Unreal Nature

December 9, 2014

Expecting Too Much

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… he should have been checked by this refusal of his art to respond to his exorbitant demands upon it as a means of utterly direct expression.

This is from ‘Review of the Exhibition of Van Gogh and the Remarque Collection’ (1943) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… The Van Gogh Problem, of which we are reminded from time to time by single pictures, asks again for solution. Exactly how great a painter was he? The problem is made no easier by this exhibition, in which the complete masterpieces are too few and far between.

It is more difficult to judge painters fairly than writers and composers. The difficulty is physical. Color and texture cannot be reproduced in their full values for purposes of circulation. Because a sufficient number of the originals of a painter’s masterpieces are seldom present in any one place at any one time, we fall into the habit of demanding the absolute measure of his talent from every picture, good or bad, as long as it’s an original. We do not ask as much of the lesser works of writers and composers simply because their best is just as accessible. I think it hardly fair to pronounce on Van Gogh without having seen all his masterpieces, but that is part of the inevitable presumption of writing about art.

A roomful of Van Goghs has impact. yet all but some seven or eight of the paintings here lead to the question whether the impact has as much to do with art as with that emotion or quality or strikingness which Kant distinguishes as analogous to the beautiful, but only analogous, in that its presence makes us linger on the object embodying it because it keeps arresting our attention. It is the quality to which primitive art, at its best or worst, owes its inevitable effect upon the cultivated observer, and which is part of the emphatic physical presence of the work of art that exposes to full view its inner workings, its means of effectuation. With Van Gogh there also enters the power of an original temperament frustrated by its rupture with that world of logic, competition, and compromise in which it found itself.

I do not hold with Dr. Alfred M. Frankfurter that in the means of expression Van Gogh chose for himself he was never “other than an amateur with a divine genius.” There is too much good painting in his bad pictures to say that. Van Gogh’s distortion of vision, induced no doubt by his psychopathic state (compare Rousseau Douanier and Eilshemius), arrived at results of the same order as those of Cézanne’s inability to draw with academic correctness. The “rarity with which Van Gogh touched complete mastery” — to quote Dr. Frankfurter again — was due to a faulty command not so much of his medium as of his temperament. Van Gogh became too obsessed by the pattern glimpsed in nature. The frenzied insistence with which he tried to reproduce this pattern in his separate brush strokes and give it the same emphasis over every tiny bit of canvas resulted in pieces of violent decoration the surfaces of which had been ornamented instead of painted into a picture. Similarly, Cézanne’s preoccupation with the justness of color values down to the last millimeter in the delineation of space and volume made him lose sight at times of the whole in view. In his case, though, segments at least of otherwise unsuccessful pictures survive as superb texts in the painter’s art. It was Van Gogh’s misfortune and distinction that, unlike Cézanne, he could not rejoice in the limitations of his medium.

… mistakes of temperament, not of craft, account for most of the disappointments. It can be argued perhaps that the failure of Van Gogh’s art or craft lay precisely in its failure to react upon and discipline his temperament; he should have been checked by this refusal of his art to respond to his exorbitant demands upon it as a means of utterly direct expression. But that would be expecting too much. Van Gogh’s shortcomings as an artist are a translation into language of those that belonged to him as a human being.




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