At the Met, Is Four Van Goghs Better or Worse Than More?

THE DAILY PIC: Is this tiny show about closer looking, or a big name at low cost?





THE DAILY PIC (#1312): With “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing four of the Dutchman’s flower paintings in a single room – as discussed in the latest Strictly Critical video from me and Christian Viveros-Fauné. Our video went positive on the pictures, but I’m still of three minds about the show.

On the one hand, it feels an awful lot like empty audience bait, such as the Met shouldn’t stoop to – because it surely doesn’t have to. Could there be any scholarly purpose in an event such as this? With the Met’s guaranteed crowds and appeal, does it really need “Van Gogh” on its banners? Wouldn’t “Baroque Tapestry” do just as well? (Instead of judging shows by their popularity, museum management should use an algorithm that multiplies attendance by an obscurity factor. That would give bonus points to curators who open viewers’ eyes to new art.)

On the other hand, the only thing better than a show teeming with great art is one with only a handful of pieces. Most of us max out at two hours in an exhibition. If it has 100 works, that means we average a minute or so each – barely worth calling an aesthetic experience. With four works to take in, we might spend half an hour per, which counts as serious looking.

Here’s a thought that such looking triggered in Christian and me, but that didn’t end up in the final cut of our video: After many months of painting landscapes in the countryside, van Gogh, now in a cell in a mental asylum, took to the smaller arena of floral still lifes. But all four of the paintings now at the Met still share the kind of low horizon-line you’d expect in an image of fields and sky stretching out into the distance. Van Gogh’s subject and setting may have changed, but his mind is still in the same place.

So that brings me to the other, other hand of my argument: I guess we wouldn’t have had that insight … if the four paintings hadn’t been gathered in one place. (Image is Roses (1890), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman)

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