Van Gogh exhibit doesn’t reach potential

There are some art exhibits you can get lost in, wander for hours, feel time slip away as you move between paintings.

Visiting van Gogh, now on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), is not one of them.

Not from a lack of interesting material — to its credit, the exhibit does what it can with only four paintings on display. But despite being the museum’s main visiting exhibition, it’s better suited as a stop on a longer visit, not a main attraction.

The exhibit is contained to a small, peripheral room adjacent to the museum’s permanent collections. Security guards are badgered by guests who ask, “Is there another room? Is this really all?”

It’s easy to make the mistake of judging quality by quantity. The CMOA has pulled off highly interesting exhibits with only a few actual art works in the past. Just last June through September, Faked, Forgotten, Found was a brilliant and engaging exhibit detailing the journeys of four — yes, four — original paintings across centuries, between owners, and among forgeries of varying persuasiveness.

It’s been done before, but not here. Visiting van Gogh is interesting in an understated way, but it doesn’t seem to fully capitalize on the material it has or the incredibly recognizable name that accompanies it.

The first painting isn’t van Gogh’s. It’s his contemporary Paul Signac’s “Place des Lices, St. Tropez” — a pointillist work in golden yellow and orange offset by blue and green. A man sits on a bench in the shade of big-bowed trees with thick, undulating trunks and purple-spotted branches winding up to a swirl of green-blue foliage. There’s something distinctly van Gogh in the curving edge of the foliage, the leaves gathering in perfect, thoughtful circles, reminiscent of the whirling clouds in van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

Other than the friendship and clear influence between Signac and van Gogh, the painting’s inclusion isn’t well explained. The exposition describes Signac’s belief that certain colors evoked corresponding emotions — an idea with which van Gogh, too, experimented — but not much else related to the titular artist. In a larger exhibit, it’s common and enlightening to include the work of the main artist’s contemporaries — but in such a small exhibit, and with a weak apparent tie to the other three paintings, the Signac just seems out of place.

The painting helps to inform, however, the series of color theory information panels and activities on the adjacent wall. These panels detail a history of color theory from Sir Isaac Newton’s original 1660 black-and-white color wheel to the divisionist movement, which explored how separate dots of color interact optically when viewed together. The exposition sheds interesting light on the philosophy behind van Gogh’s legendary work and offers a lens for viewing the remaining three paintings.

Most interestingly, the museum recreated van Gogh’s caddy full of balls of yarn, explaining how the artist once sat facing the open box, twisting together yarn strands of different colors to see how the colors interacted optically before juxtaposing them in his paintings. We often remember van Gogh as the crazed man who sliced off his own ear, à la Kirk Douglas’s tortured portrayal in Lust for Life. It’s hard to imagine the artist sitting at a desk, winding yarn, pairing colors experimentally and thoughtfully. The yarn box an important reminder that planning, not just haphazard genius, plays into every great artist’s work.

The remainder of the exhibit takes us through van Gogh’s evolution from struggling twenty-something to Parisian resident to established artist poised to leave a legacy when he died in 1890. Van Gogh’s painting career didn’t start until the mid-1880s — toward the end of his life, during which he was extremely prolific. Though the original painting isn’t featured, the CMOA provides an image of van Gogh’s 1885 “The Potato Eaters” — a dark, realist painting in what was briefly van Gogh’s style before his art dealer brother recommended the lighter palette of the French impressionists.

An immediate contrast, “Le Moulin de la Galette” — the second featured painting — was created only a year later, but stylistically, couldn’t be more different. The tranquil, bucolic scene of windmill and chicken coop is characterized by soft greens and blues, the windmill blades barely sketched: You can imagine the tip of the brush just skimming the canvas. It’s still far removed from his later impressionist influences, but closer to his familiar pastel-dominated palette.

Van Gogh’s “Still Life, Basket of Apples” shows the artist grudgingly emulating some of his impressionist peers. The strokes are thicker, deliberate, even excessive compared to “Le Moulin de la Galette.” The crimson-outlined weave of the basket is swathed in heavy strokes of yellow and blue, lending the painting circular, swaddling movement. It’s clearly an early experiment, but it looks more like the van Gogh we know.

The final work in the exhibit, 1890’s “Wheat Fields After the Rain,” is van Gogh in his full glory. Thick, strong layers of green and yellow create linear movement in grass and the landscape stretching away from the viewer — strokes so thick that they cast shadows underneath them. It’s not just green, though: Mint, grass, lime, pine, teal, and turquoise complement and offset each other. Spots of white and red sketch indistinct wildflowers in the foreground, while wide robin’s-egg-blue curves depict clouds and sky overhead.

Though beautiful and focal to the exhibit, the placement of “Wheat Fields” is sudden after a four-year gap in van Gogh’s artistic career after “Le Moulin,” during which he was allegedly his most prolific, and yet the museum features no further works from this period. After “Wheat Fields,” viewers are left with a jarring and unsatisfying description of how the artist succumbed to suicide shortly after that painting was finished. It’s an unsettling transition, especially as we had been so carefully guided through the artist’s early stages, and yet we’re left to imagine what seemed like his most defining years. More exposition to ease the chronology would have been welcome.

If you’re a University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon student with free admission, Visting van Gogh alone may be worth the 10-minute walk down the street. But if you’re a non-affiliate, group this exhibit with others you’d like to see.