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Cocaine investigation leads to discovery of 2 Van Gogh paintings

Police investigating suspected Italian mobsters for cocaine trafficking discovered two Vincent Van Gogh paintings hidden in a farmhouse near Naples, masterpieces that had vanished in 2002 during a nighttime heist at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, authorities said this past week.

The two paintings were “considered among the artworks most searched for in the world, on the FBI’s list of the Top 10 art crimes,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.

They were found in a farmhouse near Castellammare di Stabia as Italian police seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) worth of assets, including farmland, villas and apartments and a small airplane.

Investigators contend those assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale, according to a statement by prosecutors Giovanni Colangelo and Filippo Beatrice.

The recovered masterpieces, propped up on easels, were unveiled for reporters at a news conference in Naples.

Museum director Axel Rueger said Italian investigators contacted the museum earlier in the week and art experts determined the paintings were authentic.

“Needless to say, it’s a great day for us today,” Rueger told Sky TG24 TV. “We hope they are soon back where they belong.”

With their frames removed and covered by cotton cloths, the paintings appeared to be in relatively good condition despite their long odyssey, the museum said.

One of the paintings, the 1882 “Seascape at Scheveningen,” is one of Vincent Van Gogh’s first major works.

It depicts a boat setting off into a stormy sea, and the thick paint trapped grains of sand that blew up from the Dutch beach as Van Gogh worked on it over two days.

The other is a 1884-85 work, “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,” which depicts a church in the southern Netherlands where the artist’s father was the pastor.

Experts believe it was done for Van Gogh’s mother.

Despite the wishes of the museum, the paintings are not leaving Italy anytime soon. They are evidence in an investigation of whether gangsters from the Camorra crime syndicate were behind the original theft or might have become involved with the artworks later.

The Camorra is one of Italy’s three largest organized crime syndicates, with the Calabria-based ‘ndrangheta by far the most powerful. The Camorra consists of many crime clans, based in Naples as well as many of the Campania region’s small towns.

Financial Police. Col. Giovanni Salerno said investigators looking into the syndicate’s cocaine trafficking operations got a tip that the Camorra might have the Van Gogh artworks.

“One of those being investigated made some significant comments about their illegal investments made with earnings from drug trafficking, and he indicated two paintings of great value that supposedly were purchased by Imperiale. They were the result of a theft carried out in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam almost 14 years ago,” Colangelo, the chief prosecutor in Naples, told reporters.

When renowned masterpieces are stolen, it’s usually a theft commissioned by a private collector who has already agreed to buy them, since it’s virtually impossible to sell them in the legitimate art market.

The Camorra and other Italian crime syndicates, awash in illegal revenues from drug trafficking, designer-goods counterfeiting and toxic waste dealings, are increasingly looking to launder their dirty profits and make even more money in the process.

Salerno said a person at the farmhouse when the paintings were found “didn’t say a word” about how they wound up there. He declined to elaborate, saying the case is still under investigation.

The museum said the paintings, inspected by a curator, do show “some damage.” Authorities don’t know where the paintings were kept in the 14 years since they were stolen by thieves who broke into the museum overnight and made off with the works from the main exhibition hall, where dozens of Van Gogh paintings were on display.

The seascape painting had some paint in the bottom left corner broken away, while the other painting had “a few minor damages at the edges of the canvas,” a museum statement said.

Police who arrived at the Amsterdam museum on Dec. 7, 2002, discovered a 4.5-meter (15-foot) ladder leaning against the rear of the building.

The thieves had apparently climbed up to the second floor using a ladder and broke in through a window, according to Dutch police at the time. Within a year, Dutch authorities had arrested two suspects, but the paintings’ whereabouts remained a mystery _ until Italian authorities searched the farmhouse.

“After all these years, you no longer dare count on a possible return,” Rueger said. “The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.”

Van Gogh's "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen." — PHOTO: WikiArt
Van Gogh’s “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen.” — PHOTO: WikiArt

Telling Vincent van Gogh’s story through his ‘Bedrooms’

No one in the history of art has created a series of self-portraits as riveting as Vincent van Gogh’s. Rembrandt came close. Frida Kahlo added inventive and fantastical drama. Warhol dipped into the vernacular of representation.

But van Gogh nailed it. He spun the very molecules of existence into the closest equivalent of what it feels like to be alive than any artist has ever reached.

