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Van Gogh’s Cypresses: It’s Not That Deep

The art world is infamously lofty, shielded from the public by centuries of elite scholarship and stashed in private collections, bank vaults, and archives. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive piece of art ever sold that could only be seen at Christie’s for a short time before it was auctioned, now lies on a Saudi Arabian leader’s private yacht. Tickets for public museums come with a hefty price tag. Entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City sets a non-resident back $30. Beyond the cost of admission, fine arts education is largely inaccessible. The American public school system increasingly emphasizes math and social sciences over the arts, and most people do not have the disposable income or free time to pursue a cultural education outside of the curriculum.

Van Gogh’s Cypresses (2023), curated by Susan Alyson Stein at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, could have been a step towards de-mystifying the thoughts, processes, and motivations behind the works of one of the greatest artists who ever lived: Vincent van Gogh. Instead, it was a disappointment. Stein’s muddled diction, confused grammar, and pedantry constructed an impenetrable fortress against the flow of information and ideas from van Gogh’s contemplative masterworks to the public. Her tone was heavy and all-knowing, a bitter contrast to the artist’s own mysterious genius. This exhibition could have made van Gogh accessible to many and given meaning to the cypress motif not only in van Gogh’s life but in our own lives, but falls drastically short. Van Gogh’s Cypresses at the Met is a missed opportunity to allow the artist to speak through his work to the art-loving public.

Van Gogh is beloved for his unique vision of the world. He elegantly captures attractive scenes in eye-catching colors, making his works mesmerizing and memorable. His style is consistent and distinct. His passion is palpable. His intense love for the world, particularly for nature, resonates with many people. While it is well-known that he led a difficult life clouded by severe depression, turbulent friendships, and the notorious ear incident, his passion for beauty and art transcends his pain and serves as a beacon of hope for all those who are struggling.

Van Gogh’s intense personality is inextricable from his art, an idea that Stein attempted to emphasize. Van Gogh’s many letters to his brother, Theo, reveal his keen observations, intense emotions, and dedication to his work—which was shaped by reading authors such as John Keats, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Gustave Flaubert. He had a strong personality and could alienate people with his over-excited and sometimes quarrelsome nature. He was self-sacrificing to a fault. Van Gogh’s zeal often led him to neglect himself in order to focus entirely on his interest. His intense passion for the world and for art could be overbearing for others, but also overwhelmed his own mind. A relatively recent article by Nolen, van Meekeren, Voskuil, and van Tilburg (2020) found that van Gogh likely suffered from comorbid illnesses, including bipolar mood disorder, a borderline personality disorder, and depressive episodes with “psychotic features.” Despite his struggles with mental health, van Gogh’s spirit ultimately resided in bettering the world through art and in service for others.

However, Stein’s overarching portrayal of van Gogh’s character was one of a fierce and brutal military leader akin to the likes of Genghis Khan. “He advanced a painting campaign,” proclaimed one wall didactic. “Tackling trees and exploiting mountainsides” was allegedly van Gogh’s process to create a “battery of motifs” in his assault of the French countryside that he said to dearly in a “litany of later letters.” This militaristic vocabulary extended to the description of asylum to where van Gogh “decamped” and “vowed to soldier on.” This imagery seems fit for a shrieking Valkyrie swooping towards the battlefield and striking out towards Valhalla. This is a stark contrast to the thoughtful van Gogh waking up at dawn to paint with the first light and reading by candlelight in the evening when the sunlight failed, as he wrote in letters to Theo. Rather than simply explaining that his asylum withheld painting supplies, the curators instead portrayed the asylum as a hostile governing legal body that “depleted and embargoed” van Gogh’s art supplies. This violent language is more fit for a commentary on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” than observations on van Gogh’s time in the French countryside.

