Timothy J. Standring jokes that the time he spent putting together Becoming Van Gogh stretched almost as long as the artist's career.
And, well, he's close. He built this show for seven years, and Vincent van Gogh was active only about 10.
Standring, Gates Foundation curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, wrote upward of 600 letters and made visits to curators and private collectors in both the U.S. and Europe for years, wooing them into loaning priceless works for this one-time, one-place exhibition.
While 60 eventually agreed, he was turned down plenty. In a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, Standring recalled that he "went to Oslo three times, but never met the director or the curator."
The setbacks that affected the tortured artist's own working life, of course, were more serious. But van Gogh's strengths were transcendent, and as you follow the arc of his self-taught art career in Becoming, both men look brilliant. Curated with the help of Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the exhibit allows you to track not only the 19th-century icon's evolving technique, and his signature voice, but what he was actually learning as he developed.
As Standring puts it, "This is an exhibit of intelligent looking."
Becoming features about 70 van Goghs, plus 20 works by artists who influenced him. Standring points out that he and van Tilborgh borrowed works that van Gogh actually saw or wrote about, and have placed them beside van Gogh's attempts at reproducing them, or using them for inspiration. This includes pieces by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bouguereau and Millet, as well as the Japanese artists he admired, Hiroshige and Hokusai.
It's a breathtaking effort. Here rests van Gogh's portrait of postman Joseph Roulin; there, the first van Gogh work to ever enter a public museum. The first work to greet visitors — "Kitchen Gardens on Montmartre" — is also his largest painting, and it's followed by a lithograph van Gogh dashed off from memory depicting his first regarded masterpiece, "The Potato Eaters."
And at the end, three self-portraits.
"I think this is the first exhibition where you have a self-portrait at the end, instead of the beginning," van Tilborgh says. He adds, "We thought it would be a nice way to round off the exhibition. ... You can have your own moments, your private moments, with a great artist."
The show isn't biographical, but it does chronologically chart van Gogh's artistic progression. While the beginning impresses with thoughtful drawings and dark, didactic works — van Gogh sought to send a "visual sermon" at the time — the end astounds with explosions of color and that singular Van Gogh paint-straight-from-the-tube mark-making.
Emotion trembles beneath these works, and the intensity of a great creative force long gone is gripping. Says Standring, "He's the Rocky Balboa of art."