Panic Street Lawyer: Failing in Philadelphia Part I

Sunday, 29 April 2012 06:00 AM Written by  Jay Hornack
20120429_vangoghupclose_150What -- too soon?

Actually, this piece has nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Penguins losing their National Hockey League first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers this month. Rather, the piece’s title is derived from “Sailing to Philadelphia,” a song written and performed by Mark Knopfler on his 2000 album of the same name. That is a song about the Mason-Dixon Line, not the Malkin-Neal-Kunitz line. My wife and I will be traveling (by car, not by ship) to Philadelphia to see the “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibition at that city’s Museum of Art. We will not, on that same trip, be visiting “The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen” exhibition at the National Convention Center that I discussed last week – but only because I previously saw the exhibition while it was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Speaking of the Rock Hall…

Mark Knopfler is an extraordinary guitarist, vocalist, former member of the Rock Hall-worthy Dire Straits, and a musical artist known for his collaborations with other musical artists (one recent example: Knopfler toured Europe with Bob Dylan last fall). While Knopfler did write the aforementioned biographical song about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to my knowledge he has never written a biographical song about Vincent van Gogh (1854-1890).

There is, of course, one very famous biographical song about Vincent, originally written and recorded by Don McLean in 1971. The song’s title is “Vincent,” although it is oftentimes thought to be “Starry, Starry Night.” The Van Gogh Gallery website has a wonderful comparison of the lyrics to “Vincent” with van Gogh’s actual life. The song’s title is taken from the van Gogh painting entitled “The Starry Night.” Last year the poster for the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” was created with “The Starry Night” as its inspiration.

Van Gogh self-portrait 1887
Van Gogh Museum
As a Social Security disability/workers compensation attorney as well as an adjunct professor of the Law of Disability Discrimination, I still marvel at the personal story of Vincent van Gogh. He is now considered an elite artist, but he was considered a failure during his lifetime. He was someone who “suffered for [his] sanity” and lived a life which ended exactly one hundred years prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The Starry Night” is said to depict the view outside van Gogh’s room window at the “clinic for the insane” in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, where he committed himself for one year.

The song “Vincent” concludes with reference to van Gogh “[taking his] life as lovers often do.” However, in a book written forty years after McLean wrote “Vincent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning American authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith argue (in “Van Gogh: A Life”) that van Gogh did not commit suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. After 10 years of study with more than 20 translators and researchers, Naifeh and Smith concluded that van Gogh was shot and killed accidentally by two boys that he knew in Auvers, France. The authors’ claims were the subject of a superb two-part “60 Minutes” report in October 2011. The curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam said  in October 2011 that “plenty of questions remain unanswered” and that “it would be premature to rule out suicide.”

Naifeh and Smith also concluded, following their years of research, that van Gogh’s psychiatric impairment had a physical explanation: temporal lobe epilepsy. I cannot help but wonder how different art history might be if van Gogh’s physical impairment had been properly diagnosed and treated during his lifetime.

Philadelphia exhibit's gift shop includes Van Gogh dolls with removable ears.
Associated Press
The Philadelphia Museum of Art states that the van Gogh exhibition that they currently have on display contains “some 40 masterpieces borrowed from collections around the world.” After some effort, I believe I found the complete list (by title, origin, date, city, and museum/collection) of the art works at this exhibition. It includes seven from the Van Gogh Museum, two (“Vase With Twelve Sunflowers” and “Wheat Field in Rain”) from down the hall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one (“Wheat Fields at Auvers under Clouded Sky”) from the Carnegie Museum of Art here in Pittsburgh, and one (not “The Starry Night”).from the New York Museum of Modern Art.

But what was most interesting to me were the four works of van Gogh art -- “The Brothel,” “The Smoker,” “Still Life” and “The Postman” -- that were missing from that exhibition list. Where are these four masterpieces hanging? Well, starting May 19, they will be hanging within walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the new “Philadelphia campus” of the Barnes Foundation.

The van Gogh exhibition closes May 6, 2012, so the four works of van Gogh art in possession of the Barnes -- which closed its original Merion, PA location in July 2011 -- could theoretically have been part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art special exhibition (it began in February 2012) without the public noticing their absence from the Barnes.

Artist's rendering of new Barnes facility
You may ask yourself, why did the Philadelphia Museum of Art fail to borrow from the Barnes (or, why did the Barnes fail to lend)? And what was the ultimate result of that legal feud (briefly mentioned in a Panic Street Lawyer piece in early March)  over the move of the Barnes artwork from Merion to Philadelphia?

I will try to answer those questions in Part 2 of this piece. In the meantime, if you are looking to view a sporting event that is also an intense geographic feud akin to Penguins-Flyers (or Merion-Philadelphia), I recommend Manchester United versus Manchester City in English Premier League football this Monday (April 30). Check your local listings for starting time.

The Panic Street Lawyer is a personal opinion column by attorney Jay Hornack. Contact him right here at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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