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Art and Culture

David and Art - Two Artists in Nature


Sometimes we miss seeing what connects great art if we focus too much on superficial differences in the artists themselves.

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Clement Greenberg, this towering art critic of the mid 20th century, once said that standards for art didn’t really change through the years. He said that the great artists of his day—by whom he meant Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning—have to rise and fall by the same standards by which artists like Rembrandt and Titian and Velazquez rose and fell. That which makes Rembrandt a great artist is the same thing that makes Pollock a great artist and the same thing that makes Monet a great artist.

Well, what IS that thing?  It isn’t the ability to paint an object realistically. That’s not what makes a great artist; that makes a great technician.  Instead it’s an ability to create an image that captures the eye, stimulates the mind, and intrigues the soul. Remembering this is crucial to understanding art and putting art from one century into conversation with art from another century.  Artists separated by time and culture and space can still speak to each other and speak to us.

Nowhere I think is this truth more on display right now than at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. They have a show up  that’s a joint exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.  Not so far removed from each other perhaps as Rembrandt and Pollock, but certainly widely different artists—but, maybe not as widely as we think.  Vincent van Gogh, the famous post-impressionist, was born in The Netherlands in 1853.  He died when he was 37.  David Hockney, a lesser-known name perhaps but an artist whose visual imagery is no less striking (and who’s one of my favorites), was born in England in 1937.  He’s currently 83. 

The exhibit is called “Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature” and it compares their paintings of trees, fields, and the natural landscape. It premiered at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and its Houston stop is its only appearance in the United States.

It’s never would’ve occurred to me to look at a Hockney and Van Gogh in the same way at the same time but, here it is.  And, just by looking at the works online and seeing them in relation to each other’s, their similarities are more important than their differences.  It shows the eye of two great artists who, through color and composition and a vibrancy that jumps off the canvas, imbue the world they see with a common significance that helps us see ourselves as part of nature.

Be advised that it’s heavy on the Hockney: the ratio is about 5 to 1 in Hockney’s favor. There are, simply, far more Hockney’s around than Van Gogh’s.  It’s up through June 20.  I hope I get down there to see it.