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Van Gogh’s Peasant, Munch’s ‘Scream’ Face Off in New York

'Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier)'
"Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier)" (1888) by Vincent van Gogh. The oil portrait of a Camargue-cowboy-turned-farmer, one of the artist's late masterpieces, is on loan to New York's Frick Collection from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, through Jan. 20. Source: The Frick Collection via Bloomberg

     Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Go visit Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1895) and Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier)” (1888) and see the difference between art as fast food and art as an infinitely rewarding feast.

The two masterpieces are some 20 blocks apart.

Van Gogh’s “Peasant,” on loan from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, is at the Frick Collection through Jan. 20, 2013.

Munch’s “The Scream” recently made headlines -- and raised eyebrows -- when the pastel sold at Sotheby’s to a private collector for a record-breaking $120 million. Also on loan, it will spend six months at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside a dozen works by Munch from MoMA’s permanent collection.

Heavily inspired by van Gogh, Munch’s swirling, autobiographical “The Scream” depicts the artist as a ghoulish, wobbly character standing on a bridge, mouth agape, covering his ears.

Recounting the experience, Munch wrote: “I stood still, dead tired -- over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on -- I stayed behind -- trembling with fright -- I felt the great scream in nature.”

I’ve always felt that Munch’s melancholic series is popular primarily because it was the first to reduce painting, if not the Existential plight of Modern man, to the impact of a poster.

Having seen all related versions of “The Scream,” I’d place this pastel as coming in qualitatively second-to-last. If you’ve never seen an original “Scream,” go to MoMA and navigate the throng and their relentless, blinding flashbulbs.

Camargue Cowboy

Otherwise, save your energy for van Gogh. In a letter to his brother Theo, the artist explained his metaphoric approach to painting the portrait of the “Peasant” -- a former Camargue cowboy turned farmer.

“I think of the man I have to paint, terrible in the furnace of the full adours of harvest, at the heart of the south. Hence the orange shades like storm flashes, vivid as red hot iron, and hence the luminous tones of old gold in the shadows.”

Unlike Munch’s shot of adrenaline, van Gogh’s “Peasant” is explored, mysteriously transformed -- as frontal and forceful as a Byzantine Madonna.

This “Peasant” is embedded in a whirling flat field of blue, with a spinning yellow straw hat that radiates like a halo.

He is both portrait and landscape. With broad shoulders he plows forward, digging in, shifting left, then right. His face, tilled like a field, is ablaze with flickering brushstrokes. And his emerald-green cloak, in places diaphanous, opens like sky, suddenly streaked with hard rain.

If you look closely, you’ll see the strokes of van Gogh’s fingers running through the thick, wet paint. It is as if the artist had formed his “Peasant” directly from the soil.

“Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier)’” runs through Jan. 20 at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. Information: +1-212-288-0700; http://beta.frick.org.

“Edvard Munch: ‘The Scream’” runs through Apr. 29 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400; http://www.moma.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Craig Seligman on books.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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