Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Van Gogh at MOMA

Yes, I do go to other museums in New York, especially when friends visit from out of town. This week Philippe was visiting from Germany. We walked through Central Park to midtown and saw the small Van Gogh exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

For me the most compelling painting was this early work, The Potato Eaters, considered his first "great" painting (though there are many greats among his oeuvre), from his Dutch period. The exhibition at MOMA was the kind I like best, showing not only the paintings but in this case also preparatory studies as well as letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo and his sister Wil, in which he described what he was working on. The letters also occasionally included drawings.

This is what he wrote to Theo, on April 30, 1885, about his work on the painting of potato eaters: "The point is that I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned." You can certainly see the labor in the bony hands of the peasants reaching out for the potatoes on the plate. I also like the figure of the woman pouring what might be tea or coffee into very small cups. Food tastes good after hard physical work. So, why do we eat so much now (in the 21st century) when our labors are less physically arduous?

Credits: Van Gogh letter and images at WebExhibits


Anonymous said...

This painting appears to have been completed late spring 1885. The meager offerings (by more contemporary standards) offered up in a chilly room, suggest the Elliot line opening The Wasteland; "April is the Cruellest Month...". Most of the food put away for the winter has been consumed or gone bad, new growth is yet to appear. The weather is cold and wet.

Anonymous said...

Heidegger, the "Swabian peasant philsosopher," makes much of a Van Gogh shoe-painting, as I recall, in his essay on the metaphysics of art--or one of them. Anyhow, as a manual laborer myself, I have to agree with the remark about savoring food, especially perhaps potatoes, after a long day at work.... For me, this activity is "ora et labora," the Benedictine motto. Otherwise, I too would have to shoot myself.