Masterpiece or miss? New show opens on Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters
Was Vincent van Gogh’s atmospheric but flawed painting of The Potato Eaters a ‘masterpiece’, as he believed? Or did it end up hanging on his brother’s wall for good reason?
A new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, The Potato Eaters: Mistake or Masterpiece?, digs into the archives to explain how and why Van Gogh painted one of his most famous works and the fierce criticism he faced, so a modern audience can judge.
The Potato Eaters, an image of a peasant family sharing a simple meal of potatoes and probably chicory coffee, was completed in the Brabant village of Nuenen in 1885. It was a period when the painter was learning his art, studying techniques such as using complementary colours, broken tones and local colour as well as current ideas about physiognomy and how character could be reflected in outlook.
He prepared meticulously, painting studies through the winter, and planned it as his big breakthrough, to be sent to a salon show in Paris to wow the city folk. But instead, he missed the deadline, a popular art magazine refused to print a lithograph he made and his painter friend Anthon van Rappard was ruthlessly critical.
‘Surely such work was not intended seriously?’ Van Rappard wrote to Van Gogh. ‘What’s that pot doing…it isn’t standing, it isn’t being held, but what then…And why may that man on the right not have a knee or a belly or lungs?…And why must his arm be a metre too short?’
The work, which Van Gogh later described as ‘the best thing I did’, never featured in an exhibition and ended up hanging above the mantelpiece in his brother Theo’s apartment in Paris.
But now, with the help of 24 paintings, 19 drawings, prints, letters, books and even a life-size model of the peasants’ cottage, the new exhibition aims to let the audience be the final judge.
Bregje Gerritse, a researcher at the Van Gogh Museum and author of a catalogue on the show, said she was in two minds herself. ‘It’s in between: a masterpiece with some mistakes,’ she said. ‘It’s very clear what the critics have to say and they are right. These figures are not very believable and there is something lacking, but even today you can feel what he wants to say about real, honest, hard-working life. It is important because it is so different. You don’t often see something that’s so unattractive but so interesting.’
Emilie Gordenker, director of the Van Gogh Museum, told DutchNews.nl that the painting really illustrates one of the things that made the artist so modern: the way he used art to evoke feeling.
‘For me, the revelatory moment is when you see his examples, and then turn the corner and you see how incredibly radical he was,’ she said. ‘To me, it really was a masterpiece: it was such a breakthrough. It’s certainly not perfect, but that’s not really the point.
‘Contemporary art treated as valuable may not be beautiful but may make you think or feel. This is a really early example of doing that. Van Gogh made you see the world anew.’
The exhibition, which was put together during the coronavirus lockdown period and so had to depend largely on the museum’s own resources, has fun touches too.
A display on the wall shows the exchange of Van Gogh and Van Rappard like a series of text messages, there are mirrors where visitors can try on hats of the time, a chance to sit at the ‘table’ or observe Van Gogh’s various viewpoints and even to try to recreate the art (or simply colour in a modern-day version complete with mayo and chips).
The show opens on Friday October 8 and runs until February 13 and is free with a visit to the museum.
‘I think it’s a good moment to stand still by [Van Gogh’s] Dutch works: actually his career only spanned ten years and a good proportion of that was his preparation,’ added Gordenker. ‘He prepared with great care, and was thinking about marketing. That road, fuelled by what he saw in Paris, led to what he ultimately does. He’s constantly pushing his boundaries.’
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