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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Vincent van Gogh

at the Museum of Fine Arts through April 29

By Michael S. Gruen

The splashes and splotches, drippings and oily rag montages of contemporary art are commonly explained by their producers as deep self-expression of their innermost being--a goal they gain largely from the works of Vincent van Gogh. But self-expression has sadly declined since the 1880's and van Gogh.

The several score paintings and drawings now at the Museum of Fine Arts--a small fraction of van Gogh's total production--probably contain more of the artist than any other painter before or since has been able to impart. Vincent gave everything he had to his paintings. But more important, unlike most contemporary exponents of self-expression, he communicated what he expressed. He made his viewer sense the same vigor which he himself possessed.

For Vincent's paintings live. "I want to paint portraits," he wrote during the last months of his life, "which will give the impression to people a hundred years from now of the subject himself appearing before them, then and there. Obviously I don't attempt to do it through photographic resemblances, but rather through our own passionate expressions..." The richness, the pervasive light, the bold and vigorous color, the thick spontaneous strokes--all give an extraordinary vibrance to Vincents' paintings. His portrait subjects seem alive before us, yes--but so do his rocks, his bed, his dirty shoes.

The current exhibit consists almost exclusively of works from the V.W. van Gogh Collection at the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam; this country has seen few of them except in reproduction. Drawings constitute close to one half of the show. It was with drawings that Vincent started his career: they are tremendously powerful, he employs the same angular lines as in his paintings, and his later sketches achieve the same movement. But color is van Gogh's true medium.

He begins with the somber, subdued tones of the classic Dutch artists. But his study of Rubens' paintings in Antwerp and his overwhelming need to escape the disaster of his personal life in the joy of his art together served to brighten his palette. By the end of his life, when his thoughts were concentrated almost exclusively on eluding madness by pouring himself forth in paint with all the joy he could evoke, his color reaches its peak of vibrant warmth and his canvas achieves its greatest vitality--almost more living than life itself.

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