The Purest of Styles

Renzo Piano’s chaste blond addition to the Morgan Library holds for the remainder of the year, in the Morgan Stanley Gallery East, a small but intense exhibition centered on the twenty-two letters written in 1887– 1889 by Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard. Bernard, who was only nineteen at the outset of this epistolary outpouring from the thirty-four-year-old Van Gogh, is just a footnote in art history now, but as a painter and critic he enjoyed the acquaintance of a number of important Postimpressionists. The Morgan displays an elegant, thinly painted portrait of Bernard at a mere seventeen by Toulouse-Lautrec—the boy looks wispy, intelligent, polite—and Bernard claimed to have invented the “cloissoniste” style used by Gauguin to good effect; he elicited, in another correspondence, Cézanne’s famous wish to render nature “by means of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.”

The exhibition includes a number of Bernard’s paintings and sketches, and the catalog a good many more, and itis hard to see much talent in them. Of those on view, the portrait of Bernard’s grandmother (1887) shows a certain caricatural spark, and Brothel Scene (1888) illustrates the lumpy cloisonniste style with its heavy outlines and nonreceding backgrounds; Breton Women in the Meadow (1888), which Van Gogh said he liked, isolates various outlined costumed figures on a field of blank green—only two stray dogs and a little girl forlornly sucking her finger seem to have caught the painter’s full attention. His paintings at times seem to be etiolated Van Goghs. His sketches, even when of nude prostitutes, are sketchy to a fault. An attempt at a masterwork, Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour (1888), unpersuasively stretches a full-length, fully clothed female daydreamer along the bottom of a large canvas rendering, in edgy parallel brushstrokes resembling Cézanne’s, a vacuously tidy woods.

Bernard was a Symbolist, that is, a member of the artistic movement that lasted from roughly 1885 to 1910 and favored the symbolic representation of ideas over the depiction of common reality. Tinged with religious mysticism and a sickly eroticism, Symbolism sanctioned Bernard’s fascination with both brothels and religious scenes taken from the New Testament. Van Gogh, himself a Christian believer of a radical sort, deplored modern (as of the 1880s) attempts to revive the manner and subject matter of early Renaissance masters like Giotto. Almost all of his letters to Émile Bernard express resistance to abstract thought and advocate realism, as exemplified by Rembrandt, Hals, and other Dutch masters, including the recently rediscovered Vermeer.

Van Gogh and Bernard met in Paris, and Van Gogh wrote the first letter, using the intimate tu, while both still were there. He paternally advises the young Frenchman that “you’ll realize that in the studios not only does one not learn very much as far as painting goes, but not much that’s good in terms of savoir vivre, either.” Don’t be a “narrow sectarian,” the older painter says—“the equivalent of those …

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