The exhibit "Becoming van Gogh" might just be the most ambitious undertaking in the Denver Art Museum's 120-year-history.
The show brings together an impressive array of 70 works from the man many consider the greatest painter of all time, accompanied by another 20 from artists whose efforts inspired him. It will be in Denver for 13 weeks and travel to no other city.
Seven years in the making, the exhibit is a logistical wonder. The van Gogh paintings, drawings and prints were borrowed from 40 institutions and private collections across the globe.
Each loan was negotiated individually by curator Timothy J. Standring, who made dozens of trips abroad, persuading cautious museum directors and quirky collectors to send their precious van Goghs to a museum that does not have any of its own.
Then the works, valued together in the hundreds of millions of dollars and insured by a federal government program, had to be transported to Denver, an effort that required 22 separate shipments, each accompanied by its own courier and piles of paperwork.
When the show opens Oct. 21, it will present Denver with its first home-grown blockbuster art exhibit in decades and - if all goes as planned - finally fulfill the promise of big moments the museum made when it constructed its $111 million Frederic C. Hamilton wing in 2006.
"This is the most complicated exhibit the Denver Art Museum has ever done," said museum registrar Laura Paulick Moody, whose job is to keep track of the works as they come and go. "It has the largest scope, the largest number of paintings, the largest value."
A relentless pursuit
"Becoming van Gogh," which traces the origins and development of van Gogh's talents, is a career capper for Standring, a 23-year DAM veteran currently serving as the Gates Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture. Its very existence can be credited to the professional connections he has developed over time, but also to his personal powers of persuasion. He is a self-effacing guy whose sly smile paints a picture of optimism completed by his trademark bow-ties.
Former museum director Lewis Sharp bought into his idea of a large, van Gogh exhibit back in 2005 and Standring dove into the task of shaping an event that made art-historical sense.
What followed was a relentless drive to win the confidence of a tight-knit art community that controls the 800 paintings and 1,000 drawings van Gogh produced during his lifetime.
At first, the plan was to focus on van Gogh's years in Paris, where he did his most beloved paintings, but the scope changed as Standring and his partner, Louis van Tilborgh from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, developed a clearer idea of how to create an exhibit lenders would want to be a part of.
Ultimately, they decided on a retrospective that built a case for van Gogh's personal development as an artist. Mixed in would be work from his major influences, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro and others.
In the end, Standring wrote more than 600 loan-request letters and made personal visits to nearly every lender. For five years, he traveled, previewing each piece. He worked the phones at 5 a.m. to catch colleagues in Europe.
"Nobody loans a multimillion-dollar painting on one loan letter," said Stand-ring. "You have to make your pitch."
It took three visits to the Staatliche Museen in Berlin to secure a loan of "Road Workers," a drawing van Gogh completed in 1882, and three more to Oslo to obtain the 1888 drawing "View of Arles from Montmajour" from Norway's museum of art.
TheArt Institute of Chicago turned down seven loan requests before agreeing to send the 1887 oil painting "Grapes, Lemons, Pears, and Apples."
A museum might refuse one thing and offer another, or change its mind when it switches management, or politely decline as one collection did in Milan, even though Standring appealed in person there three times.
"You have to sense their changing sands as well as their changing needs," Standring said.
His strategy was to "keep calling until they don't take my calls." He is satisfied with the art he collected.
With each success and rejection, Standring and van Tilborgh would regroup and recalculate which works they needed to make their point.
"You always dream of the impossible," said van Tilborgh in a phone interview from Amsterdam last week.
"That's the fate of every curator that puts together an exhibition."
DAM had serious competition for van Gogh's work. At the same time, the National Museum of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art were hunting to stock their joint "Van Gogh: Up Close," a wildly successful exhibit that focused on the artist's nature paintings and wrapped in Philly in May.
But "Becoming van Gogh" had unique and attractive intellectual merits. Thematically honed, it promised a more structured and informational take on the 10 years - just 10 - that van Gogh made art before his death in 1890.
Van Gogh's personal struggles are legend, his mental illness and absinthe addiction, his famous moment of self-mutilation. But this show sets that aside, instead looking at how van Gogh taught himself to draw, how he learned about ink and oil and different kinds of paper, how he expressed his religious convictions through his choice of subject matter.
Room by room, by period and by geography, the exhibit follows the trail of a searching 20-something wanderer who decided he would be a professional artist, who began by imitating others then branched out into his own styles, who was affected by both the marketplace and the opinions of peers, who mastered the power of brush strokes, and who learned - in the show's colorful climax - to add in oranges and burnt umbers, to connect brilliant reds, golds, indigos into cohesive works of art.
This isn't a portrait of the romantic and irritable van Gogh his followers conjure up. It presents a thoughtful, calculating workman who wanted to be the best he could.
"Van Gogh was quite rational and systematic," said Standring. "And he had a fierce intelligence."
"Becoming van Gogh" is an exhibit that doesn't rely on big paintings to make its point. There are wheat fields but no big sunflowers, portraits of prostitutes but no cafes or dance halls. There are unremarkable early drawings of girls and miraculous late paintings of oranges, apples and grapes.
Its blockbuster quality comes from its entirety, not its individual pieces; from the supporters who paid for the research and the increased security; from the dare and ego of a smallish city like Denver to put it together.