State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Van Gogh, Prophet of Bloom

I really like Vincent Van Gogh. What I admire most about him and his paintings are the simple clarity of his approach. He seemed to be seeking spiritual sustenance from nature and it really shows. He was initially an ambitious minister who wanted to heal the world before he found the paint brush a tool for salvation.

This summer the National Gallery in Ottawa has been exhibiting Van Gogh: Up Close, a survey of his time in France and the flora he painted. It also includes, quite smartly, a sample of the kinds of Japanese print works that deeply influenced him. To me it is a smallish show but full of a bunch of paintings I had never seen before. And since I am already a fan, I think the exhibition is glorious.

Unfortunately the actual experience of viewing the work was tantamount to being squeezed into a subway car at rush hour in Tokyo. I was pushed through the exhibit by a humongous crowd only to be jettisoned out into a gift shop that practically included small appliances covered and festooned with irises and sunflowers. This is art going at its most unabashedly commercial. View the masterworks; take a home a light switch cover or an umbrella, or a handbag, or a dish set or a dress or a bicycle. Because lets face it, nothing says ‘I love art’ like swag.

I’m not an ingrate. I understand that the gallery needs to make money and much of this merchandise goes to their bottom line which allows such exhibitions to take place. I do think however that it shows a total lack of imagination when attendance to an art exhibition has the exact same strategy as a Future Shop on a 50% off sale day. Even with the expectation of an appointed time it was waaaaay too crowded. I was constantly surrounded by headphone zombies who stepped over me with some blow hard blabbing directly into their brains. So, for the exhibit to force me into a crowd crush I hadn’t experienced since last seeing Nick Cave at the Kool Haus and then maneuver me toward shopping was really too much.

This Exit through the Gift Shop mentality has become not only old, but actually rather insulting. I wasn’t there for Van Gogh-phenalia, I was there to see some paintings. Can’t we all figure out where the main gift shop is for the gallery? Must we leave great works of art only to be assaulted by badly made crap from China? Why not just have prints? Why not funnel us into a local artist’s exhibit? Why not have local artisans make the merchandise? I just wrote three ideas that would be much more preferable. What is this all about anyway? Do people really need to have key chains with a terrible reproduction of a painting on them?

But I do tend to enjoy a more alternative experience of the world. For instance, I do not understand why the band Queen has become such a phenomenon; their music is shite and they’re sense of camp so old school it makes Liberace hip. I’m not meaning to digress but illustrate I was not schooled in the mainstream. My education was far off the beaten track and because of that the blockbuster art exhibit can leave me cold.

When I was a child I was told the rules by my mother at the entrance to an art gallery. “You are here to appreciate the work done by people who devoted their life to something they were vilified for. Their lives were spent in darkness with little support and little help. They dared to dream and be different. So be reverent, they deserve it.” My mother also devoted her life to something, raising us and destroying every shred in her that being to-the-manor-born gave her. Wealthy and accomplished she went straight to Marx the minute she left her gigantic home. This was a woman who appreciated the struggle.

Undergrowth with two figures, 1890. Painted by Van Gogh in the last year of his life. Mystical, frank, and ominous, his painting makes landscape a thing of the mind.

And so, while being nudged to and fro at the National Gallery trying to get some kind of magical sense from my hero Van Gogh while fifty other people’s breath invaded my nostrils, I thought about how ironic it is that the alternative sometimes becomes the mainstream. Here is Van Gogh, the most sought after art ticket in the country; and this is just our country. Millions of people line up yearly to see him everywhere. Arles, France is now a tourist attraction with his signage and pathways marked everywhere. And he hardly sold a thing or received any major recognition when he was actually painting. Boy is he having the last from-the-grave laugh. Or I hope he is. Deeply religious, my guess is that he has gotten on with something far more important than his ego at this point in eternity. At the risk of sounding flaky, Van Gogh is one of the reasons I don’t really fear dying because, if he is there somewhere then death has to be awesome on some level.

Perhaps this is the way it should be. Create independently and without the expectation of an audience. Of course that is easier said than done. But this is what my blogs are usually about; tension between making art, having integrity regarding it and also finding success. Define success in your own terms. Mine is being able to eat and get exhibitions, not necessarily thousands of plastic items made from my imagery.

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