With van Gogh’s self-portraits, there is no division between figure and ground. He asserts that human life comes from the same energy fields as air, water and land, a mere rearranging of atoms into ever-shifting and colliding eruptions of transient, uncontainable matter. And he then molds paint into the emotive equivalents of natural forces. His urgent and aggressive mark-making are literally like footprints in the wet mud of a farm field — imprints of existence rather than abstract equivalents of representation.

One could look at the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (through May 10,2016), as a series of self-portraits, even when van Gogh’s face does not in fact appear. Everything depicted — a pair of shoes, a landscape, a chair — is so imbued with the easily identifiable hand of van Gogh that he looms as the subject of his work, no matter what the painting depicts. A tree is as alive and expressive as a face.

The 36-piece show is built around three sequential paintings of van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, united for the first time. It might seem like a crowd-pleasing headline show built from narrow means. Instead it becomes a perfect fulcrum for expanding and exploring multiple themes in van Gogh’s work. Just when one would think there is no stone left unturned in this eminent artist’s oeuvre, the AIC tilts the perspective enough to get a different, more intimate glimpse of his brief life and career.

The exhibition beautifully ties these works into van Gogh’s biography in a way that offers much more than a timeline. Bits of the quotidian punctuate the show, and offer small but profound moments to underscore the delivery of the masterworks. These minor asides and peripheral objects act as knots in the trajectory of the work, giving us pause and also connecting the paintings to a life and a place and its dusty accoutrements. The exhibition manages to hold onto and even recreate the sense of van Gogh’s poverty, his quiet desperation to build an existence around the act of painting, and his ultimate failure to do so.

One of the first rooms of the chronologically arranged exhibition holds a re-creation of a small Chinese, red lacquer wooden box holding various samples of yarn. The authentic box, which held 16 balls of wool, is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Apparently van Gogh used this collection of threads to experiment with color combinations, laying a string of orange near a string of red, or twisting colors together. It is thought that he may have established palettes for some specific paintings using this technique.

In this same room is the dynamic painting Still Life with White Grapes, Apples, Pears and Lemons (1887). It reveals that, although he had absorbed Impressionism in Paris and was influenced by Seurat, Van Gogh’s hyper-extenuated style was firmly in place from the very beginnings of his career. The still life appears almost as if composed with individual pieces of yarn. Finely tuned complementary colors vibrate line by line, mark by mark, putting the lie to the myth that van Gogh didn’t know color theory and his talent came from some automatic unconscious well of genius and/or madness.

One of the themes Van Gogh’s Bedrooms focuses on is the notion of “home,” and this first room emphasizes this by highlighting two paintings van Gogh did of bird nests. In 1885, van Gogh was living in the town of Nuenen, where his parents had moved. There, he collected bird nests, and created a series of paintings of them; adjacent to the two paintings featured at the AIC show are two actual nests in plexiglass boxes.

What makes this anchor not as silly as it sounds is what van Gogh writes about it in a letter dated to his brother Theo in 1885: “When winter comes (when I have more time for it) I shall make more drawings of this kind of thing. La nichée et les nids [the nestlings and the nests], I feel deeply for them — especially people’s nests, those huts on the heath and their inhabitants.”

A wall-size photo of the Yellow House brings us to the place, street and nearby park of the town of Arles in southern France, where so much happened in 15 months. By the time van Gogh arrived in Arles, he had already lived in nearly 20 cities and four countries. But here, where he rents rooms to await a visit from Paul Gauguin, van Gogh dreams of settling and building an artists’ community.

The three bedroom paintings provide entry into this compacted time and document the artist’s peripatetic longing for “home.” Just as he arranged and physically decorated his rooms in the Yellow House to create an oasis of comfort that might appeal to Gauguin, he applied paint to canvas with similar intent.

Both are inventions, arrangements, compositions that await human contact to set them afire. There was little boundary between van Gogh’s life and work. That is why the paintings of the bedroom resonate so fully. In a conceptual act, he styles a room, then reproduces it three times, bringing both the physicality and emotional content of desire into play. Like us all, he longed for stability, comfort, friendship.

Van Gogh created the first bedroom painting (owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) in October 1888, as he awaited Gaugin’s arrival, but it was later damaged by water. He painted a second version (owned by the Art Institute of Chicago) in September 1889 while he was living in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, recovering the violent episode in which he severed his own ear. A few weeks later, he painted the third and smallest version of the bedroom (owned by the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) as a gift for his mother and sister.

