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From the New York Times
October 29, 2005
Van Gogh's Pen
It's almost impossible to think of Vincent van Gogh without thinking of the velocity of his career: just a short decade filled with hundreds of paintings and drawings before his suicide in 1890. The compression is so great, the pressure of his concentration so intense, that his works almost refuse to be considered apart from one another and their role in defining the dense, swirling arc of his imagination.
The remarkable exhibition of van Gogh's drawings at the Metropolitan Museum naturally insists - simply by the logic of chronology - on his swift, brutal development from a beginning artist of conventional means and nearly conventional talents into van Gogh. Looking at these drawings in order is like watching the formal written alphabet turn, in a few short years, into a series of runic marks with vastly greater power to say just what the artist sees.
But these drawings also ask us to think about van Gogh's tools, especially the pen he learned to use when he went to Provence in February 1888. It's hard to imagine a plainer instrument: a reed plucked from the southern marshes and given a penlike tip with a sharp knife. It carried only a trace of ink and was as blunt or as fine as the artist chose to make it. There is no guessing how many reed pens van Gogh made while he was in Provence. But their impact is visible from the moment he reaches Arles.
The reed begins to subvert his landscapes. A relatively traditional view of Arles in the distance is utterly upstaged by a cluster of irises in the foreground, drawn as if the pen was suggesting just how frank and simple its vocabulary could be. We have the privilege of watching van Gogh discover the geometry of a line, the elliptical power of a sky full of dots, the rhythm of the ink itself.
Many of these drawings echo - or record - the subject of van Gogh's paintings. But they also ask the kind of question that can be answered only in our own imaginations. What was it like for van Gogh to put down the reed pen, a cheap tool using cheap ink, and pick up the brush, committing himself, in expensive oils, to canvas?
The question presents itself again and again. Seeing these late drawings, you can imagine a convergence taking place in van Gogh's mind - that it was now, at last, that his eye and hand mattered, not the pen or the brush, the ink or the oil. You would recognize these strokes anywhere.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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