DETROIT, Michigan — Vincent van Gogh wasn’t always a cultural rock star whose paintings sell for millions and whose images draw huge crowds to immersive digital sound and light shows circulating around the globe.
Skeptical critics derided van Gogh’s work in 1913, when 21 examples were included in the famous Armory Show in New York, the pivotal event that introduced the European avant-garde to American audiences. More to the point, museums and collectors kept their wallets shut.
But a mere 9 years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts became the first American art museum to acquire a van Gogh when it bought an 1887 self-portrait of the artist in a straw hat, gazing sideways at the viewer with piercing blue eyes and a worried expression that hints at inner turmoil.
Detroit’s century-old collecting coup is the focus of a big, impressive exhibition exploring how American audiences belatedly warmed up to the red-haired genius of early modern art.
Organized by Curator Jill Shaw, head of the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the show, on view through January 22, recounts a decade-by-decade history of exhibitions, collecting, and media responses to van Gogh in the US in the first half of the 20th century.
By the 1920s, van Gogh’s paintings were so popular in Europe that forgers were hard at work producing fakes. America, however, was playing catch-up as initial incomprehension and ridicule soon led to enthusiastic acceptance if not adoration.
“Lust for Life”
The narrative of the Detroit exhibition extends from the Armory Show to Irving Stone’s 1934 novel, “Lust for Life,” and the 1956 Hollywood film based on the book, starring Kirk Douglas as a histrionic, paint-smeared genius driven to self-destruction by mental illness.
Thanks in part to the film, it can be hard to peel away encrusted clichés about the artist. Born in 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands, he came to art after failing at becoming an art dealer, a teacher, and a Protestant minister.
He spent most of his 10 astonishingly productive years as an artist, from 1880 to 1890, living in poverty and financially dependent on his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh.
Tormented by a mental illness that has never been precisely diagnosed, van Gogh died in 1890 at age 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, from a self-inflicted gunshot to his abdomen.
Seeing the artist afresh
With 74 works by van Gogh, including some of the most famous and beloved paintings in the world, the Detroit exhibition offers a chance for full immersion in authenticity.
Seeing so many van Goghs in the flesh conveys in a way that projections can’t a sense of van Gogh’s urgent need to communicate perceptions of the world that were so sharp and intense that they seem almost painful.
Reproductions can’t match that experience, and that alone is a good reason for a trip to Detroit. The exhibition is one of the largest van Gogh shows in the US in recent memory, and it won’t travel to other venues.
The show unfolds through nine galleries organized to chart in a chronological sequence how the artist’s works filtered through the art market to enter the permanent collections of American museums.
Among them is the Art Institute of Chicago’s “The Bedroom,” painted in 1889. The museum acquired it in 1926 as part of a gift of 24 artworks that included four supposed van Goghs, one of which was a fake.
“The Bedroom” painting depicts van Gogh’s room in the squalid Yellow House in Arles in southern France, where he tried and failed to form an artistic partnership with Paul Gauguin, and then cut his ear — or a portion of it — in despair.
Also on view: “L’Arlésienne,” 1888-89, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the powerful portrait of a provincial matron silhouetted against a background of blazing yellow; and “The Olive Trees,” 1889, from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in which clouds, sky, earth, and trees ripple and sway as if shaken by an earthquake.
A different “Starry Night”
MOMA’s “Starry Night,” which that museum purchased in 1941, isn’t in the show, but a related work, known as “Starry Night over the Rhone,” 1888, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, dominates the show’s final room.
Shaw said she specifically included the Musée d’Orsay painting to contrast its luminous nocturnal colors and watery reflections with its depiction in “Lust for Life.””
Clips from the film, shown on a screen in the same gallery, include a scene of Douglas-as-van Gogh painting alongside the Rhone River at night while wearing a straw hat festooned with candles. The image suggests that the artist was in the grip of mania when he worked, an idea Shaw disputes.
“It’s pretty crazy to think an artist would work with candles on a straw hat,” she said. “The painting was not done when he [van Gogh] was in a state of mental crisis.”
Shaw said the show, originally scheduled for 2020, was postponed two years by the coronavirus pandemic. The delay required her to renegotiate loan agreements with some of the world’s greatest art museums. It also enabled her to rethink the show’s checklist and catalog and to make important additions, including the extraordinarily beautiful “Starry Night” from the Musée d’Orsay.