Photo Credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words describing van Gogh are disparaging, revealing an implicit prejudice against people suffering from psychological disorders. Focusing on the violent parts of van Gogh’s nature—violence that came from his mental illness and was directed at his own body—presents an ableist perspective of van Gogh’s life. The aggressive language used by Stein to describe van Gogh’s actions, personality, writings, works, etc. perpetuates the stigma that violence dominates the lives of the mentally ill. The frequency of this charged language in the exhibition shows that society’s perspective on mental illness has not changed since van Gogh was committed to the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889.

Beyond the mischaracterization of van Gogh, Stein’s word choices were obscure and failed to create a coherent portrait of van Gogh’s intentions and methods. In one painting, characters are said to be taking a “veritable” walk through the golden wheat fields. “Veritable” makes no sense in this context, and shows that the curators are trying to go above people’s heads. Another didactic boldly claims that “the cypresses failed to gain traction,” a ludicrous statement hoping to open our minds to the non-existent agency of trees. Van Gogh supposedly takes on many active roles: He “torqued earlier preoccupations into place,” was “singling out the stars,” and was conducting a “spirited sendoff of paintings.” There were also didactics using out-of-place corporate lingo: “signed off on the cypress motif,” “streamlined the foreground,” “ushering in a new level of engagement with the cypresses,” and “solidifying the takeaways into practice” are some jarring examples. These airy, meaningless phrases construct the lofty citadel of art scholarship, always to be protected from the rabble.

As I walked through the exhibition, I imagined overworked and underpaid interns frantically plugging prompts into ChatGPT the night before the didactics were due, unwittingly taking inspiration from the corporate jargon they internalized from their superiors regarding the van Gogh exhibition deadline. So little care was taken to make the language accessible that it could have been done only by a machine. The Met’s Mission Statement reads: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across time and cultures in order to connect all people to creativity, knowledge, ideas, and one another.” Yet, it’s impossible for the average person to read the captions and feel any connection to “knowledge,” as none is provided. In an attempt to keep the art world elite and prevent the average person from forging a meaningful connection to a famous artist, the Met has effectively reduced their respected erudition to a laughingstock.

Although I felt profoundly moved by the artworks, I left the exhibition disappointed and bewildered by the museum’s interpretation. In an attempt to dispel my confusion, I searched online for reviews of the exhibition. I foolishly believed that a critic from the highly esteemed Art section of the New Yorker could bridge the gap between the towering intellectual (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the amateur art-lover (myself). Yet, it led me even more astray. “The World-Changing Trees of Vincent Van Gogh,” by Jackson Arn was full of fussy, faux-intellectual questions and painfully confused metaphors. Arn tirelessly employs the theme of militaristic language, picking up right where the Met left off. According to Arn, van Gogh was “obsessed with the world and burnt through it, one object at a time.” Fall of Troy, anyone? The misrepresentation of van Gogh’s attitude towards nature as a marauding brigand or besieger is farcical. Arn further describes van Gogh’s paintings as “the monkish loggings of his cypress fixation,” a phrase which I am simply unable to decipher. Arn ends his laughably discombobulated review with an absurd call to action: “The Met’s team recently discovered bits of limestone and ‘vegetal matter’ in the foreground of ‘Cypresses’. A simple accident? Poetic justice? Art lovers, start your engines.” This meager “fuel” is not nearly enough to start any art lover’s “engine,” whatever that may mean.

The significance of an artist or artwork is in the eye of the beholder; an individual’s simple interpretation of the cypress trees is likely closer to van Gogh’s truth than any overcomplicated farce staged by the supposed tastemakers of the art scene. In critic Jackson Arn’s own words, “if this exhibition is a failure, it’s an absolute banger of a failure.” This is true. Van Gogh’s paintings are so magical that they transcend the poisonously meaningless interpretation ascribed to him by those who have power in the art world: curators and critics. We must no longer look towards famed institutions like the Met and the New Yorker to create high culture, instead turning inwards to think realistically about the significance of an artwork or artist in our own lives.


Alexandra Smithie is a Sophomore in the College studying History.


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