It’s hard to study one of van Gogh’s motifs without misrepresenting him. He wasn’t really obsessed with cypresses or irises or sunflowers; he was obsessed with the world and burned through it, one object at a time. He kept painting and drawing. The world kept fluttering away. In one of his letters, written during his first weeks at the Saint-Rémy asylum, he sounds almost like a quantum physicist—“Yesterday I drew a very large moth. . . . To paint it would have meant killing it, which was a pity with such a beautiful creature.” Call it the uncertainty principle of art: there are things whose beauty and vitality the painter can never convey. Nature refuses to hold still, and style keeps getting in the way.
This brings us back to that crucial phrase: If you exaggerate the essential, is it still essential? Part of van Gogh’s appeal is that his virtues don’t quite go together—the artist with a dazzling, self-justifying style thought of himself as a dutiful observer of reality. That’s why his art never seems indulgent; he respects the everyday too much to condescend to it. The catch is that you can’t always trust what he says about his work. Consider his two riffs on the same scene: “Wheat Field with Cypresses,” from June, 1889, and “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses,” from September of that year. The earlier painting is choppier, weirder, rougher, completed in the chaos of the open air. Van Gogh preferred the flatter, defanged version that he finished in his studio; he called it the “tableau définitif.” Any fool can see that he was wrong, but he probably needed to be; he needed to care about the definitive deeply enough to keep aiming for it, and to keep falling short in spectacular ways.
You can sense, in some of these cypresses, his effort to get it all down, where “it” means not just the trees but the wind, the fields, the world, and, maybe most of all, the effort. I have no way of confirming whether he captured the essential—I’ve never seen a Provence cypress, and, if I ever do, I’ll be too reminded of van Gogh’s paintings to judge. What I do know is that he succeeded, in the most literal way, at capturing nature: the Met’s team recently discovered bits of limestone and “vegetal matter” in the foreground of “Cypresses.” A simple accident? Sabotage? Poetic justice? Art lovers, start your engines. A century and a half on, we’re getting nowhere with van Gogh, and it’s a glorious place to be.
What makes a blockbuster art exhibition: size or quality? Back in 1990, when the Van Gogh Museum lured nearly 140 Vincent van Gogh paintings and drawings to Amsterdam, it seemed that the appeal of a big, expensive survey hinged on the length of its decorated checklist. No surprise, then, that 1.2 million people saw that retrospective, with some even camping out in the summer heat to make it into the show.
More than 30 years on, here comes the Met’s “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” which suggests something very different about blockbusters today. Even though it includes just 44 works, the show, which opens to the public on Monday, is likely to attract big crowds all the same. Perhaps quantity is no longer as important as it once was.