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Van Gogh's pen-and-ink Self-Portraits (1887), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Photo: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Vincent Van Gogh remains the iconic painter-madman, the troubled genius who stands apart from the mediocre crowd. He burns bright. He sees further. And so on. There’s some truth to the clichés, but his art is always more interesting than the romantic boilerplate. The beautiful exhibition “Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings,” which opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not just a show of turbulent feelings. Everyone’s got those. It’s one of method—exquisite, restrained, balanced.

The show contains more than 100 drawings and is jointly organized by the Met and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with emphasis upon art lent by the latter. Van Gogh regarded his Montmajour suite of six drawings—large, often expansive views from near a ruined abbey—as his greatest achievement as a draftsman, and all six are here. A few paintings are on view to highlight the rich dialogue between the brush and pen. Van Gogh was rarely comfortable with a single impression of anything—his world flickered—and surface reality held little charm for him. As he put it early in his career, he wanted to draw not “a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head, but the general expression. For instance, when a digger looks up and sniffs the wind or speaks. In short, life.”

Van Gogh worked as an artist for little more than a decade, and drawing always remained, for him, “the root of everything.” The organizers of the show rightly argue that his “graphic fervor,” as one writer described it, created the foundation for his painting. Largely self-taught, Van Gogh began his training with drawing, and throughout his life, paper remained close at hand. He wrote constantly to his brother, Theo, and he drew no less obsessively. In fact, his letters and drawings flow together in a kind of continuum, restlessly and constantly capturing his impressions. Early on, as he struggled with the medium, he privately studied the masters and taught himself many marks, hatchings, and techniques. Some of his moody early drawings look almost like prints.

The transformation of Van Gogh’s art after he moved to Provence—leaving behind the thin northern light—is one of the most celebrated stories in modern art. These drawings show the change in all its splendor. But Van Gogh never really abandoned what he learned before. Instead, he seemed to fling open his toolbox of techniques, scattering the contents across the sunny landscape. The marks developed a life of their own, as if they had become seeds. Depending upon the picture or circumstance, his “dot” could be lighter or darker, bigger or smaller, more or less tightly arranged. He developed many different marks in addition to the dots—curlicues, hatchings, circles, wavy strokes, and many others—that he would patch together into rapturous visual rhythms. Van Gogh developed a kind of private classicism, whose rules the eye always feels. His images—never sloppy—rest gracefully within their rectangles.

With nothing but ink and paper, Van Gogh could create astonishing sensations of color, texture, space, and light, echoing what he did in his oils. In one painting of a seascape, he dropped gobs of white paint onto the surface, nicely evoking the foam of a whitecap. In the related drawings, however, he attained a similar effect—of both color and texture—by juxtaposing the patches of different marks. Van Gogh made his most original work during a period of little more than two years. As his mental illness intensified and the spaces in his art grew more claustrophobic and the sun more radiant, he seemed possessed by what one writer called “the sizzle of his own gaze.” Even at the end, however, he retained his characteristic clarity. In only one picture in the show (called Wild Vegetation) do the marks look disheveled, as if they really might spill outside the rectangle. Van Gogh, I think, appears sane. We seem disorderly.

Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Through December 31.

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