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“What Vincent Saw” at The Ryerson & Burnham Library

Ryerson & Burnham Library Reading Room, Art Institute of Chicago. Photo Toby zur Loye

In 1950, the Art Institute of Chicago staged an ambitious Vincent Van Gogh exhibition.  With over ninety percent of the paintings being shown in the United States for the first time, the retrospective was a great success, also traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  In the years since that show, Van Gogh’s works have been exhibited in countless different institutions, have been regrouped and organized by curators in countless different iterations.  And while it is always exciting to stand in front of a Van Gogh painting (regardless of how many times you might have engaged that painting before), it becomes increasingly difficult to put a fresh spin on familiar works.

Peter Pollack, “Vincent Willem Van Gogh Holding a Self-Portrait of his Uncle,” 1949

What Vincent Saw – currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Library until November 18th – breathes new life into well-known works through the pairing of photographs from the AIC archives with illustrations of Van Gogh paintings and drawings.  The photographs, taken by Peter Pollack, depict architectural and regional landmarks that appear in certain Van Gogh works; by juxtaposing the photos with images of certain paintings, visitors are offered a rare glimpse into both the world that Vincent saw and the resulting vision that he recorded on paper and canvas.

This exhibition would not have been possible though if not for a fortuitous friendship that developed during the planning of the 1950 retrospective.  In the 1940’s, the AIC Director, Daniel Catton Rich, and the AIC Public Relations Counsel, Peter Pollack, contacted the Van Gogh family in the hopes of borrowing some work to show in Chicago.  At that time, Van Gogh’s estate was being managed by his nephew, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, who had inherited his uncle’s collection after his mother died.  Vincent Willem agreed to loan a number of paintings to the Art Institute, and the ensuing negotiations provided the spark for a lifelong friendship that grew between Peter Pollack and Van Gogh’s nephew.  As the relationship developed, Vincent Willem offered to accompany Pollack on a trip around Holland and France to show him various sites that were featured in some of Van Gogh’s paintings.

LEFT: Peter Pollack, “House of The Potato Eaters,” 1949
RIGHT: Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885

Throughout his travels, Pollack visited and spoke with locals while taking photographs that range from shots of architectural sites, to shots of rural farmlands, to shots of individuals who reminisced about interactions with Van Gogh.  What Vincent Saw pulls material from the Ryerson and Burnham archives, and a variety of Pollack’s photographs are displayed alongside letter correspondences and other bits of exhibition ephemera.  Some of the exhibition’s highlights include:

1) Photograph of the house of The Potato Eaters – Pollack and Vincent Willem began their trip in the small Dutch town of Nuenen.  In the mid 1880’s, when Van Gogh was living in Nuenen with his parents, he painted what most people consider to be his first major work, The Potato Eaters.  Pollack’s photograph depicts the tiny shack that the actual potato eaters called home.

2) Photograph of the “birds nest boys” – While visiting Nuenen, Pollack photographed two old men whose help Van Gogh had enlisted when they were young.  Van Gogh used to pay the “birds nest boys” to climb trees and retrieve nests for the artist to paint.  The men recalled Van Gogh offering to trade paintings for the nests, but the young boys always chose to take the money (about twenty-five Dutch cents) instead.

3) Photographs of asylums – After a fight with Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh famously cut off part of his ear.  As a result, he was placed in solitary confinement at the Arles local hospital, Hôtel-Dieu.  He was institutionalized three separate times in Arles, and he later admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence voluntarily.  Pollack photographed both facilities, including Van Gogh’s room at Hôtel-Dieu and the hallways at St. Paul de Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy.

LEFT:Peter Pollack, “Corridor at St. Paul de Mausole Asylum, Saint-Rémy de Provence,” 1949
RIGHT: Vincent van Gogh, “Corridor in the Asylum,” 1889

Vincent Willem Van Gogh managed his uncle’s estate for over thirty-five years.  In 1960, he established the Van Gogh Foundation, and in 1962, the entire collection was donated to the Dutch government.  The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1973, boasts the largest collection of Van Gogh works in the world, with the Art Institute of Chicago close behind.

The 1950 retrospective featured fifty-four of Pollack’s photographs that were hung alongside the ninety-two Van Gogh paintings selected for the exhibition.  Pollack would go on to lecture about his experience abroad and continued to show his photos.  The title of the AIC Library’s current show, What Vincent Saw, was actually adapted from the title of a book that Pollack had hoped to publish, but never did.  Under different circumstances, this wonderful project might have fallen into relative obscurity.  But in 2001, shortly after Peter Pollack had passed away, his widow approached the Art Institute and donated her late husband’s photographic collection to the museum archives.  The Ryerson and Burnham archives now own around 600 of Pollack’s photographs – roughly 100 printed photos and about 500 negatives.  And after the Van Gogh museum recently contacted the AIC archives about this show, Van Gogh fans will be holding their breath and hoping that a potential future collaboration between these two juggernaut institutions might offer further access to the collection.

Pollack, when asked about his travels, explained, “It wasn’t a documentary record I was after, but rather a study of the Dutch landscape and its people, from which Vincent drew the inspiration for his art.” What Vincent Saw is a testament to the importance and longevity of this archival collection, and a trip to the Ryerson and Burnham Library is well worth the insight you will gain on the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh, presented through the photographs of Peter Pollack.

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