VIDEO: Strictly Critical Finds Beauty Rules in Van Gogh’s Flowers at the Metropolitan Museum

Bliss out on Van Gogh's magical paintings of Spring.

Just in time for spring (but after Mother’s Day), our intrepid critics, Blake Gopnik and Christian Viveros-Fauné, visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York to tackle “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses.” A tidy display of four flower paintings—two irises and two roses—this miniature blockbuster provides a perfect opportunity for our pair to dismiss a few popular chestnuts about the Dutchman and his withered-looking bouquets.

Painted at the lunatic asylum at Saint-Rémy, Christian says these paintings of what were originally red and violet flowers (the artist’s highly sensitive pigments have faded and the roses now look white and the irises blue) read less like polite formal exercises and more like paintings “you could cut your ear off for.” Blake, for his part, argues that the Dutchman was a victim of 19th century artistic cliché—even before his life was turned into Hollywood boilerplate by the 1956 biopic “Lust for Life.”

On the paintings themselves, the two go back and forth. “Intense caricatures,” says Christian; “juvenilia,” counters Blake. Yet both agree that all four pictures represent, ultimately, the opposite of pretty bouquets. “These are not peaceful images of flowers,” Blake says. “They’re slightly syphilitic,” interjects Christian. Both agree that rather than cheery representations of domesticated nature, Van Gogh’s irises and roses are—like many dark landscapes and all crucifixion paintings—elaborately coded symbols of life in death.


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