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What makes a painting famous?

On my search for famous paintings I will take you on a guided tour through several museums, asking the question: "What makes this or that painting famous?". We will begin with the Kröller-Müller museum (KMM), situated smack in the middle of a national park. On arrival the scenery seems utopic and unreal with all the shiny metal sculptures standing in the "sculpture garden" that surrounds the museum. Inside one is happily welcomed by some Barbara Hepworth sculptures, but one has to ask for directions (it's a rather hard to navigate museum) to arrive at the main and most famous attraction: the Van Gogh collection. The latter alone must be worth many hundreds of millions of Euros, but the museum looks like a well-defended fortress, for it's remoteness (there's only one road leading up to it).
Wheat field with reaper and sun, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
I took many photos of paintings and have left them in their frame for authenticity. Taking a look at the Van Gogh's, we immediately arrive at one aspect of our fundamental question: what makes a painting famous?
Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
One of van Gogh's most famous paintings is Café Terrace at Night, but to tell you the truth I was somewhat underwhelmed. It's smaller than you would think and it looks overworked. Much more impressed I was with Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, which is less popular and looking at the photo I took of it, it's beginning to dawn: Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, with all it's subtle shades of yellow and yellow-ocre is much harder to digest by a camera than a painting like Café Terrace at Night, which it's far more straightforward in terms of contrast. Because the camera loves this painting, it will look good in art books, posters, cards and on the Internet, contributing to it's fame. Of course there's more to it than just just "easy contrast". While Toulouse de Lautrec's images of Paris nightlife suggest the maker as an active participant, Van Gogh's nightlife scenes show him as an outsider. The people in the painting appear to be moving away from us and the intense yellow light over the terrace suggests emptiness and loneliness. The blue starry sky sits there both ominous and indifferent to the individual. Like Edvard Munch, Van Gogh often painted the solitude and desolation of the individual within a crowd. Café Terrace at Night is a view on the social life of the average citizen as seen through the eyes of a social outsider¹.

While at the KMM I was very impressed with some paintings of some French pre-modern art masters, like Camille Corot, for their artistic depth. That's the beef one might have with modern art²: that it can be perceived as shallow. Because form precedes content, a beginning artist will focus on developing technical and conceptual means before he will start think in terms of the content of his art. The same is true for innovative art movements such as modern art. The impressionists were certainly shallow and altough several of Van Gogh's portraits have great psychological depth, one sometimes has to wonder what it was he was trying to achieve, with the almost babylike coloration and simplification of forms. Not long before his death, he deplored having deviated from his sombre "Dutch" palette and not having deepened the style he used before he went to France, where he developed his famous bright coloration. With Van Gogh and other modern artists, innovation went at the expense of artistic depth, to some extent, but innovation was inevitable and the only option for an artistically ambitious young artist.
During Van Gogh's lifetime Camille Corot was one of the most reputable artists, but his style can be perceived as eminently boring and uninspiring (especially his landscapes), depressed almost, and one shouldn't be surprised that Corot et al. failed to inspire the young generation of artists of his time. Then came along the impressionists, who were shallow, yes, but whose work was a feast for the eye in terms of vitality and innovative energy. Looking at Van Gogh (a so called "post-impressionist") one gets the feeling "well, here's a man that wants to do things completely different, and with vision". The morale? That we have arrived at two more reasons why Van Gogh's paintings are so famous:

    Vitality. You can hardly dispute that Van Gogh work is intense and entertaining and as it turns out, vitality moves the masses.
    Innovation. Not that the average person cares whether or not an artist has been important in terms of art history, but somehow it's exciting to watch an innovative creation. Whether it be Werner von Braun's V2 rocket or (more benevolently) Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of the renaissance parachute: the human eye can discern innovation as a property intrinsic to the creation, something that stays with the object throughout time.

Finally, a vital ingredient of the immortal fame of men like Van Gogh and Gauguin is entirely personal and lies in the fundamental contradiction of the human psyche: Man simultaneously desires security and insecurity. Man wants to be safe from harm and unpleasant surprises and at the same time he wants the adrenaline rush, living on the edge, pushing his luck. He wants both, but in most people the security aspect takes the upper hand and so we wrap ourselves in protective cocoons of welfare. But something nibbles at you from the other side and so you try your hand at bungy jumping, motor cycling, extramarital affairs and so on.
Some people seem to gravitate towards the adventurous side and if they seem to be motivated, not by extramarital but by, well...purer motives, then they may count on both the scorn and admiration of the security freaks. Needless to say Van Gogh was such a person - the eternal idol of John Doe, office boy par excellence.
Piet Mondrian
There seems to be such a thing as "the artistic temperament". During the 17th century people would warn each other against becoming a painter, because painters were prone to melancholy. In other words: the state of mind was seen as inherent to the profession. A painter is a different animal than a musician or a writer, less able to work nine to five, more bent on personal freedom: a painter is the anti-clerk. Van Gogh has the added advantage of being a tragic figure of popular culture: the hero that didn't make it and as such he poses no threat to our own decision to choose for security. All this has contributed greatly to Van Gogh, The Myth and hence to the fame of his paintings.

Now back to the KMM, which is big on comparatively early work of Piet Mondrian, who isn't familiar with his red, yellow and blue paintings? As you step into the Mondrian room, you're overwhelmed by a sense of serenity, which is a big difference between his work and that of other "The Stijl"-ists, like Van Doesburg or Van der Leck. The color field painters of the 50s and 60s were undoubtedly motivated by the sense of purity and serenity that Mondrian's paintings give.
Composition No 10, Pier with Ocean, 1915, Piet Mondrian
If you move up close to Mondrian's works, you'll notice the tentative and painterly quality that many of his works have, which is why a Mondrian painting is actually hard to forge. The painting on the right is a "second state", which means that the first state was partially overpainted and Mondrian made no attempt to hide the first state, it shines right through the second (although you don't see that on the photo). The painterly quality of these works lies in the fact that the paintings clearly show the painting process by means of visible brushstrokes. This is not a matter of course, because many styles are not painterly: the brushstrokes aren't visible and the process of creation doesn't clearly reveal the medium, like painting. A Mondrian painting being painterly is probably the last thing you'd expect: all you see on images of his paintings are these straight lines, blocked in with primary colors. Mondrian's work may seem cold and overly methodoligical and yet it's painterly, a style usually associated with hot-blooded men like Van Gogh. Mondrian was involved in an esoteric belief system, a state of mind which translates artistically into a style closely related to symbolism, minus the aspect of fear that is usually present in the latter. Inspired by his theosophist beliefs, Mondrian created an art that aimed for the "higher" and the universal and has no direct relationship with daily life (although this changed during his stay in America). And so Mondrian, the artistic mathematician, was actually a deeply spiritual and romantic man, which you can clearly see in his work. While in the Mondrian room, I felt my karma improve with several percentage points and felt ready to take off and hit the ceiling, on my way to reach a higher state of being. Mondrian, the walking contradiction, was able to render a strictly formal form of art in a most spiritual and romantic way. Hence, in my opinion, the fame of his paintings.

More famous paintings will be discussed soon. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy the rest of this site....

1. "Social outsider" is a relative understanding. Van Gogh had had a rather busy social life in Paris, which drove him to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion, and was the reason why he moved to the South of France. There, of course, he knew nobody, and there the local population was less susceptible to his personality than the Paris Bohémien.

2. The era started with the impressionists, mid-19th century and runs up to WWII, although there are other definitions possible.

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