Although van Gogh tended to work in serial notations of subjects (sunflowers, shoes, self-portraits, etc), he painted three versions of his room because, as he wrote to his brother Theo, he considered it one of his most successful works. Success to van Gogh meant finding equilibrium between realism and symbolism.

Three wall-sized video screens align in the exhibition to compare every inch of the three paintings, showing us van Gogh’s changes and adjustments. Explanatory text and video also outline how colors shifted over time. The bedroom walls were originally a lilac purple but are now blue. While this information is an interesting aside, it is really the relationship of the bedroom paintings to van Gogh’s other works in the show, such as the two portraits of chairs (his and Gauguin’s) and two portraits of shoes, that underscore his ability to fuse human and inanimate content.

Crowds swirl around the three bedroom paintings, but many ignore a small display on a nearby wall containing van Gogh’s only surviving palette. Earthy colors (no piquant greens, oranges and blues) create a muddy landscape, a map of thought and process that brings us as close to van Gogh as we will ever get. One can see where he heavily loaded the brush, leaving a furrow of paint, and where he dabbed off the excess. The palette dates to 1890, the last year of his life.

Rarely does an exhibition calibrate the pace and mental duration of the viewer as well as this one. Throughout, it twists and turns from traditional presentation modes to video environments then back to small bays of ephemera. It concludes with a full room designed for a rest, and a selfie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of The Night Cafe (1888).

The exhibition’s paintings are haunting and beautiful, accented by these effective pyrotechnics. But the ultimate reward comes from those treasures in the darker corners: the box of yarn, a nest, the artist’s palette.

Rebels with a cause | Summer art exhibitions feature innovators past and present

Let the movie theaters have their big-name actors and action movies filled with explosions. This summer, two of the major Milwaukee museums are hosting what could be described as blockbusters of their own.

“Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels” at the Milwaukee Art Museum showcases developments in art from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, drawing the viewer in through the freedom in art that boosted appreciation for approaches like abstract painting. “Current Tendencies IV” at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Arts, on the other hand, tunes into contemporary regional artists who explore new concepts of landscape and the places around us. 

Moments of the Past

While undergoing renovation, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s permanent collection is under wraps for the summer. Instead, MAM is hosting the touring exhibition “Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Art Rebels,” filled with paintings from the permanent collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. It is a respected institution that counts work by Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí and many others among its holdings. They are all going to be part of the exhibition in Milwaukee, which opens on June 18. 

MAM chief curator Brady Roberts notes the significance of this exhibition, saying, “’Van Gogh to Pollock’ will be a visually powerful, experiential journey for any art enthusiast. This is the best chance most people will have to see key works of Post-Impressionism to Pop Art, many of which have not toured in decades.” 

The expansive show includes about 70 pieces by 68 artists, offering a rich view of artistic innovation from the Post-Impressionist period of the 1880s to the bright Pop Art style that emerged in the 1960s. 

One of the things visitors will notice is the way artists’ styles changed during these decades. In the late 19th century, naturalistic representations of the visual world tended to be most highly prized. Breaking away from tradition, artists like Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) started to record their experiences in a more expressive, personally interpretive manner. 

This is also apparent in the work of van Gogh’s friend and colleague, Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). His “Manao Tupapau (Spirits of the Dead Watching),” painted in 1892, is an extraordinary and important piece. It was inspired by Gauguin’s life in Tahiti and depicts his young mistress awake in the night. Gauguin recounted the episode in his travelogue “Noa Noa.” The title, as he noted, may be taken to mean either “she thinks of the ghost” or “the ghost thinks of her.”

Surrealist artists of the 20th century used art as a tool to make the strangeness of dreams into something real. The best-known Surrealist is perhaps Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989) whose daring and provocative art was matched by his unusual persona. 

“There is only one difference between a madman and me,” he famously said. “I am not mad.” 

MAM’s exhibition includes Dali’s “The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image” (1938), which depicts the otherworldly landscapes of his imagination, painted with precision and clarity to render them, as he called it, “hand-painted dream photographs.” 

Frida Kahlo is at times also associated with the Surrealists, though she would not have aligned herself with that or any other movement. Her “Self-Portrait with Monkey” (1938) will be part of the exhibition, characteristic subject matter for her. The self-portrait will offer a moment to experience her powerful presence through the painted image. 

One of the key developments in modern art was a growing predilection for artists to work in pure abstraction. For some of these artists, a painting becomes as much about its process as what was ultimately on the canvas.

