WHAT can one possibly say about Van Gogh that hasn't already been said? His story is well known to us from books and movies. His paintings and drawings are as familiar as any ever painted. And who hasn't heard or read about his intensely emotional personal life, early failure as a preacher, determined efforts to teach himself to draw and paint, and tragic end?
And yet, no matter how much we know of him and how familiar we are with his art, we are never quite prepared for the powerful effect the works themselves exert upon us. Confronted by his paintings, all prior knowledge of who he was and what he did flies out the window, and we are left in the presence of a creative vision so stark, intense, and clear-eyed that it challenges our own way of seeing and our pride in ourselves as sensitive, creative individuals.
No other recent artist has such a profoundly confrontational and emphatically moral effect upon viewers. And none speaks as directly and personally to each of us as Van Gogh.
For proof, we need only watch the many visitors flocking to see ``Van Gogh in Saint R'emy and Auvers,'' the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition devoted to the final 15 months of the artist's life.
Most people are quietly studying the works; others are discussing individual paintings in an undertone with friends; and a few are busily scribbling notes. Almost everyone is engrossed and thoughtful. For galleries as crowded with humanity as these are, the overall atmosphere is unusually hushed and respectful - not at all as noisy and lively as the retrospectives of Manet, Caravaggio, Picasso, and others held during the past several years.
But then, that is not surprising. Van Gogh's paintings affect people differently than those of any other painter of the past century or so. And that is especially true of such late works as ``The Starry Night,'' ``Road With Cypress and Star,'' ``Cypresses,'' ``Portrait of Dr. Gachet,'' and ``Crows over the Wheat Field.''
These and 84 other paintings and drawings are included in this extraordinary exhibition assembled by guest curator Ronald Pickvance and drawn from public and private collections throughout the world.
In Mr. Pickvance's words, ``The selection of works ... attempts to reflect not only Van Gogh's own categorizations, but also the choices he himself might have made. Emphasis has been placed on seeing his work as an entity made up of defined groups and series that are organically connected.''
Visitors to the exhibiton first encounter several indoor studies of the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint-R'emy, where Van Gogh spent the year from May 8, 1889 to May 16, 1890 as a voluntary patient. From there, the focus shifts to a group of his most powerful and moving landscapes of Provence. These are followed by a number of portraits, indoor subjects, copies of other artists' works, more landscapes, and a few floral studies.
The last section is devoted to the pictures produced during the 70 days Van Gogh spent in Auvers before his suicide. It includes several of his final masterpieces, most particularly ``Sheaves of Wheat,'' ``Daubigny's Garden,'' and the astonishing ``Crows over the Wheat Field,'' which is generally assumed to be his last painting.
It seems obvious that it was his last work, not only because of its subtly ominous mood, but because of its aura of finality and its formal ``perfection.'' Where could Van Gogh possibly have gone, what could he possibly have done after this profound and ultimate distillation of creative passion and experience into a few hundred staccatolike strokes and a dozen or so swirls of colored paint?
If ever a painting balanced perfectly (and precariously) between life and death, between hope and hopelessness, it is this one. Everything in it, from its color, technique, and design to its provocative, symbolic ``dialogue'' between life-sustaining growing things and doom-foretelling crows, underscores this finely attuned state of equilibrium between that which represents passion and joy and that which represents despair.
This precarious balance, in fact, runs like a leitmotif throughout the exhibition and stamps it with a fullness and finality even greater than was to be found in the Metropolitan's ``Van Gogh in Arles,'' presented in 1984.
Van Gogh's 15 months at Saint-R'emy and Auvers represent the culmination of his 10-year search for the most powerful fusion of creative impulse and formal device - his quest for the most powerful and irreducible image that would forever hold his lust for life and his profound and disturbing awareness of dissolution and decay in near-absolute (and thus death-defying) balance.
In ``Crows over the Wheat Field,'' I believe he found it. Which is not to say that he hadn't realized it before, only that he hadn't resolved it in as final a manner. From ``Flowering Garden'' to ``The Starry Night,'' passion, joy, even ecstasy had always dominated the forces of darkness, and the immediacy of living and grappling with the problems of creativity had always triumphed dramatically and a bit too romantically over anxiety and despair.
Only in this one picture do we sense the turning of the tide, his fear that dissolution might win out. It is held magnificently at bay in this work, it is true, but we sense its encouragement and the artist's uncertainty that he lacks the strength to continue the battle against it.
Is this hindsight based on knowledge of Van Gogh's suicide? Perhaps, but I believe it's all written loud and clear in the painting itself. This awesome and noble work of art is one of modernism's crowning glories. But, on a more poignant human level, I believe it also represents Van Gogh's last moment of wholeness and integration - both as an artist and as a man.
I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. It will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum through March 22. Admission is by ticket only, and they can be purchased through Ticketron and Teletron outlets throughout the United States.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.