Where Have You Gone, Dr. Gachet? The Art World Turns its Lonely Eyes to You...
It was a cold Christmas eve, December 24, 1998, the last public showing of the Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Washington, DC. The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam loaned most of its exclusive collection to museums in Los Angeles and in Washington, DC while their facilities were being refurnished. I stood in the freezing rain and snow for six hours to get a ticket. While it may sound like my effort was valiant and (even to some) heroic, I had no one to blame but myself. I was living in DC at the time, and had plenty of time during the day to attend the exhibit, but laziness and the proverbial "I'll-do-it-tomorrow" got the best of me. And so it was that on Christmas eve, cold and overcast day in Washington DC, I stood in line (at the time populated by tickets scalpers and other procrastinators) and waited and waited and almost froze. I got to the door just in time to receive one ticket for the last show of the day. The last "open to the public" showing of this amazing collection--perhaps the single most significant van Gogh art collection put together in one place outside of Amsterdam. A once in a lifetime opportunity that almost slipped through my fingers because of my carelessness and laziness and bad procrastinating habits.
I walked through the gallery carefully and at a non-hurried pace. Despite it being the last public showing, the directors of the exhibit were well aware of people's desire to enjoy the paintings; we were given enough time to walk placidly with no time constraints. I took it all in. I can't remember exactly when it happened... perhaps it was as soon as I walked in and saw the first painting, "The Cottage," painted by van Gogh in 1885... suddenly, Frederick Chopin's "Etude No.6" in E flat minor invaded and colored every single perception, sense and instinct inside of me. Here's Freddy Kempf's interpretation on YouTube:
I went out to dinner after the exhibit and could not shake the emotions off. Sure, it was seemingly depressing without reason or explanation, but above all it was significant because I was able to measure the impact of both the art and the music, and how it all registered in me as a human being, the capacity for emotions and varying senses was as sharp as I had ever felt it up to that day. I remember thinking over dinner that it had been a "ONCE IN A LIFETIME" experience, that I would never again see those paintings and feel those emotions unless I traveled to Amsterdam (which at the time was not even a possibility, it seems).
Two years later, I did find myself in Amsterdam, and on a beautiful spring day April 2001, I spent the entire day at the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It was an improvised trip and I will not get into the details of it here. What is significant about the Amsterdam visit was that it cleared up my experience during the Washington DC exhibition. While attending a lecture that day, the phrase "the melancholy expression of our times" came up. The lecturer referred to it in passing, mentioning something about Vincent's correspondence with his brother Theo. I picked up a copy of "The Letters of Vincent van Gogh" while at the museum in Amsterdam and soon understood (albeit not exactly) why I had felt the way I did that day in DC, and, perhaps more importantly, why Chopin's etude penetrated all of my senses that cold day. I am sorry this has turned out to be more about my impressions of van Gogh's art than about the book I am about to recommend everyone to read. Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr Gachet: The story of a van Gogh Masterpiece" is by far one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read in any genre.
The beauty of Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece" rests precisely where most recent books of art history fail. Saltzman writes with such brilliance and clarity, it is difficult not to make an allegorical comparison to the master's canvases themselves. She has a gift for narrative that is informative and full of nuances and it fuels the interest and engagement of the reader. The book is peppered with biographical sketches of those personages of the art world connected to the van Gogh masterpiece, Portrait of Dr Gachet.
Labels: Amsterdam, art, art history, Cynthia Saltzman, Dr. Gachet, Impressionism, Paris, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Postimpressionism, Theo van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh