Archive | October, 2011

Van Gogh Reinterpreted

19 Oct

You might have read about the new biography of Vincent van Gogh that claims the artist did not commit suicide but instead was accidentally killed by two young boys.  Unfortunately the book is not yet available on Kindle, so I either have to order it from the U.K. (expensive) or wait until I’m in the U.S. for Christmas.  I am, however, very curious about this new idea.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was quick to refute the theory, saying that it still isn’t conclusive.  Although I don’t want to say anything definite until I read the book, I must say that the claim of the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, actually makes sense.  In the great tradition of true crime there are several pieces of evidence that are open for interpretation from both sides, but the questions the book raises are valid.  Why wasn’t the gun ever found?  Why the odd angle of the shot?  And why wasn’t there a suicide note?

There are also those who jumped to say that it wouldn’t matter either way.  While a murdered van Gogh would have no bearing on his paintings being some of the greatest of all time, it would make all the difference in the legend of the artist.  After all, what is van Gogh if not the classic tale of the troubled artist?  Try to imagine Romeo & Juliet ending with the star-crossed lovers being murdered by others instead of committing suicide.  It changes things entirely.

A suicide is a special kind of tragedy.  Every creature on earth has been programmed through millennia of evolution to do whatever it takes to stay alive.  When a person, especially one as talented as van Gogh, defies that we are all shocked and dismayed.  We all know that the artist was a troubled soul.  The idea that not even his incredible paintings were enough to save him has held the public’s imagination since his death.

I can’t help but feel like this is part of the reason so many have been quick to dismiss this new theory.  Van Gogh’s life is a cautionary tale so ingrained into Western culture and to change it would throw into doubt one of the great archetypes of the modern age.  Even if this new claim is 100% true, the legend of Vincent van Gogh will remain intact.  He was a troubled soul who created some of the most beautiful images of all time, and no amount of research will change that.

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Die Lange Nacht der Münchner Museen

18 Oct

What do an Art Nouveau swimming hall, BMW’s, medieval skeletons, and greenhouses full of desert plants have in common?  No, they’re not the latest purchases of some eccentric billionaire.  These are all things that you could see at this year’s Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of Museums) in Munich.  Far from being merely a night of art, Die Lange Nacht is a chance to see a bit of everything in Munich’s museums, galleries, and historic sites.  According to the organizers an estimated 20,000 visitors took part in the evening in one way or another and visited the 90-plus locations.

To be honest, I’ve avoided Die Lange Nacht for the past few years.  Like many others I’ve dismissed it as overcrowded and overrated, but in the spirit of research I went this year to see again what it’s all about.  The “research” lasted until I made it inside the first museum.  It didn’t take long for my demeanor to switch from impartial observer to kid in a candy store.  I realized the key difference between a normal visit to a museum and a visit on some such evening:  it’s a party for the curious rather than a chance for serious study.

In a period of three hours I went into six different locations.  Obviously I didn’t spend much time in any of them, but for the most part these were all places I had been to be before.  It was more about taking a quick look at some of my favorites and then moving along.  There was always more to be seen.  It wasn’t until the end of the night that I slowed down enough to really look at one of the exhibitions, and by then I was so exhausted that I couldn’t be bothered to read through most of the labels.

The truly great part of such an event is the special events and programming that many of the locations have for the evening.  The absolute highlight for me was being able to look through the new Egyptian Museum here in Munich, which won’t even open for almost two more years.  Another location was showing a series of short films done by students.  Even the Alte Pinakothek had interpreters walking around in full eighteenth century costume.  Many locations had special offers on food and drinks, as well.

I’ve written before about how easy it is to overlook the cultural institutions in your own city.  For those who live in Munich, Die Lange Nacht gives you a great chance to remember why you should go to places like the Antikensammlung and also see some of the hidden treasures the city has to offer.  After years away, I’m hooked all over again, and I can’t wait until next year.

Albrecht Dürer

11 Oct

Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513

I try not to make a habit of agreeing with Germans.  I like them, I live with them, I love their beer, but we still have some fundamental differences.  There is one topic, however, on which I’ve developed a wholly German attitude: Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer has the misfortune of constantly being upstaged in public memory by the flashier artists of the Italian Renaissance.  His artistic talent, intellect, and lasting impression on art can easily compare to anything produced south of the Alps, but classifying Dürer simply as a “Northern Renaissance” artist does no justice to his complex legacy.

Albrecht Dürer spent most of his life in the city of Nuremberg.  At the time the city was one of the largest in Europe and a major center for trade and, important for Dürer, printing.  As much as the city came to be reflected in his work, Dürer was equally influenced by artists and scholars both in Italy and the Netherlands.  During his life he made two trips to the former and one to the latter.  All of this combined to create the unique style Dürer was associated with his entire life.

Contrary to other great Renaissance artists, Dürer was and is perhaps best known for his engravings and drawings.  His engravings such as The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) and Knight, Death, and the Devil completely revolutionized the genre.  Never before had an artist shown such attention to detail and realism in prints.  Indeed, Dürer made most of his livelihood during his lifetime through the sale of his prints and they continue to be among the most recognized engravings in the world.

The Four Apostles, 1526

Not to say that Dürer wasn’t a painter of importance, as well.  The Four Apostles has always been one of my personal favorite paintings.  The realism of the figures is a breath of fresh air in comparison to all the overwrought religious paintings done before.  Every time I see it I’m amazed at how much personality is suggested by the painting.  I can imagine how these men talked and conducted themselves.  At a time when religious painting was meant to glorify more than question Dürer’swork, done without a commission and given to the city leaders of Nuremberg, is absolutely fascinating.

Every artist is unique, but Albrecht Dürer stands out for his ability to defy convention and capture our imagination.  His two most reproduced works, the Praying Hands and Rhinoceros, are by no means the best examples of his artistic talent, but both act as illustrations of two of human nature’s most enduring traits – faith and curiosity.  His Melancolia I, with its magic square and mysterious subject matter, has been beguiling viewers and art historians for centuries.  Despite leaving numerous diaries and records, it is what we don’t know about Albrecht Dürer that makes him so interesting today.

If you’re ever in Munich go to the Alte Pinakothek (which you should do anyway) and really take a look at his self-portrait.  It’s obvious that it represents a larger than life individual.  Much like Dürer it is vastly different from anything else of the time.  He has been both admired and criticized for painting himself as one traditionally depicts Christ.  Some argue that it was hubris, others that it was only an artistic exercise.  Whenever I’m there I’m more than aware of the artistic talent and at the same time wonder if he really could have been so arrogant as to compare himself to Jesus.  Above all I have a feeling that if I stay there studying the painting long enough I’ll somehow figure out the answers.  I know I never will, though, which is why I and many others will continue to study Albrecht Dürer and revere him as one of the world’s great artists.