The exhibitionThrough Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources opened last weekend at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio (until 6 February 2022). Unlike the constant stream of commercial “immersive experiences”, this is a proper exhibition with 17 works by Van Gogh and 120 by other artists. Considering the logistical challenges of Covid-19, this represents a considerable achievement. Securing Van Gogh loans is never easy.
The idea behind the show is to look at paintings by other artists whom Vincent admired. For instance, in 1888 Vincent recalled in a letter to his brother Theo seeing in a Paris auction “a quite extraordinary Manet, some large pink peonies and their green leaves on a light background… painted in solid, thick impasto”. Although the Manet that Van Gogh actually saw is now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, a similar picture is coming to Columbus on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And to demonstrate how Van Gogh tackled flower still lifes, his Roses (May 1890), from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, will be hung nearby. Not surprisingly, they are quite different—but both artists set out to capture the essence of their flowers.
Another key Van Gogh loan is Tarascon Stagecoach (October 1888), from Princeton University Art Museum (Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation). Painted in powerful colours, it depicts a carriage that the artist saw outside an inn, just before it left for Tarascon, 15km to the north of Arles (“Tarascon” is inscribed on the coach’s red band). While planning the picture Vincent was thinking of one of his favourite novels by Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin de Tarascon (1872), a tale about a stagecoach which is taken to Algeria. As Vincent explained to Theo: “Do you remember in Tartarin the lament of the old Tarascon diligence—that wonderful page? Well, I’ve just painted that red and green carriage in the yard of the inn.”
Other important Van Gogh paintings at Columbus include The Wheatfield (June 1888, Honolulu Museum of Art), Houses at Auvers (May 1890, Toledo Museum of Art), Les Vessenots in Auvers (May 1890, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and Undergrowth with Two Figures (June 1890, Cincinnati Art Museum). Among other artists represented are Rembrandt, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Delacroix, Millet, Daubigny, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Monet and Signac.
After closing in Columbus, Through Vincent’s Eyes will then run at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (27 February-22 May 2022). But although the title and concept are the same, is it really the same show? Neither museum is saying much about what has happened, but looking behind the scenes it seems clear that the two venues made an amicable decision to go their separate ways—which is unusual with a joint exhibition.
There is no joint catalogue. Columbus is not publishing its own, but is instead selling the Santa Barbara one. However the Santa Barbara catalogue, edited by its deputy director Eik Kahng, does not include any text by the Columbus curator, David Stark, and makes very little reference to the Ohio presentation.
The Santa Barbara catalogue has no mention of the 67 works that are being lent to Columbus by the collector Steven Naifeh, the author of the 2011 biography Van Gogh: the Life. He has just published Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved—essentially a rival publication to the catalogue. Naifeh is a co-curator of the Columbus show, but although initially playing the same role at Santa Barbara, he dropped out early last year. And none of the paintings from the collection of Naifeh and his late partner, Gregory White Smith, are going to Santa Barbara. Complicated? Yes, undoubtedly.
The two venues are expected to have just over 60 works in common, but these will be shown alongside another 60 which will be different in each venue. Of the Van Gogh works, 13 will appear in both venues, with four additional ones in Columbia and probably seven in Santa Barbara.
As a Columbus museum spokesperson delicately puts it, the two venues each have “a distinct curatorial perspective”. She adds, probably correctly, that audiences “would enjoy seeing the exhibition both in Columbus and in Santa Barbara”.
As if this is not complicated enough, do not confuse Columbus and Columbia, which lie 700km apart. In 2019-20 the Columbia Museum of Art (South Carolina) held an exhibition on Van Gogh and His Inspirations, which Naifeh also assisted.
And finally, for those in Columbus, do not confuse Through Vincent’s Eyes with one of the “immersive experiences” that have jumped on the museum’s bandwagon and appeared in town last month (it runs until early February, just like the museum show). Although titled Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Columbus, it is not an exhibition. Instead seize the opportunity to see the real thing—at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Other Van Gogh news
• London’s Courtauld Gallery reopens today (19 November) after a three-year refurbishment. Samuel Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings have now been rehung in the Great Room, which hosted the summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first major temporary exhibition will be Van Gogh’s Self-portraits (3 February 2022-8 May 2022), curated by Karen Serres.