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How van Gogh became van Gogh: Rare show presents artist alongside those who inspired him


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There are a number of unanswered questions regarding the artist Vincent van Gogh. There was mental illness, but a precise diagnosis is still disputed, an early death at 37 thought to be a suicide, but, again, not certain.

What we do know is that van Gogh was a difficult, pained man who produced some of the world's most exuberant paintings, becoming one of the most beloved artists of all time.

Jeffrey Brown takes us to a new exhibition, with an interesting origin story of its own, that helps us see how he got there.

It is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's the most famous stare in art history, the one and only Vincent van Gogh.

Will South: I say to visitors, if you're sitting on a stool in a bar, and someone turns to you with this look, you might want to move. And this says something about Vincent. He is out there emotionally, and this is my life.

Jeffrey Brown: Will South is curator of a new exhibition, Van Gogh and His Inspirations, at the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina's capital city.

It presents a less familiar van Gogh, the wayward, struggling, largely self-taught young man who learned from looking hard at the world...

Woman: This is one of his very first teachers.

Jeffrey Brown: ... and the work of artists around him.

This is seeing how van Gogh became van Gogh.

Will South: That's the question we sought to answer. He doesn't come out of the womb and paint Starry Night.

It takes a lot of failure, a lot of experimentation, a lot of false starts, a number of early successes. And you have to look at a lot of things to arrive at Starry Night. That doesn't just come out of nowhere.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Starry Night and most of van Gogh's best known paintings date to the last few years of his short life. They rarely travel, and are not here.

What is here, 12 van Goghs on loan from museums around the country, surrounded by works by 30 other artists, most from earlier in the 19th century, a drawing of an old woman by Jean Francois Raffaelli, next to one by van Gogh of a worker.

A Japanese woodblock print of a plum garden, side by side with van Gogh's Orchard with Arles in the Background. Notice the tree branches.

Jean-Francois Millet's painting of two peasants next to van Gogh's Beef Cart. Van Gogh would retain some elements of what he saw, even as he later exploded them into his own revolutionary style.

Will South: All those things are coming in, and he's going to reshuffle those things constantly.

The thing is, as soon as you label somebody a genius, you stop looking for sources. What's there is this tremendous background of effort and struggle and experimentation that he constantly brings forward.

Jeffrey Brown: The source for this exhibition is an hour away from Columbia in the town of Aiken, in a Gilded Age 60-room estate that had fallen into disrepair and neglect, when Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith bought it in 1989, slowly restoring it over the next 25 years.

It was here that the two men, professional and life partners before Smith died in 2014, wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Jackson Pollock, and then spent a decade researching and writing an acclaimed biography of van Gogh published in 2011.

Steven Naifeh: The thing we came away with from the 10 years, the most important lesson, was the lesson of resilience, resilience in the face of adversity. It was constant, but somehow he just picked himself up every day and started painting again.

Jeffrey Brown: It was also here that Naifeh and Smith began buying art as a way to see through van Gogh's eyes. They couldn't afford actual van Goghs, but they combed auctions to find works by lesser known artists they knew he'd admired.

Steven Naifeh: And it's the most van Gogh-like. We're living in his head. We're looking at the list of artists he admired, the artists he saw in an exhibition that he wanted Theo to make sure that he went to see.

Jeffrey Brown: Artists such as Georges Michel, who painted this landscape.

The van Gogh we all know and love would create something very different. But Naifeh makes the case he got there through artists like Michel.

Steven Naifeh: He leaves behind the coloring of paintings like this, but what he keeps are certain things, like these dynamic clouds, these wonderful clouds.

And if you think about his late, most advanced landscapes, they may be brightly colored, but they have these wonderful, tempestuous, exciting, jubilant clouds. And they come directly out of Georges Michel.

Jeffrey Brown: So, all these empty -- these were paintings that are in the exhibition?

Steven Naifeh: These were paintings that are in the exhibition.

Jeffrey Brown: Naifeh lent part of his collection to the Columbia Museum of Art for the new exhibition, including this painting by Adolphe Monticelli, whose work van Gogh greatly admired.

Steven Naifeh: What's astonishing about Monticelli is how abstract he is. But the other thing that's important in it is the thickness of the paint. And it's almost sculptural, to so thick.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, look at this.

Steven Naifeh: Look at this in here.

Jeffrey Brown: Next to it, van Gogh' Wheat Field With Poppies.

This is getting closer to the van Gogh that many people know, right?

Steven Naifeh: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Because we look around, and I imagine a lot of people coming to the galleries are saying, this doesn't look like a van Gogh. Right?

Steven Naifeh: The van Gogh that we know is only the van Gogh of the last four years of his life.

So what's really helpful is to realize that art history, even with somebody as revolutionary as van Gogh, is an ongoing dialogue between each artist and the artists that came before.

Jeffrey Brown: That was a lesson being passed on to a group of local high school art students who visited the exhibition, and then made their own works inspired by van Gogh and his interest in Japanese art.

Paige Williams and Olivia Herod are both 17.

Paige Williams: I think it's so cool to see how van Gogh kind of took inspiration and techniques from other artists and incorporated that. And then he transformed it into his own work, but he kind of still put his own van Gogh twist.

Olivia Herod: And he focused more on the emotion within it, while this other person didn't. So you can tell, like, the difference in artists.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm just curious about, how often do you get to see a van Gogh or van Gogh exhibition here?

Paige Williams: Like never, ever.

Jeffrey Brown: Never?

Olivia Herod: No. As famous as he is, I just honestly don't think I have seen really any other majorly famous paintings in person.

Paige Williams: I just feel so fortunate, able to see these famous works, and I'm able to, like, not see them through a computer screen.

Jeffrey Brown: Pulling in both art lovers and people who aren't regular museum visitors was very much the idea for curator Will South, who says this exhibition carries a larger ambition.

Will South: There's the idea when you're in a moderately big town, really a small big town, that we are just so far from the Parises and the New Yorks of this world. And in a sense we are.

But that doesn't mean we aren't a capable town, an aggressively smart town. Everybody needs to experience art. If they can make it here, and we can give them a similar experience, then we should. That's our responsibility. That's our job. And we take that very seriously.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition Van Gogh and His Inspirations is here through January 12, 2020, and will travel later to Santa Barbara, California, and Columbus, Ohio.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Columbia, South Carolina.

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