“There have been none like this — none at all.”
In two years as a Yale University Art Gallery employee, Ralph Aiello had never seen the numbers he saw the past three months.
“It’s a steady flow every day,” the gallery guard said.
The reason: students and local residents alike have flocked to catch a glimpse of “Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Cypresses: Visions of Saint Remy,” which showcased two of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous works, “The Starry Night” and “Cypresses.”
The gallery tucked the two paintings, which came from the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively, into a small alcove on the gallery’s third floor, just an arm’s length away from Yale’s own Van Goghs, “The Night Café” and “Corner of Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres.”
But even from that alcove, students and gallery employees say, the exhibit has made quite the impact. To say it has caused a stir, they say, would not be doing it justice.
The gallery, for one, was forced to entirely rethink its operations to accommodate the unprecedented numbers. Museum-goers, in turn, experienced a rethinking of their own: the space housing the exhibit redefined the way many perceived the paintings.
After all, from June 15 until yesterday, when the exhibit closed, the Yale University Art Gallery was showing two of Van Gogh’s greatest masterpieces.
NOW ‘A DESTINATION’
Curator Jennifer Gross acquired the pieces — both created in 1889 during Van Gogh’s stay at the Saint-Remy insane asylum — through a standard lending-borrowing exchange. The gallery paid for shipping and insurance and no loan fee was involved, said Jill Westgard, deputy director of museum resources and stewardship. The interaction, she said, was an example of “good museum” citizenship.
Susan Matheson, chief curator and the acting director of the gallery, said the story of the loan is simple: a fair trade. In the past, the gallery has lent paintings to the MoMA and the Met in New York City and the galleries returned the favor. When “Starry Night” makes the trip back to the MoMA later this month, for example, “The Night Cafe,” an important piece in Yale’s collection, will journey to New York as well.
The logistics of the loan may have been typical, but the exhibit itself was full of firsts.
To accommodate the crowds of up to 1,000 that passed through every day, the gallery developed, for the first time, a timed ticketing system.
Displaying the works in an isolated location — in contrast to their typical homes in sprawling Manhattan art galleries surrounded by jostling crowds — begets a “contemplative experience,” Gross explained in an interview with Diane Orson on the local NPR station. The intimacy — ensured by the timed ticketing system, which provided the option of reserving online or walk-in tickets — allows viewers time for personal reflection.
The buzz surrounding the exhibit also reinvigorated local interest in the recently renovated Louis Kahn building, Westgard said, particularly since the exhibit ran during the summer and therefore drew a crowd from the larger New Haven area, rather than only students. A final count for the show’s turnout will be available later this week, she said.
“Using the timed tickets made the gallery a destination that people planned their day around in a way that they hadn’t thought of in the past,” Westgard said. “We are free and open but sometimes people will take it for granted.”
The last time a show at the gallery drew crowds in such large numbers was for the tercentennial exhibition in 2001, celebrating Yale’s 300th anniversary. In 1986, museumgoers lined Chapel Street for a popular “Winslow Homer Watercolors” exhibition; and in 1976 a bicentennial exhibition the gallery hosted an exhibition commemorating America’s 200th birthday that traveled overseas to the Victoria and Albert Museum in England.
‘THE HUMAN ELEMENT’
But the excitement this time was different. Elise Kenney, the gallery’s archivist, said the previous three most popular exhibitions drew unstoppable crowds for other reasons — the Homer show for its breathtaking visual beauty and the anniversary shows for the scope of their content. The Van Gogh show, Kenney said, lacked the grandiosity of bigger shows, but attracted crowds for its subtle emotional depth.
“The Van Gogh exhibit is just two paintings,” Kenney said. “It is a handful of carefully controlled people who are admitted at a very slow pace to look at something that is very thought provoking, not spectacular in the grand visual sense but more or less a private and contemplative experience. For me, it is something like going to see the Rothko Chapel down in Houston, Texas, when you go into a room and you are surrounded by a quiet infusion of colors.”
Several Yalie students interviewed said they had seen “The Starry Night” before, either in museums or in the poster reproductions of the renowned work on Chapel Street near the Gallery. But, they all agreed, seeing the painting in such close quarters was a one-of-a-kind experience.
“They appear differently because you can see textures,” Warren Speth ’11 said. “It adds the human element.”
Textures are critical to an appreciation of Van Gogh’s work, given the use of thick, heavy paint. And although the brushstrokes that compose the moon, sky, trees and mountains jump off both canvases, they are significantly more prominent on “Cypresses,” the less well-known piece.
Unlike the more valuable “The Starry Night,” “Cypresses” is not masked by a glass cover. But the decision is sometimes based on museum politics; the lending museum makes the decisions about how the borrowing gallery exhibits a painting. In this case, MoMA chose to place “The Starry Night” behind glass, a practice known as “glazing,” while the Met left the globs of paint in “Cypresses” in open air.
The renowned paintings are now on their way back to New York, Westgard said, but by all accounts their summer vacation in the Elm City was a success. She said she hopes the momentum created by the exhibition will carry over into future shows, including “Picasso and the Allure of Image,” which are scheduled to open in January.