of the National Gallery show is to show how, and under what influences, Van Gogh pushed the boundaries of close-up views of nature in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Side rooms of Hokusai woodblock prints, of nineteenth-century photographs, and works on paper from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries allow us to consider Van Gogh’s accomplishment in the light of his time – and in the light of what he learned from other artists. It’s a joyous show, and no joy is more palpable than that of the “Almond Blossom” he painted in 1890 to celebrate the birth of his nephew.

When you get to the end of the show, you’re reluctant to leave, so you go back to the beginning, and there’s that seed sown at the start. You ponder the scene Van Gogh was painting, the image he painted, the huge reproduction of a detail from that original painting. You walk through the exhibition a second time, past the real paintings, and eventually you emerge. The museum shop is full of reproductions of “Almond Blossom” on everything from posters and stationary to teapots and umbrellas. What is the difference between these reproductions and the big one that’s part of the exhibition itself? The distinction between art and decoration is blurred.


Arnaud Maggs. Photo: Martin Lipman

Across the hall, the Arnaud Maggs exhibition, Identification (to September 16, 2012), invites you to see the beauty in the commonplace, the everyday, the ephemeral.


Arnaud Maggs, Kunstakademie, detail 1 (detail)

Here is the madness of art, the turmoil of existence under pressure in portraits arranged in grids, taxi numbers, water-stained pages, hotel signs, dizzying series of numbers, and other obsessions.

Joseph Beuys, 100 Profile Views, (detail) 1980 , 40.3 x 40.3 cm.
Collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

Will this, too, be one day tamed by familiarity, as Van Gogh’s work has been tamed? At what point will it be worth someone’s while to emblazon an umbrella with images of Maggs’s mug shots? At what point do we stop caring what is real and what is fake? And what is the role of the museum in this process?

The museum pays attention to the work. It calls it art, frames it, demonstrates its importance, contains it, and brings the work to our attention. In so doing, it helps us to see what we might not otherwise have seen, appreciate what we might not otherwise have appreciated. The museum does this for Maggs as for Van Gogh.

The difference is that Van Gogh has crossed over. His “starry, starry night” is the night of mega-stardom. Our view of his art is inevitably coloured by his celebrity. Van Gogh Up Close ignores this, going out of its way to treat him as an artist, right up to the entrance to the shop and its reproductions of his most celebrated images.

© Linda Leith 2012


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