Amsterdam, the Netherlands / Arles and Les Baux-de-Provence, France
June 7 / 13, 2019
It would’ve been unthinkable to visit Amsterdam for the first time without a stop at the Van Gogh Museum. The world’s largest collection of works of the eponymous artist – arguably the most famous – had been exhibited therein perhaps since its establishment in the 1970s. More than an exhibition, the museum told Vincent Willem van Gogh’s life story through his works and words, along with those of fellow artists that inspired him. What a privilege to have been one of the 1.6 million visitors that annually visited this museum, one of the 25 most popular in the world.
The chronological arrangement of the collection throughout the museum’s four levels reflected the progression of the artist’s development that likewise reflected his life. Some 200 paintings and 500 drawings, plus 700 letters to his brother Theo, gave a peek at his artistic journey from his newbie days up to the Post-Impressionist that he became during his stay in a French mental institution. After experiencing his paintings, I likened his artistic sensibilities to those of my country’s celebrated painters. I posted my commentary on Facebook:
The life and art of Vincent van Gogh. In local art terms, he had the ideals of Amorsolo & the demons of Luna. This museum is not so much a collection of his works as it is the story of the man. It’s for his lively yellows as it is for his wilting sunflowers.
The permanent collection was housed in the museum’s box-shaped Rietveld Building. A yawning skylight breathed sunshine into the Cubist atrium in contrast with the dimness of the surrounding galleries. This well-lit common area was a suitable place to record a short video message for my boo. In no time, a schoolmarmy middle-aged staff approached and told me off sternly, “We don’t do that here.” That raised my eyebrow as I was outside the exhibition halls. I found the policy oddly old-fashioned, especially in liberal Amsterdam. Still, I complied without protest.
I concluded my museum visit by chilling out on a bench at the new glass-encased annex. For some reason, I decided to sort out the contents of my touristy sling bag. Before leaving, I reached into the bag to check my wallet containing my pocket money of 1,000 euros – I could not feel it inside. I had a panic attack and felt my spirit jumping out of my body! What idiot would lose his cash budget on the second day of his trip? To my utter relief, I found the wallet wedged, perhaps too snugly, within a deep fold in my bag. This debacle single-handedly made my visit memorable. But ultimately, it was Van Gogh who saved the day.
A famous early work in Van Gogh’s oeuvre was The Potato Eaters depicting peasants gathered around the dinner table, a hanging lamp illuminating their coarse faces and bony hands. It was said that Van Gogh had a dual purpose in choosing this sobering subject. First, he deliberately showed both real-life peasantry and the dignity of their labor. He wrote that they “have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish … that they have thus honestly earned their food.” This was also a strategic choice to showcase his developing skill in figure painting. However, the shadowy scene and deformed human forms did not sit well with art critics. Indeed, the harsh reality of poverty disturbed the privileged. I would hazard to say that Van Gogh achieved what he set out to do. The piece still packed an emotional wallop as it remained relevant to this day.
The museum was not exclusive to the works of Van Gogh but also inclusive of those who inspired him. Claude Monet was one such inspiration. While the flowers of Holland greatly influenced the bright palette and swift brushstrokes of the French artist, his rendition of floral colors and fluid movement similarly influenced Van Gogh. The inspiration came in full circle. I could imagine Monet’s Tulip Fields near The Hague as a sort of template for Van Gogh’s vivid landscape paintings.
Then on, Van Gogh gave the dark Dutch shades a rest and used the radiant hues of modern French artists. Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes was proof of this color transition. He dedicated this still life to his brother Theo who introduced him to Parisian colorists. It was also notable for having retained its original frame.
Van Gogh did not only rely on his palette to lend radiance to his paintings. For Garden with Courting Couples: Square Saint-Pierre, he employed the dot brushstrokes of pointillism to create light and lightness. The scene of couples basking in fine springtime weather was said to convey the artist’s longing for a family of his own. But the consummate painter that he was, Van Gogh was married only to his art.
A work that Van Gogh was well-pleased with was The Bedroom depicting his rented room at the Yellow House in Arles. It was small and rather sparse, containing just the barest of furniture and a dearth of personal effects other than several paintings hanging on the wall. The curious rear corner, ever so slightly skewed, was interpreted to be Van Gogh’s homage to asymmetrical Japanese prints.
Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s best friend, or perhaps best frenemy, painted a portrait of the artist in action: Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers. The pair was often at loggerheads with certain aspects of their work, among many issues. This portrait possibly conveyed that disagreement as Van Gogh preferred to paint from imagination as opposed to Gauguin. Still, Van Gogh confirmed his identity: “My face has lit up a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”
Finally, I laid eyes on Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers. I was today years old to find out he made several still life paintings on the same subject. In this museum hung the most famous and recognizable version with the yellow background. In fact, the entire painting was almost monochromatic. It was hailed as a profoundly nuanced piece made possible with the use of mere shades of a single color. I concurred. Yellow, or even sunflowers themselves, never struck me as particularly expressive, yet Van Gogh single-handedly conveyed the breadth of life with just a vase of blooming and wilting flowers. The pieces were expressions of love, as explained in the caption:
He hung the first two in the room of his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin, who came to live with him for a while in the Yellow House. Gauguin was impressed by the sunflowers, which he thought were ‘completely Vincent’. Van Gogh had already painted a new version during his friend’s stay and Gauguin later asked for one as a gift.
It was one of the couple of loose copies for Gauguin that I fixed my eyes on in the Van Gogh Museum. It may have been Sunflowers that he gave Gauguin, though reluctantly so, but his friend knew well enough that Van Gogh had given of himself. He wrote to his brother, Theo:
…in the hope of living in a studio of our own with Gauguin, I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large sunflowers.Vincent van Gogh
It made me go hmmm. Were they more than friends?
Vivid flowers turned to twisted trees in Orchards in Blossom, View of Arles. This piece, among others inspired by Japanese illustrations, was a source of happiness and contentment for Van Gogh. Despite that and the depiction of a garden in bloom, the tortuous trunk and branches, perhaps, hinted at a tortured state of mind. The following summer in 1890, Van Gogh would shoot himself to death at age 37. He left Theo these final words: “The sadness will last forever.”
My sister had decided that we follow Van Gogh’s journey south to Arles, France. We chanced on Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles on our walk around town where we were treated to more Van Goghs, along with other artists’ works. Established almost a century after the artist’s death, the non-profit foundation endeavored to preserve his memory and legacy in Arles. Van Gogh was of the South of France as much as of the Netherlands.
The Woodcutter, a small painting based on a wood engraving of a Jean-François Millet original, was produced a year before his death. As an interpretation of another artwork, it was analogous to a new version of previously-released music. It was the subject, though, that took me back to one of the first Van Goghs I had seen, The Potato Eaters.
A worthy companion piece to The Woodcutter was this filthy and worn-out Shoes. As he did with Sunflowers, he made several versions of this oddly eye-catching subject described as one of the things “that bore the scars of life.” The matte effect was produced by a technique called peinture à l’essence, which Van Gogh used to imbue his still life paintings with an unpolished, unromanticized look.
A more atypically Van Gogh piece, though, was Flying Fox. Instead of painting a live subject from imagination, as the artist was wont to do, he copied a mounted stuffed bat illuminated from behind. The dark and fascinating piece, at least for me and my nephew DJ, demonstrated Van Gogh’s versatility in the choice of both style and subject.
Van Gogh’s paintings were to be experienced, not only seen, even in museums. This emotionally and visually dynamic quality of his art lent itself to a sensuous multimedia exhibition called Van Gogh – The Starry Night under the artistic direction of Gianfranco Iannuzzi and the musical arrangement of Luca Longobardi. We went up the Alpilles in the town of Les Baux-de-Provence to immerse in Van Gogh in compelling ways a museum visit could never achieve. Les Grands Fonds, an abandoned quarry at a limestone rock face, had been converted into Les Carrières de Lumières in 2012. This cavernous, labyrinthine cultural space had walls that flashed a slideshow of images set to thumping beats and swelling orchestral music.
The colors and texture of Van Gogh’s paintings came alive in the dark, cold hall. Flowers and fields, stars and seas, furniture and faces, including Van Gogh’s haunting self-portrait, flashed larger than life around, above, and below us. The images swallowed the audience whole so that we became part of artworks, not as external spectators. We were thrust into the dark and vivid world of Van Gogh in an overwhelmingly sensory and emotional experience. I was in awe and in tears.
There was truth in the show’s advertising:
...the visitor travels to the heart of the works of his beginnings and his maturity, his sunny landscapes and his nocturnes, his portraits and still lifes.
My experience with the art of Vincent van Gogh was thus concluded in an unforgettable crescendo. It started with tender intimacy in a museum that told, more than just showed, and ended in drowning immersion. That duality was crucial in Van Gogh’s art just as his Sunflowers were blooming and wilting in the same frame. Alas, sunshiny yellows could sometimes blind us from seeing the darkness lurking therein. “You never know what someone is going through” was true even then. Still, the artist would go on to live forever long after the man heard the final gunshot.
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