But here come Vincent’s daily MoMA throngs, their eyes and cameras on his “Starry Night.” It’s a bittersweet sight more than a century after van Gogh’s suicide and the grief of Theo, his brother and singular audience who never stopped believing in Vincent’s genius. Only one of his 900-plus paintings was sold in his lifetime. “Though I am often in the depths of misery,” Vincent wrote to Theo, “there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.”
Other museums have cynosure works and selfie-obsessed crowds. Andy Warhol’s 32 soup cans does all right at MoMA, but “Starry Night” shines apart.
It hangs on its own separate wall, just around the corner from a Cézanne still life with apples that seems outrageously neglected. “Stand back,” a guard repeatedly intones at the van Gogh. Sometimes the only option is to back off and treat the crowd scene as its own museum piece.
A husky young man in a red-and-white Yankees cap spots the crowd, muscles in and turns his back to the painting to take a selfie. His self-satisfied smile is no match for Vincent’s flaring stars in a swirling sky. “It often seems to me that night is still more richly colored than the day,” the artist perceived. “If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance.”
The Yankees fan moves on, then wheels back for a close-up of the painting’s wall text as if the selfie backdrop has an importance after all. Who’s to say he missed van Gogh’s ultimate point: “One must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”
As a curator, Ms. Temkin has decided nothing can be done about ravenous phone photographers in museums. “I used to be more judgmental about it, really disapprove,” she says. Lately she sees how audiences at public events watch a big video screen image rather than the actual person in the picture speaking live right there on stage. Something’s happening; she notices celebrity chefs preparing dishes for their photogenic possibilities. She suspects artists are inevitably crafting work with similar nods to the overwhelming social media culture, with all its likes and retweets.
“It’s utterly impossible to wrap one’s mind around van Gogh, seeing this going on,” the curator notes affectionately. “Maybe God is good and will let him know he’s beloved,” she says. “But beyond that, he’s not…