MAM’s exhibit features one of those in particular: Jackson Pollock, the premier American abstract expressionist. Pollock is known for his drip paintings, created by throwing, splashing, and flinging paint onto a canvas spread on the floor. The results are like crystallized energy, rendered through the spontaneous though purposeful layers of paint. 

This sense of daring and innovation underlies Modern Rebels. Even as the exhibit functions as a walk through the history of art, it highlights the way artists met creative challenges and questioned the very nature of art. 

“These modern art all-stars were rebelling against the academic norm,” Roberts notes. “They took risks and challenged the art world status quo. They were innovators responding to the world around them, and the results are compelling.” 

“Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels — Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery” runs through Sept. 20 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $14, $12 for students and seniors and free for members, children 12 and under, military and K-12 teachers. Visit mam.org for more details.

A Moment Here and Now 

The Haggerty Museum of Art is celebrating its 30th year as an institution, and the latest installation of its recurring exhibition celebrating contemporary regional artists. Current Tendencies IV: Topography Transformed opens June 18 and takes a new view at the way landscape and place may be considered. 

Bauenstudio (Marc Roehrle and Mo Zell, Milwaukee), Derrick Buisch (Madison), Keith Nelson (Milwaukee), Shane McAdams (Cedarburg), and Joseph Mougel (Milwaukee) are the creative minds behind the works made especially for the museum and this moment. Two-dimensional pieces such as drawings and paintings will be part of it, as well as three-dimensional sculpture and large-scale installations. 

McAdams synthesizes a sense of nature by incorporating motifs of trees with expressive abstraction in the series Oak Tree. Buisch’s linear work notes an architectural sense of construction disassociated from specific backgrounds, becoming like symbolic ciphers in the process. Nelson plays with a sense of context as familiar materials such as wood and plastic panels combine to form topographies of their own, carefully balanced for a play of texture and color. 

While “Current Tendencies” is a conceptual exhibition firmly interested in the pulse of the moment, the Haggerty also is celebrating its past by exhibiting Keith Haring’s “Construction Fence.” When the museum was being built in 1983, Haring was commissioned to paint a mural on the large plywood fence around the site. It is another transformation of place, changing a dull eyesore into a representation of his playful, buoyant art. 

As an artist, Haring gained a reputation for his interventions with art in public spaces such as the New York subway. His drawings became prized things within the public eye and his graphic, iconic style serves as a reminder and inspiration of how art can change a place and our perception of it. 

“Current Tendencies IV: Topography Transformed and Out of the Vaults: Keith Haring” will run through August 20 at the Haggerty Museum of Art, 13th and Clybourne Sts. on the Marquette University campus. Admission is free. Visit
marquette.edu/haggerty for more details.

Artwatch: Nov 3 to 16, 2011

Everyone seems to know a few things about Vincent van Gogh: He painted “The Starry Night,” he cut off part of his ear, and he committed suicide. There is no questioning the first statement – it’s an absolute fact. But when it comes to the complicated lives of artists, history is filled with myths ripe for endless investigation and revision (just ask Leonardo da Vinci). Van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime, achieved posthumous acclaim for his art and much attention for the made-for-television drama of his personal life. But two of the oft-cited van Gogh stories are fading under the scrutiny of new theories.

In 2009, two German art historians proposed the scenario van Gogh’s pal, the sword-wielding bohemian Paul Gauguin, actually did the number on his ear. More recently and with greater fanfare, a new book is making waves with the premise that van Gogh did not commit suicide, but was accidentally shot by a tormenting little bully.

This intriguing, well-supported, and plausible claim is the climax of “Van Gogh: The Life,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. This hefty tome recounts the artist’s life from his birth in the Netherlands to burial in a small town north of Paris.

While the provocative new ending is garnering the most attention, the rest of the book should not be overlooked. The authors orchestrate evocative descriptions of his life, work and the society he lived in, interspersed with poignant quotes from the extensive correspondence between van Gogh and his family members, including his endlessly supportive brother, Theo. It is biography, it is art history, it is effortlessly readable and rich in detail. 

While contemplating the life and death of van Gogh, check out Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. Fifth St., and Latino Arts, 1028 S. Ninth St., as they host their annual Dia de los Muertos displays. The decorated altars honor, commemorate, and celebrate the lives of the dead, replete with dancing skeletons and colorful flowers. To learn more, attend the free lecture, “History and Traditions of Day of the Dead,” at 6 p.m. on Nov. 10 at Latino Arts (RSVP requested: 414-384-3100).