The loans in effect endorsed the Detroit museum’s mission of tracing how van Gogh, who is believed to have sold only a handful of artworks during his lifetime, became such an iconic figure.
When he died, van Gogh left most of his work to his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh, who died less than 6 months later, leaving everything to his then-28-year-old widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, and their infant son, Vincent Willem van Gogh.
As the exhibition and its lavishly illustrated catalog attest, the tirelessly promoted family van Gogh’s works in Europe and America, experiencing more success at first on the continent than in the US
The van Gogh family loaned 85 works to exhibitions in the US between 1913 and 1920, of which only three were sold from a 1920 retrospective to a single American private collector.
Heartland museums take the lead
That record underscores the unusual nature of the Detroit museum’s purchase in 1922. The exhibition makes the point that when it came to American museums collecting van Gogh, the Midwest led the way, rather than big city museums on the East Coast.
Following the Detroit purchase, the Art Institute of Chicago acquired its three authentic van Goghs by gift in 1926, plus a phony and later discredited still life made by an anonymous forger.
The next four van Gogh acquisitions by American museums were made by heartland institutions including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (1932); the Saint Louis Art Museum (1935); and the Toledo Museum of Art (two works in 1935).
By wading into the van Gogh market, the museums were competing with East Coast private collectors who had already been in the chase, and who also contributed to van Gogh’s acceptance in America.
Among them was Katherine Dreier, an eventual benefactress of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, who in 1912 acquired van Gogh’s “Adeline Ravoux,” 1890, a portrait of the innkeeper’s daughter at the Ravoux Inn, where van Gogh lived in Auvers-sur-Oise in the weeks before his death.
In 1939, the painting entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which loaned it, and a van Gogh drawing, “Landscape with Wheelbarrow,” 1883, to the Detroit show.
For viewers familiar with van Gogh, the exhibition’s organization may pose a challenge because it mixes and matches works from various periods of his artistic career as it narrates the story of who bought what and when.
This clash with the actual chronology of van Gogh’s work itself, which evolved with a powerful sense of direction over 10 years from the gloomy palettes inspired by the Hague School, a group of contemporary Dutch painters, to the artist’s embrace of light and color after he Encountered the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in Paris in 1886.
The exhibition’s first room, for example, focuses on 11 of the 21 van Gogh paintings that appeared in the Armory Show in New York and in a later version that traveled to venues including the Art Institute of Chicago.
The gallery displays Cleveland’s “Adeline Ravoux,” which glows like stained glass, on a wall opposite “Beer Tankards,” 1885, painted in dark, moody, brownish tones typical of the earlier phase in his career.
Halfway through the show, however, things settle down as the art market’s eventual enthusiasm for the late, colorful phase of van Gogh’s art, falls into sync with the chronology of his artistic development.
The show’s final rooms present amazing clusters of mature van Goghs from the years 1886-1890, which climax in riveting portraits and blazing views of wheat and poppy fields.
Demonstration of strength
An underlying message in the show, based on the impressive loans it negotiated, is that the Detroit Institute of Arts is once again able to organize exhibitions at the highest levels of quality and difficulty just over a decade after it came close to disaster.
In 2013, Kevin Orr, an emergency manager appointed by Michigan’s then-governor, Rick Snyder, proposed the shocking idea of selling artworks from the DIA’s city-owned collection to help settle Detroit’s bankruptcy.
A year later — after widespread criticism over the idea of selling art to settle the city’s bills — a federal bankruptcy judge endorsed a ”grand bargain” in which foundations, private donors, and the State of Michigan raised $800 million to transfer the museum and its collection to an independent charitable trust.
Thanks to that move, and revenues provided by a 10-year real estate levy in three southeastern Michigan counties, Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb, the DIA is in its strongest fiscal shape in decades.
The van Gogh exhibition is a demonstration of institutional vigor, and of a museum eager, and ready, to build on its strengths. That’s good news for Detroit, and for the entire region around it.
What’s up: “Van Gogh in America”
Venue: Detroit Institute of Arts.
Where: 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit.
When: Through Sunday, January 22.
Admission: Museum admission: $14 for adults; Van Gogh exhibit is $24 Tuesday – Thursday; $29 Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-7900 or go to dia.org.
Note: An earlier version of this story missed the year in which the film “Lust for Life” came out.