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May 27, 2013
Moments in Art
Van Gogh's Belated Visitors
by Lawrence Jeppson

In 1886, Paul Gauguin settled sporadically in the village of Pont Aven, Western France, and gathered about him a group of artists who became the Pont Aven School.

Perhaps envious of this gathering, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin two years later, proposing an association of painters to facilitate the sale of their works, and then two months later he proposed that Gauguin come work with him in Arles in Southern France.

Van Gogh wanted Gauguin because of his talent. Gauguin came. The relationship, as always, was stormy. In November, 1888, Van Gogh wrote to painter Emile Bernard, one of Gauguin's Pont Aven friends, "Well, here we are without the slightest doubt in the presence of a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition."

The American biographer Irving Stone called Van Gogh "one of the world's loneliest souls." (Preface, Dear Theo, a collection of Van Gogh's letters.) Vincent dreamed of setting up a Workshop of the South as a community of artists. He wanted Gauguin to be a part of this community. Echoing Pont Aven, this might have appeased his loneliness. Only the "savage" Gauguin came, and even this relationship ended bitterly.

Preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Van Gogh’s tragic death, Taiwanese-American painter Dr. Tsing-fang Chen decided to create 100 paintings celebrating the Dutch artist’s death in Southern France.

American Couple Visiting Van Gogh. Chen used many variants of Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles as the setting for his gathering of artists. In this one he poses the iconic American couple created by Grant Wood as spectators looking through the bedroom window. A depiction of Van Gogh with a white bandage over his cut-off ear dominates the painting.

Chen appropriates images from any source, ingeniously changing, combining, and juxtaposing them to create philosophical and esthetic drama. This Neo-Iconography (a defining label I coined in 1978) and his prodigious output have made Chen one of the two or three most important working artists in the world today.

Andy Just Left. Chen introduces generous amounts of Andy Warhol paintings into Van Gogh’s bedroom: the famous paintings of Marilyn Monroe, the Campbell’s soup cans, the big flowers. In a cunning irony, Chen litters the floor with dollar signs, a commentary on the astronomical prices Warhols now bring.

This is my 50th “Moments in Art” written for the Nauvoo Times. I am pleased that I can use Chen in celebration of this milestone. I have written about him before. There is so much to his life and art that I’ll probably return to him in future columns.

Happy Art Lover. Père Tanguy was a Paris art dealer who represented a number of Paris painters, including Van Gogh. Chen poses him in this large painting with Paul Cézanne’s still life Fruits on the table before him and Paul Gauguin’s Ta Matete (The Market). However, some of the Tahitian personages have been transformed into Egyptian icons. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye on first view.

Two weeks ago when I last spoke with Lucia, Tsing-fang’s capable wife and manager of their galleries in New York, Taipei, and Shanghai, she was in Shanghai. She is shuttling between China and Taiwan as she seeks to build a combination five-star hotel and Chen Museum and Cultural Center in Taipei, where he is considered a national treasure.

Beautiful Morning Light. Since Van Gogh was Dutch, it was appropriate that Chen appropriate parts of Jan Verneer’s Woman with a Waterjug as the dominant image and a slice of a painting by Piet Mondrian on the left, Dutch icons separated by centuries of art history. The still life is from another Cézanne, Still Life in Front of a Chest. The circle of sun in a simulated Van Gogh landscape with yellow sky seems like it should be a halo on the attractive woman.

Touched by the clash of Van Gogh and Gauguin, Chen decided to constitute Van Gogh's Workshop of the South posthumously. If the artists would not gather to Van Gogh while they were alive, Chen would bring them together a century later. As part of his ambitious project to memorialize Van Gogh with 100 paintings, Chen escorted a dozen great masters to the Dutch painter in Arles to work with him: among them Gauguin, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Mondrian, Miro, Rouault, Kandinsky, and Warhol. Others may yet respond to the invitation.

Chen takes cunning delight in transforming Van Gogh's own painting of his Spartan Arles bedroom and populating it with Gauguin and Van Gogh icons — and lots of others, as my first two images show.

Van Gogh Pope. As he did with the Vermeer image, Chen goes back more than three centuries for his image, Diego Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. There is no sacrilegious intent in Chen’s painting, as he changes the Catholic Pope to a Van Gogh Pope. The personage holds a check in his hand which says, “Pay to the order of Vincent Van Gogh One Billion and Six Hundred Thousand Dollars,” a comment on how frequently Van Gogh’s paintings shatter the auction market.

I wish I could show the hundred paintings from this commemoration. Actually, Van Gogh icons continue to haunt Chen’s art, as they pop up in dozens of post-centennial paintings.

I hesitated to show Van Gogh Pope, less some reader be offended. But it is a very powerful painting and is not meant to be disrespectful. Truth is, I could not resist a pun. In the second of my selections there is a group of illustrations taken from Andy Warhol. So in the second and fifth illustrations, I have gone from Pop Art to Pope Art.

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