Vincent van Gogh, “Pollard Willows at Sunset” (1888) oil on canvas on cardboard, 31.6 cm x 34.3 cm (© Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; all photos courtesy the Städel Museum, unless otherwise noted)

FRANKFURT, Germany — Focussing primarily on the period from 1900 to the 1920s, the exhibition Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story is an heroic effort to salvage shy, humble Vincent van Gogh’s great artistic intensity from kitsch, banal technological exploitation and the much hyped, romantic image of the artist as a daft, doomed interloper.

Inspired by the French realist painter, Jean-François Millet, then awakening to color and distinct small strokes among the Parisian Impressionists, van Gogh, an avid collector of of Japanese woodblock prints, was well connected in artistic circles. His sales-promoting degenerate image as a lonely, mentally-deranged, tousled dauber — perpetuated by Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life and Julian Schnabel’s 2018 At Eternity’s Gate — is fictitious. In particular, this show explores how van Gogh’s first biographer, German writer Julius Meier-Graefe — with his 1910 monograph Vincent van Gogh, based in part on French poet, art critic, and painter Albert Aurier’s 1890 van Gogh essay — played a crucial role in creating this loner “tortured artist” myth. This myth is also currently under deconstruction at Noordbrabants Museum’s Van Gogh’s Inner Circle. Friends, Family, Models exhibition.

Vincent van Gogh, “View of Arles” (1889)photo by Norbert Miguletz

At his perplexing early death in 1890, van Gogh was still unknown outside of a small group of artists, poets, and art writers. But his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, would change that. Following the 1891 death of her husband Theo van Gogh, she was left in charge of Vincent’s oeuvre of more than 800 paintings and 1,000 drawings. The Städel’s show looks at the way Johanna caused van Gogh’s slashing, bright, wobbly, expressionistic distortions — chock full of sunny and stormy spiritual strength — to impact the German avant-garde, as well as looking at Germany’s role in van Gogh’s success.

Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait” (1887) oil on artists board, mounted on cradled panel, 41 x 32.5 cm (© The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.326)

The first van Gogh exhibitions were mounted in 1901 in the Berlin Secession and at the Kunstsalon of Paul Cassirer. That debut ignited nearly 120 van Gogh shows in Germany between 1901 and 1914. As a result, more and more German private collectors, museum directors, and artists took notice of the Dutch artist, and his popularity blossomed, like a sunflower.

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) “Alley in front of a Mountain” (1909) oil on artists board on panel, 49 x 50 cm; private collection, Southern Germany (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019) © Galerie Thomas, München)

Given its social-political realism, Making Van Gogh is the best show on van Gogh I have seen since Van Gogh / Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society at the Musée d’Orsay in 2014. On view are 50 works by van Gogh and 70 works by artists based in Germany who he influenced,  including: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Max Pechstein, Wilhelm Morgner, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto DixGabriele Münter, Fritz Bleyl, Heinrich Nauen, Max Beckmann and Erich Heckel. Van Gogh had hardly been dead for ten years before the enthusiasm for his work took hold in Germany. By 1914, a large number of works by van Gogh had appeared illustrated in books in Germany, and thanks to the dedication of Johanna and German gallery owners, critics, and museum directors, van Gogh’s fulminating brushwork came to be perceived as one of the most prominent harbingers of German Expressionist painting — establishing his key inspirational role for the German modern art avant-garde. For example, the encounter with van Gogh’s painting exhibition at the Galerie Arnold in Dresden in 1905 acted as a direct catalyst for the early style of the artists’ group Die Brücke.

Otto Dix, “Sunrise” (1913) oil on cardboard, 50.5 x 66 cm; (© Städtische Galerie Dresden – Kunstsammlung, Museen der Stadt Dresden; photo by Herbert Boswank)

Though bogus, the madman myth took hold among German dealers and collectors and heightened the desire for van Gogh’s art, which then found its way into private and museum collections throughout Germany within a very brief period of time. Then it came under attack during the Nazi era. Hitler himself made negative comments about van Gogh’s “degenerate art” art in 1925 on seeing one of the “sunflowers” in reproduction, remarked: “The colors are too loud for me.” A number of his works were confiscated by the Nazis. In great detail, the show and hefty catalogue look directly at the rise of German nationalism in the 20th century that included criticism of institutions collecting van Gogh’s work, which led to the artist becoming a symbolic figure for the German avant-garde, fiercely international in their outlook.

Wilhelm Morgner, “The Tree” (1911) oil on canvas, 60 x 86 cm (© Museum Wilhelm Morgner, Soest; photo by Thomas Drebusch)

The first museum in Germany to present paintings by van Gogh was the Folkwang in Hagen. Its founder, Karl Ernst Osthaus, purchased his first van Gogh painting from Paul Cassirer in 1902. In 1908, the newly founded Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt followed Osthaus’s example, acquiring “Farmhouse in Nuenen” (1885), the first purchase of a van Gogh painting by a German municipal museum. Then in 1911, Gustav Pauli purchased “Poppy Field” (1889) for the Kunsthalle Bremen, which sparked a nasty controversy. A group of 123 artists published an essay entitled “German Artists Protest,” decrying the “foreign infiltration” of Germany’s art market and art collections and demanding support for a “national art” instead. But Piper Verlag, the German publisher, soon published a rebuttal in which artists, gallery directors, writers, and art dealers called for the international development of Germany’s art scene, instead. This debate ultimately led to van Gogh’s work becoming a paragon of the avant-garde, internationalist movements. His radical reputation had been made.

Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story, curated by Alexander Eiling (of the Städel Museum) and Felix Krämer (of the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf) continues at the Städel Museum (Schaumainkai 63, Frankfurt on the Main, Frankfurt, Germany) till February 16.

 Editor’s Note: The author’s train transportation and accommodations were supplied by the Städel Museum.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...