Timothy Standring’s Van Gogh masterpiece
November 29, 2012
Curator Timothy J. Standring, the mastermind behind the Denver Art Museum’s Becoming Van Gogh exhibit, visited Frisco the other day.
A snowboarder who makes regular pilgrimages to the slopes, the energetic 62-year-old is no stranger to Summit County. He’s also no stranger to travel. To put together the exhibit at Denver Art Museum, Standring traveled around the world for nearly five years in order to convince owners and caretakers of rare pieces that Becoming Van Gogh was worth it.
“I had to tread lightly, especially with European curators,” said Standring. “They are serious gatekeepers and will only look at serious propositions that add to serious scholarship in order to take the risk to send works to Denver, Colorado.”
He traveled to some museums and lenders as many as 3-8 times and succeeded in procuring nearly 90 works from 60 lending entities and 12 countries for the exhibit.
“We had a lot of fun doing it,” Standring said, while admitting to experiencing “some dark moments” while waiting for loans to come in. “We had to think strategically about obtaining levels of critical mass that would then snowball,” he said.
Becoming Van Gogh pieces together a timeline of the artist’s development, charting his path to “becoming” Vincent Van Gogh as we know him.
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“He always drew, but he wasn’t very good at the beginning; he was very crude,” Standring said. “If he had done nothing past ‘The Potato Eaters,’ he wouldn’t have been in the art history books.”
Instead, the artist systematically pursued his own education, outside of art school, to develop his expertise.
“‘Becoming’ is the perfect title,” Standring said. “We’ve got somebody who decided, ‘I need to learn painting,’ so he stopped drawing. “He said, ‘I really need to know something more about color.’ Then he goes back to drawing and begins to combine mark making with color in an extraordinary way. Maybe artists with less genius wouldn’t have expended as much energy as he did in order to win and solve these artistic problems as he moved through his career.”
The exhibit itself was an act of becoming. The idea came to Standring in 2006 after he read “A Year in the Life of Shakespeare” by James Shapiro, which inspired him to pursue an exhibit tracing a year in the life of Van Gogh. Before long, however, it became apparent that one year wouldn’t do the trick – so it became two, centering on Van Gogh’s years in Paris.
Many curators organize art shows by geography, but the more time Standring spent in his “scholarly cave,” it also became apparent that one location – the Netherlands, for example – provided invaluable context for Van Gogh’s artistic development in the next – Paris. And so Standring discovered the timeline of what he calls Van Gogh’s “self-taught excellence outside of art school,” after which “the curators decided to open the floodgates to allow works from his entire career.”
“It’s a misunderstanding to organize his career by geography; the whole thing is a pretty seamless continuum over 10 years,” Standring said. Instead of “Van Gogh in Paris,” the exhibition would be: Becoming Van Gogh.
The conceptual shift took place three and a half years ago, near the midway point of the exhibit’s development. “That was the shift that got people on board,” Standring said.
A timeline that focuses on firsts in the artist’s life with respect to art-making, the exhibit traces Van Gogh’s efforts from learning to draw and learning the human figure to mastering expressive color and painting techniques, Standring said. It recognizes the aesthetic potential of Japanese woodblock prints and includes a work painted two weeks before the artist was shot.
“We didn’t just go for any works, we went after specific ones to take you through his artistic journey,” said Ashley Pritchard, communications manager for the DAM. The exhibit features 70 works by Van Gogh, with an additional 20 works by other artists who Van Gogh responded to, Standring said.
People mistakenly ask “Why Denver?” – but Becoming Van Gogh is not a traveling exhibit. “We created the Van Gogh show,” Standring said. “It is the culmination of six years of work. We didn’t pay fees to borrow works of art. We don’t even have a Van Gogh museum in Denver.”
As to the allure of Van Gogh’s work, Standring said: “There’s something about the unfinished quality of his art that causes us to activate the mind, and in some odd way, he just hits our core in his ability to express emotions so keenly and directly.”
“I found that he had a great deal of intuitive energy that he brought to bear on his progressing artistic decisions,” Standring said. “This is the first exhibit that really examines how he went about making art with intentional decisions.”