Saturday, January 09, 2010

Starry Starry-Eyed

Starry night over The Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh

Australians love a bit of kulcha. Never is it so much in evidence as when a 'blockbuster' art show rolls into town. Queues for Masterpieces from Paris, a selection from the Musée d'Orsay's permanent collection have astounded everyone. Who knew there were that many people even in Australia, much less fans of fine art?

Musée d'Orsay is being refurbished and the custodians have done the sensible thing of making the safekeeping of their collection someone else's problem for the duration. Warehouses storing priceless art have a nasty habit of burning down and Paris is a particularly fire-prone city. They don't say it 'sizzles' without reason. What better way to offset insurance premiums and make a little money on the side than to pack the valuables off to Australia where there is a ready audience hungry for an edifying eyeful.

I won't be going. I've been to Musée d'Orsay many times and I doubt that melting in a long queue in a Canberra summer will add much height to the memory. I've done my share of lining up in the cause of self-improvement. My recollection of the (show me the) Monet in London is dominated by the horror of those queues and compounded by flashbacks of rows and rows of people on the tube flaunting their Le Bassin aux Nympheas plastic carrier bags.

The awareness of an artwork's function as an asset is generally inseparable from its aesthetic value these days. I count myself amongst the curious plebs who spent their full five allocated minutes in a darkened room gawping at For the Love of God with a grudging admiration for its audacity. I'd often stroll into The National Gallery in London and sit for a while in my favourite room which contained Rousseau's Tiger in a tropical storm (surprised!) and Seurat's Bathers at Asnières. Opposite the Seurat sits Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Ocassionally I'd look at it and think, I could get a hundred two-bedroomed flats for what that bit of rag is worth.

The irony of the extant value of the works of one V. V. Gogh, poverty-stricken outsider with severe mental health issues, has been more than adequately covered over the last century or so. I won't go into that here. What is interesting is the sheer exploitability of the idea that if something is worth that much money it compels you to see it. Robert Hughes says,

the art experience is replaced by the excitement of staring at inaccessible capital.

Sometimes a perceived desire to share a space with an object whose value is not only almost inconceivably fantastic but universally recognised as a pinnacle of human achievement, causes a kind of blindness. From the news reportage of the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition, it appears many people are under the impression they are going to see Starry Night, one of Van Gogh's most celebrated paintings, as opposed to Starry Night over The Rhone (above). The really famous one is at home in the Museum of Modern Art in New York - safe with MOMA you could say. As far as I know it has no plans to vacation in sunny Canberra. Van Gogh had a habit of painting the same idea over and over. I don't suppose there was much in the way of visual variety in Arles in the 1880s, particularly if cash-flow was strictly a one-way street. But does it matter which Van Goghs you see, or Matisses or Cézannes? Does genius really have bad sable hair days?

If you drop in here, you can secure for yourself a genuine, hand-painted reproduction of Starry Night for around AUS$200. Wouldn't that be a better investment than waiting in a long line in a canvas hat for a few fleeting seconds with the wrong painting?