What is the most misunderstood work of art

The debate as to whether the work and the author can be separated, whether the work should be viewed independently of the author, has never been dead, but it has recently picked up speed again. Mostly it is about personal misconduct, about sexual assaults like with Kevin Spacey and Michael Jackson or about being close to dictators like with Peter Handke. Many a long-time fan would like to save the work from its author in such delicate cases.

The visual arts, however, abound with examples in which, on the contrary, it is of great benefit to the reputation of artists if, in their reception, man and work of art merge inseparably with one another. The most prominent case of such a - posthumous - symbiosis of man and painting is Vincent van Gogh, who died much too early in 1890. His furious brushwork, his dazzling, thickly applied colors already seemed to be an expression of an obsessive and troubled character to viewers around 1900. Only because all modern lovers soon recognized the artist who was suffering from his time and life in Van Gogh's paintings and drawings with great empathy, did his radically new art establish itself and then also conquered the taste of the masses.

The big exhibition "Making van Gogh" in the Frankfurt St├Ądelmuseum gives that impression. It deals with van Gogh's afterlife in Germany from 1900 to 1914, i.e. at the time when the Dutchman's extensive oeuvre, which was so difficult to classify, became a brand. To tell this story is long overdue, after all, besides the Dutch, it was mainly the Germans to whom van Gogh owes his fame. And it is commendable that the institution does not limit itself to showing around 50 pictures by van Gogh, but rather combines this with a decidedly historical approach.

Misunderstood in a land of romantics

The myth of the nervous, manic and unhappy painter was born in 1890, while the artist was still alive, when he wrote that Vincent van Gogh was "a fanatic, an enemy of bourgeois sobriety and pettiness, a kind of drunk giant , (...) a terrible and insane genius, often outstanding, occasionally grotesque, always on the edge of the pathological ". Van Gogh felt misunderstood and criticized his critic in a letter in which he confessed to his role models, including Paul Gauguin. Apparently he did not see himself as a slightly to completely crazy loner; soon afterwards he asked his brother Theo to dissuade Aurier from writing any more about him. Perhaps he feared for his reputation and his success if he stood there as a lonely owl.

That was of no use. In Germany, the land of the romantics, Aurier's words fell on fertile ground after van Gogh's death. In the early 20th century, art historians, collectors and artists of the avant-garde were looking for ancestors who had already resolutely and emotionally broken with everything that had gone before. It didn't frighten them, but aroused their curiosity about how much van Gogh's art had been vilified (his pictures were "infested with smallpox", wrote an early reviewer). After a retrospective in 1905 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, first German collectors, then the museum directors, systematically bought works by the Dutchman. In 1908 the St├Ądelmuseum acquired his first painting by the master, the "Farmhouse in Nuenen".

German Expressionists absorbed the impressions and admired the painter for his courage, his subjectivity, his color intensity and his freedom. In 1914 there were already around 150 paintings by van Gogh in private and public German collections.