On the Difficulty of Separating Van Gogh the Artist from Van Gogh the Brand

It has become harder over the last 130 years or so to see Van Gogh plain. It is practically harder in that our approach to his paintings in museums is often blocked by an urgent, excitable crescent of worldwide fans, iPhones aloft for the necessary selfie with Sunflowers. They are to be welcomed: the international reach of art should be a matter not of snobbish disapproval but rather of crowd management and pious wonder – as I found when a birthday present of a Van Gogh mug hit the mark with my 13-year-old goddaughter in Mumbai. But there is so much noise around Van Gogh besides the noise of his paintings. There is the work, then the several hundred thousand words he himself wrote, then the biographies, then the novel, then the film of the novel, then the gift shop, then even (as at the National Gallery) the Sunflower bags in which you cart your treasures away from the gift shop. The painter has become a world brand. And so there is an inevitable coarsening, at the micro as well as the macro level…

We have a problem of seeing, just as we often have a problem hearing (or hearing clearly), say, a Beethoven symphony. It’s hard to get back to our first enraptured seeings and hearings, when Van Gogh and Beethoven struck our eyes and ears as nothing had before; and yet equally hard to break through to new seeings, new hearings. So we tend, a little lazily, to acknowledge greatness by default, and move elsewhere, away from the crowds discovering him as we first discovered him.

Julian Barnes, writing about Vincent van Gogh in the London Review of Books.

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