The DAM's Becoming van Gogh is a true portrait of the artist

You'd have to be living under a rock not to know who Vincent van Gogh was. And I'm not just talking about art enthusiasts: Anyone with even a minimal sense of culture will have heard of him, if only for the severed-ear story. One of the greatest post-impressionists of the late nineteenth century, van Gogh is one of the top-earning artists of the 21st century, with his major works going for tens of millions of dollars.

In fact, I used his name when writing about the Denver Art Museum's effort to pass a bond back in 2000 to pay for what would become the Hamilton Building, saying that I couldn't imagine anyone in the city who would begrudge the DAM the "lousy" $62.5 million it needed to construct an addition, since that would represent the cost of just "one good van Gogh." (The Hamilton ultimately cost more than $100 million — so at that point the museum entered Cézanne territory, price-wise.)

Photos: Becoming van Gogh at the Denver Art Museum

The artist's fame can also be judged by how crowded the DAM was when I went to see Becoming van Gogh, which is on display there now. An astounding cross-section of the population had turned out, not just the regulars. It included hipster kids; young, outdoorsy couples; families with children; and middle-aged suburban women and their male counterparts. See, I told you: Everybody knows who van Gogh is.

Timothy Standring, the DAM's Gates Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture, is the brains behind the show, which could be described as compelling, insightful and, most of all, successful. Standring says he first came up with the idea for Becoming van Gogh seven years ago, with the support of then-director Lewis Sharp. When Christoph Heinrich took the director's reins in 2010, the scope of the show was greatly expanded. At first, Standring says, he intended to do a year in the life of van Gogh, but ultimately decided — with Heinrich's prodding — to do a full-blown survey of the artist's entire ten-year career.

When we think of van Gogh, who was born in 1853, we're actually only thinking of the work of the last few years of his life — the late 1880s. So the revelation here is the other pieces that have been showcased. Especially compelling are the works from the artist's early years in Holland, with more of them on view in this exhibit than I've ever seen before anywhere — even on the Internet.

These are the dark and moody works that led up to and provide support for van Gogh's first early masterpiece, "The Potato Eaters," a powerful realist work that is antithetical to the signature style that we all know. "The Potato Eaters" is not in the DAM show, but there is a gorgeous study for one of the figures in the painting "Head of Gordina de Groot," from 1885. Her features have been rendered as crude and coarse, and the depiction of her face has an almost cartoonish quality. But what's really striking is the expressive brushwork, which recalls Manet's, and the subject matter links him to Millet and Courbet. There's an utterly charming 1885 lithograph related to the painting, too, also titled "The Potato Eaters." These show van Gogh embracing realism, like many of the most advanced artists of his time.

This is the first of a series of points that Standring wants to drive home in this unusual show, which unfolds in seven chapters. His aim is to shatter the idea that van Gogh was a mad genius who stood alone, disconnected from the art of his time. Standring argues instead that van Gogh, although he was dealing with mental problems, was quite sophisticated about the state of the art world during his era. And he has the paintings to back this up.

Van Gogh's fate was sealed when he moved to France in 1886, and the changes in his style were staggering; in particular, he embraced a bright palette featuring toned-up colors. Soon after he came to Paris, he became aware of the work of Cézanne and, more important, Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who became his friends. It was also at this time that he fell under the sway of neo-impressionism, in particular the work of Paul Signac. From Signac, van Gogh got the idea to use short dashes of paint to carry out various parts of the composition, and he took to the technique with enthusiasm, using it off and on for the rest of his short life.

In some of the paintings, like "Kitchen Gardens on Montmartre," from 1887, these small paint strokes are thinly and sparsely applied; in others, such as "Grass and Butterflies," they are laid one on top of another, resulting in surfaces that look like they are built up with cake icing or chewing gum.

Also in 1887, van Gogh was being swept up in the Japanism that was hitting Europe, and he absorbed the economy of line and the restricted sense of three-dimensionality seen in Japanese prints. You will stop dead in your tracks when you come upon "Courtesane: After Eisen," a gorgeous, jewel-toned geisha seen in full figure surrounded by a view of a Japanese pond.

Many artists of this time felt that getting into the countryside was important in discovering the essence of art, and in 1888, van Gogh followed his muse to Arles, where he remained until 1889. He also had another motive: improving his health, which had deteriorated. As is well known, he successfully enticed Paul Gauguin, an artist with whom van Gogh was obsessed, to join him in the south of France. It was here that van Gogh really started cooking, creating some of the greatest paintings of all time. There are many gorgeous landscapes from this period in the show, including "Pollard Willows at Sunset," from 1888.

The most famous paintings in the show — and among the most valuable — are the two portraits of the Roulin family from 1888. "Postman Joseph Roulin" and "Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle" are aboslutely stunning and worth the admission price to the show all by themselves.

In 1889 and 1890, van Gogh underwent psychiatric treatment overseen by Dr. Paul Gachet. The paintings in the DAM show from this time are stunning. Do not miss "Landscape From Saint-Rémy" and the breathtaking "The Poplars at Saint-Rémy," both from 1889, and "Undergrowth With Two Figures," from 1890. In July of that year, van Gogh died from a gunshot wound that was long thought to be self-inflicted, though recently it's been suggested that he was murdered.

And although the artist's career was relatively short, Standring walks us through it in detail, showing us his sources, even including works by his aesthetic mentors Millet, Signac and Hiroshige. And Standring illustrates with props and artifacts the way in which van Gogh taught himself to draw and paint through a home-study course and a brief stint of formal training. The exhibit must have been a monumental effort, with the seventy included objects coming from sixty different lenders. The correspondence alone must have been staggering.

Becoming van Gogh is a blockbuster that will only be presented in Denver, and for so many reasons, it deserves to sell out. The trouble is, it is selling out. That means that if you want to see it — especially with the holidays coming ­— you'd be wise to get your tickets as soon as possible.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia