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A Closer Look at our Visiting Van Gogh Exhibition

Have you seen our Van Gogh show? Visiting Van Gogh contains only four paintings, yet its impact is powerful. It focuses on a single work on loan to Carnegie Museum of Art from the Saint Louis Art Museum, a lend-back for two Impressionist works that we loaned to an exhibition of theirs. When I first saw a reproduction of this work, Still Life, Basket of Apples (1887), I wasn’t that excited about it. I forgot that Van Gogh’s later paintings—the ones done after he left Holland for France—cannot be faithfully reproduced. The thing I didn’t foresee about this simple still life is that it is luminous; it glows with a golden light, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Most people have at least passing familiarity with Van Gogh because his dramatic life has been the subject of books and movies. He’s the guy who cut off his ear. Known in this way, he seems like a strange outsider, divorced from his time and associations. One of the things I like most about this exhibition is that it gives lie to that idea. It shows that, far from being an outsider, Van Gogh was at the center of the latest artistic trends. At the time that he painted Basket of Apples, he was living in Paris, where his brother Theo was an art dealer. There, he met Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and was inspired by the way they applied scientific color theory to their paintings. Van Gogh began to experiment with placing pure complementary colors next to each other in small individual brushstrokes and letting the colors meld in the viewer’s eye. Basket of Apples is a stunning example of his work from this period.

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Vincent van Gogh, Still Life, Basket of Apples, 1887, Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Sydney M. Shoenberg Sr.

The exhibition makes the Neo-Impressionist influence clear by including, in addition to two other works by Van Gogh, a painting by Signac. (All works except the Saint Louis still life are from CMOA’s collection.) There is also a map of Paris showing how close Van Gogh and his brother lived to Seurat, Signac, and sites significant to the art world of the time. It also includes a section in which visitors can explore color theory in depth through hands-on experiences.

Recently I was asked to answer a question posed by a visitor: “Why is art so important?” Art can be intimidating, and the question suggests discomfort with art and the museum experience. I always want to reach people who feel that way because there’s a rich and provocative world of ideas that they’re missing, and we can help them access it if they’re game. Also, it’s a fair question, one that has many possible answers. Here are some that I thought of: Art challenges commonplace ideas; art provides evidence of how we think; in our fast-paced world, art asks you to slow down and look; art offers a window into the values and concerns of the times, making you more aware of your world; art offers a window into the values and concerns of earlier times, imparting historical knowledge. Two of the answers that I came up with apply particularly well to our Van Gogh show: In an increasingly virtual world, most art requires that you be physically present; and art can offer the sensual and uplifting experience of pure beauty. It’s difficult to convey the intense pleasure that the last quality provides.

April 11 is Slow Art Day, a global event with a mission to help more people discover the rewards of looking deeply and carefully at art. I invite you to celebrate it by visiting our Van Gogh show and enjoying an array of programs that day. Take time for a long look at Basket of Apples and each of the other works in the exhibition, with their incredible color and light. Learn a bit about the way we perceive color, and then look again. See what Van Gogh can do for you.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.