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Van Gogh’s perennial appeal

[NEW YORK] Vincent van Gogh's visceral, vibrant paintings and difficult life, which led him to kill himself at age 37 in 1890, have had an enduring hold on the public.

"He is an unusual combination of someone whose art has an instant appeal to people and a human interest story that is astonishing," said van Gogh expert Martin Bailey, author of Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum. "You can see the enormous appetite for van Gogh growing certainly by the decade and almost by the year."

At least nine exhibitions on the Dutch artist are in the works at museums around the world, including three opening this month in Houston, London and Amsterdam. This confluence has exacerbated the difficulty curators have always had in getting loans of prized van Goghs.

"You have to almost fight for every single one," said Bailey, co-curator of "The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain" opening at Tate Britain on March 27. It will look at the early influence of British art and literature on van Gogh, who moved to London when he was 20 to work for a gallery before he set out to become an artist, and then the later importance of his art on 20th-century British painters, most notably Francis Bacon.

Other shows include a look at van Gogh's reception in Germany, opening in October in Frankfurt at the Städel Museum, and in America, an exhibition will open next year at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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The most important loan negotiated for the Tate Britain show is van Gogh's 1888 Sunflowers from London's National Gallery. It is one of five still lifes the artist made of the flowers, and it is the gallery's No 1 attraction (as measured by throngs of people around it and postcards sold). Now it will be seen in the specific context of its influence on Britain.

"Museums are reluctant to part with those works that are often among the most popular, and people expect to see them there," said Nienke Bakker, senior curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the largest repository of the artist's works, with 200 of his approximately 850 paintings and some 500 of his 1,500 drawings.

While her institution is lending works to all the coming shows, it is in small numbers — with the exception of a trove of paintings and drawings going to Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art which opened on Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. With the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo — the second largest collection of van Gogh worldwide — the two Dutch institutions are lending 50 works to Houston for its full-career survey, supplemented by a dozen works from other public and private collections.

"Ours is the only show that traces van Gogh from his tentative beginnings in 1880, when he seriously decided to become an artist, to his extraordinary final works," said David Bomford, head of European art at the Houston museum and curator of the exhibition. "The change in confidence and in style is staggering — the speed with which he becomes a competent and then a brilliant draftsman in his Dutch period."

The show follows van Gogh to Paris, where he adapted impressionism to his own devices, and then to Provence, where his signature radiant palette materialises.

Singular to van Gogh is his prolific correspondence, some 800 remaining letters he wrote almost daily during this period to his brother Theo and fellow artists, which is a factor in the public's fascination with him. "We see his life from the inside," Mr Bomford said. "We know exactly what his thoughts were, his preoccupations were, his obsessions were."

The curator is particularly excited with the Van Gogh Museum's loans of The Old Church Tower at Nuenen, the artist's second great early masterpiece after The Potato Eaters (which doesn't travel), and a key portrait of van Gogh's lover Agostina Segatori, a proprietress of a cafe in Montmartre in Paris.

At the Van Gogh Museum, committed to showing how van Gogh is still relevant to artists today, "Hockney — Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature" opened earlier this month. It looks at van Gogh as an inspiration for David Hockney, the 81-year-old British painter, in terms of their shared devotion to nature, high-keyed palettes and experimental perspectives. It is one of the biggest shows with a contemporary artist at the museum, with more than 100 works by Hockney, many coming directly from the artist.

Another show there in June showcases the museum's recently restored Sunflowers. This version was painted in January 1889, a month after the artist mutilated his ear. "Van Gogh was not someone who was satisfied very easily, but he thought that with the sunflowers he had really done something good," Mr Bakker said.

The museum, which will present its findings from the technical research as part of the show, announced in January the painting will no longer travel because of its fragility.


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