If the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and all their numerous sponsors) have calculated correctly, then you, me, and everyone we know will soon dash out to see Van Gogh Up Close, a selection of landscapes and still lifes by the post-impressionist master. And while we’re at it, why not take in the Philadelphia Flower Show, stay in a hotel, enjoy a meal and indulge in a desk calendar sporting van Gogh’s greatest hits?
Many visitors may do just that. Because when shows are this big, it’s easy to let the hoopla beyond the frame become a bigger attraction than the art itself.
For starters, consider the stunningly complex network of corporate sponsorships: Best Western and the Four Seasons are in on the action, offering a range of ticket, travel and accommodation bundles so voluminous you may never finish navigating your way through it all. With any blockbuster, accessibility is the name of the game, and Up Close plays by the rules. From Amtrak’s transportation deal for would-be but far-flung visitors, to Alternative Tours Inc.’s “Gossip & Gardens” package—which ropes together Up Close and the Philadelphia Flower Show—all roads point to the PMA galleries. (Successfully making the tenuous connection between the flora of Southern France and this year’s Hawaiian-themed Flower Show is, apparently, up to you.)
Once at the PMA, there’s a gift shop, naturally, offering every conceivable—and often comically earnest—Van Gogh-themed bauble. You can buy the highly peculiar “Van Gogh Face to Face: A Portrait in Music,” a CD promising to conjure the genius of van Gogh through the ethereal strains of his musical contemporaries. Or, you can score perennial favorite “Starry Night” slapped onto a cloth for cleaning glasses or grafted onto a vaguely ’90s sun dress. If nothing else, the shop is thoroughly inventive, so much so that you might actually start to think the ubiquitously reproduced “Starry Night” is in the exhibit (it’s not). So, you’re probably wondering what is.
Dig far enough beneath the media frenzy, and you’ll be rewarded with a collection of quietly revolutionary paintings that use the landscape as a pretext for early experiments in composition and scale. Up Close features tightly cropped landscapes that focus on small patches of grass well below the horizon line. Often alighting on irises in a ditch or poppies just below his feet, van Gogh’s angles give the impression of contemplating nature through a zoomed-in camera lens or through the magnifying powers of a microscope. Such a vantage point, argue the curators, was unprecedented in Western painting and suggests that van Gogh looked to other sources. Featuring a selection of photographs from the PMA collection (still a relatively recent development in van Gogh’s time), the exhibition makes a broad-strokes case for van Gogh’s sensitivity to the changing horizon of pictorial space in the late 19th century.
It’s perhaps no small irony that given the show’s emphasis on photography, the camera would be the means by which van Gogh’s work was eventually reproduced on coffee mugs the world over. While we may assume that merchandising “Starry Night” on a poster wasn’t at the top of his list when he checked himself into the asylum at Saint-Rémy (a period from which many of the works in the exhibition date), what the exhibition does suggests is that van Gogh thought critically about the relationship between photography and painting. If you’d like to do the same, then Van Gogh Up Close offers an easy way in. As long as you can stomach the hype.
Through May 6. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Main Building, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 215.763.8100. philamuseum.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2