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Arts / Museums

Vincent van Gogh’s Houston Blockbuster — Everything You Need to Know

MFAH's Art Coup is an Incredible Draw That's Already Showing its Mega Star Power

BY // 03.11.19

Just in time for Spring Break (and even breaking with tradition to be open on a Monday — Monday, March 11, 10 am to 5 pm), a Vincent van Gogh show unveils at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. See what we think of the ballyhooed painter — does he live up to his reputation — or exceed it?  

In PaperCity‘s March print issue, we featured a full-page preview of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition of the season — Van Gogh. The story was gleaned from press materials, sans even catalogue, and without seeing any of the Dutch painter’s canvases destined for this show in person. (However, we did interview its curator.)

So it was with a feeling of nervous anticipation that members of the press corps assembled at the MFAH Beck Building this past Friday morning, joined by other Van Gosh enthusiasts like restaurateur Carl Eaves, who plans a menu inspired by this exhibition for this Heights restaurant, Liberty Kitchen.

We’ve never seen such a turnout for a media preview: print, broadcast, digital outlets, bloggers, and the curious were all well represented as MFAH director Gary Tinterow gave opening remarks.

Tinterow praised the iconic painter who continues to reverberate 129 years after his death — for his “authenticity and sincerity.”

Usually exhibition briefings are an informal process —  a handful of reporters are present, mill around, then there’s a narrated stroll of the show on view. This time, the crowd was seated, while a sizable overflow stood, almost blocking the expansive lobby of the Beck Building.

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Giant Van Gogh images flashed by on a screen, dignitaries and underwriters were introduced, and 30 minutes of background was given.

We were like Derby horses before the gate: then the doors of the first-floor galleries opened forth and the throng plunged into Van Gogh, the exhibition.

Basking in one of the early works that begins this show arranged chronologically to reveal Van Gogh, the artist, and his life. Shown: “Head of a Woman Wearing a White Cap,” 1884–1885.
Basking in one of the early works that begins this show. The exhibition is arranged chronologically to reveal Van Gogh, the artist, and his life. Shown: “Head of a Woman Wearing a White Cap,” 1884–1885.

Insider Insights into Vincent

An exhibition for Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) usually evokes the word blockbuster, but the MFAH has gone for a more compelling approach. Yes, there’s dramatic branding and exhibition design — something this writer is not always a fan of.

But in the case of “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art,” the graphics are fascinating — blown up pages from the painter’s daily diaries, including sketches of works in studio — so they show the humanity of the artist, bringing his life and art home in a way that advances the show.

Van Gogh gazing at the MFAH: the exhibition is a coup for this Texas museum.
Van Gogh gazing at the MFAH: the exhibition is a coup for this Texas museum.

But there’s also nuance and intimacy to this exhibition, that will offer the public fresh insights into the Dutch painter whose expressionist works and tumultuous biography have captivated both amateurs and critics the way no other artist has.

Which artists can everyone in the world name? — at the top of the list would be Van Gogh, followed probably by Picasso and Warhol.

Don’t expect the usual sunflowers and rippling fields of wheat — but we do get irises and olive groves, as well as the brooding drawings for The Potato Eaters.

What’s a Van Gogh show without this canvas from the last year of his life: “Irises,” 1890. (Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Vincent Van Gogh Foundation)
What’s a Van Gogh show without this canvas from the last year of his life: “Irises,” 1890. (Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Vincent Van Gogh Foundation)

More than 50 canvases and drawings convey Van Gogh’s development as a painter, one whose concise 10-year career unfolded amidst serious battles with mental illness.

Traveling to Houston are works largely loaned from the mother lode of the artist’s holdings: landscapes, still lifes, and portraits from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Several other European museums send their Van Goghs to this show, as do the Art Institute of Chicago; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; the Dallas Museum of Art; and the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, as well as select private collections.

What the Curator Revealed 

Exhibition curator David Bomford — MFAH’s department of conservation chair and Audrey Jones Beck curator, department of European art, who is retiring after Van Gogh to return to England (what a swan song) — singles out what makes “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art” extraordinary.

Bomford told PaperCity during our visit to his splendid conservation lab, surprisingly housed on the rooftop of the MFAH parking garage:

“We decided to do a survey of his decade as an artist, from beginning to end. It sounds very obvious, but very few Van Gogh exhibitions do that these days…”

Bomford said, “Van Gogh exhibitions tend to be about particular themes: the sunflowers, still lifes, or his time in a particular place.”

The curator continued, “We’re doing a general one, which means we can concentrate on his life and his art.”

Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Man,” 1888. (Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands. © Kröller-Müller Museum)
Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Man,” 1888. (Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands. © Kröller-Müller Museum)

Bomford underscored during his conversation with PaperCity:

“There has been nothing like this [Van Gogh exhibition] in this part of the world in a very long time. This is the first one in living memory.”

Bomford revealed, that incredibly, Houston will be the exhibition’s sole venue.

The show spans works from the painter’s fledgling years living in the modest Dutch village of Nuenen, through cafe life in Paris and interactions with talents such as Toulouse-Lautrec as well as the influence of Japanese woodblock masters being discovered in Europe.

The succeeding chapters are Van Gogh’s sojourn in sun-soaked southern France, his time in the asylum, and his final canvases.

Bomford’s deep connection with the artist began some 30 years ago when he was at the National Gallery in London and conserved the museum’s seminal Van Gogh canvas Sunflowers.

“There was commitment and passion,” he says of the artist’s continued influence over the public, more than a century after his suicide.

On why the artist continues to resonate across time, Bomford said,

“If Van Gogh painted the sun, he wanted you to feel hot. The Impressionists didn’t do that. If he painted a potato, he wanted you to feel the earth on the surface of it.”

“Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art,” through June 27, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. For tickets, more info, the films series and full rundown of the programming spun around Vincent, click here

Scroll through the photo slideshow above this story for our top Van Gogh moments at the MFAH, including a selfie paradise and some pretty cool shopping — curated by the MFAH’s GM of retail, Chris Goins Pazda, spun around all things Vincent.

Home, chic home.

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